John Heilemann and Mark Halperin have a new book coming out about the 2008 campaign, based almost entirely on unattributed “background” conversations. One interesting tidbit: Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer pushed Barack Obama to make the race in 2008.
Reid, apparently thinking that he was speaking on background like the rest of the sources for the book, told the authors that Obama’s political advantages included his light skin tone and his ability to speak “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.” For saying this, Reid has had to apologize, and Obama to “accept” the apology, as if Reid had said something offensive about Obama.
But what, exactly? Other than using an old-fashioned word to refer to African-Americans (a word which was the standard word for about the first half of Reid’s life), what did Reid do wrong?*
It is the case that Obama is light-skinned and that he is a native speaker of American English, though he can and does, on occasion, use Ebonic cadences for rhetorical effect.
And it is the case that both his skin tone (and the ancestry it reflects) and his command of the common dialect are among his political assets. If he had looked, or sounded, like Jesse Jackson, he wouldn’t be President. A darker hue and a more Ebonic speech pattern would certainly have cost him some votes among white Anglos, Latinos, and Asians, and almost certainly cost him some black votes as well. (The internalization of racism in the African-American community is a well-known phenomenon.)
It would have been insane for anyone considering an Obama candidacy not to weigh those factors. In October of 2008, when the dark-skinned, Ebonic-speaking David Alan Grier, on “Chocolate News,” urged white voters to “vote for the white half,” he was repeating a joke I’d heard at least a year earlier.
And of course the Obama campaign, including the candidate, was well aware of this; they worked hard to surround him with white audiences, and downplayed his athleticism because playing basketball “codes” as black. Obama’s discipline in this regard has slipped only once, that I know of, when he impulsively took the “black” side of the Skip Gates affair, and I think that slip continues to cost him support.
So Harry Reid committed a “gaffe” only in the Michael Kinsley sense of saying something that everyone knew to be true. It’s just silly to compare Reid’s remarks to Trent Lott’s.
* Aside from trusting Mark Halperin not to snake him, that is; does anyone believe a similarly indiscreet remark by John McCain would have hit print?