I am officially not offended by the meaning of Harry Reid’s statement. As progressive who would like for the majority leader of the most exclusive club to make more new progressive laws than news, I am offended by the impolitic nature of this statement.*
He was wowed by Obama’s oratorical gifts and believed that the country was ready to embrace a black presidential candidate, especially one such as Obama — a “light-skinned” African American “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one,” as he said privately. Reid was convinced, in fact, that Obama’s race would help him more than hurt him in a bid for the Democratic nomination.
Inartful, Impolitic, dated, but not racist. I still don’t believe Obama’s ethnic background helped him. Race is only a non-factor when there is no background attached to it. “Of course I would hire a [fill in the ethnicity] guy” in the generic, hypothetical sense. When context gets filled in, quite often a person of color and/or woman is expected to answer for more than themselves and their children. When the crazy preacher was Jeremiah Wright instead of Jerry Fallwell, Obama was to account for Wright’s opinions. Obama was badgered about a non-ally Farrakhan in a debate while Hillary Clinton was not asked about praying with The Family and Cokie Roberts mused that the black guy in Hawaii to visit his ailing grandmother just looked too foreign. So I disagree with Reid on that point.
I agree with much of what John McWhorter says regarding this topic (especially being that he is linguist): yes there is Black English (Negro Dialect), yes its frowned upon in professional settings (as are many other non standard dialects), and no candidate is getting elected if his slogan was “H to the izzO, P to the izz-E, vote for Barry, ya’ll gots to feel me!!”.
Fifth: We have to really listen to what Reid said instead of getting carried away over the tangy, backwards flavor of the one word “Negro.” In mentioning that Obama doesn’t speak in “dialect,” Reid acknowledged something many blacks are hot and quick to point out, that not all black people use Black English. Okay, they don’t – and Reid knows. He didn’t seem surprised that Obama can not sound black when he talks – he was just pointing out that Obama is part of the subset of blacks who can. He knows there is such a subset. Lesson learned.
Indeed Reid implied that black dialect is less prestigious than standard, such that not speaking it made Obama more likely to become President. That is, he implied what we all think too: Black English is, to the typical American ear, warm, honest — and mistaken. If that’s wrong, okay – but since when are most Americans, including black ones, at all shy about dissing Black English? And who among us — including black people — thinks someone with what I call a “black-cent” who occasionally popped up with double negatives and things like aks could be elected President, whether it’s fair or not? Reid, again, deserves no censure for what he said unless we’re ready to censure ourselves too.
Reid apologized. Obama accepted. I would like to think Reid then asked if “this will be an issue in the future”. And Obama just said “Nah, we straight”.
And then he could tell the Majority Leader to “brush. that. dirt of ya shoulda’, Harry”.
Only if he wanted to.
*correction at 1/11/2010 08:00 AM