Harry Reid’s “gaffe”

Obama’s skin color, and his accent, were and are among his political assets. Why is it a scandal to say so?

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?

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

13 thoughts on “Harry Reid’s “gaffe””

  1. It is only silly to compare the Reid remark to Lott's in that Lott was merely paying a courtly compliment to a colleague at a birthday party while Reid's carries much more obviously racist content.

  2. The commentator in the link you give us to the story about Trent Lott said that Reid's comment meant that Obama would have been "unworthy" of the presidency if he had had darker skin or a different voice. Surely it was only that he would have been unelectable and thus undesirable as a candidate – without any necessary implication that Senator Reid thought this would have been a moral or personal failing on the part of such a candidate. As Prof. Kleiman says in this note, his opinion is that Jesse Jackson would be unelectable for those reasons. I do not take that as a statement that Mr Jackson is "unworthy" to be president, or not otherwise qualified.

  3. Aside from the clunky use of the term negro – I think the analysis is spot on. Not to mention something that you'd find general agreement with in any Black Studies department. Americans are racist, white supremacists straight up.

    Whether we're conscious of it or not, and even as it is obviously not a good thing, it is understandable. The African American experience has, and continues to define us. It is an ethnicity that against all odds has persevered – holding on to its singular heritage, carrying with it both the dysfunction of genocidal brutality, and the wisdom and innovation of a people who have found ways to not only hold on to their identity but continually push the boundaries of what is culturally possible under centuries of oppression.

    And America is what it is because of our racial history – both our greatest expressions of freedom and our worst savage excesses. Obama is an exemplar of this contradiction. He is what he is both because of and despite of who he is, and who we are. As a country we have been through so much, and from the beginning have reached for the highest rung despite it always being just beneath our grasp. As such our narrative has been one of epic triumph – and epic failure. The two define each other tragically. Even as we elect the first African American to highest public office, we have people casting the most vile and racist attacks – their seething hatred couched as it often is behind thin veils of humor.

    As expressed in the words Obama himself reiterated, "The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice", humanity is searching for freedom, even as it is far from there yet. There is no evidence that any such objective morality exists, but as defined by the basic human impulse to apply one's own aspirations to those of his fellow man, our biological predisposition is indeed toward empathy and fairness.

    Harry Reid is a leader of the party that, although having not always done so in the past, currently spends much of its time seeking ways to redress the imperfections of our past, expressed as they are in the social and demographic stratifications we see at present. Where its opponents see equality and freedom, it sees inequality and struggle. So it would stand to reason that he would see the historic achievement of Obama's election in the context of a society still struggling to attain what it would ultimately like to see but presently finds itself incapable of adequately fulfilling.

  4. Just a point of clarification. We in the African-American community view President Obama as brown-skinned, not light skinned.

    And yes, the whole thing is a tempest in a teapot, just more GOP slinging of crap hoping something sticks to the wall. We are not upset by Sen. Reid's comment. Not surprised by it either

  5. Your defense of Reid goes a half-step too far. His misstep wasn't using an old-fashioned expression; if he’d said he was going out in his horseless carriage, nobody would’ve cared. There’s an etiquette to speech about human beings in a way there isn’t about cars, &, while we all know people who make too much of it – as in this case –, we shouldn't want to do away w/ it altogether.

    Likewise, although Reid's observations about the racial facts of our politics are both true & inoffensive – he'd be a poor politician if he didn’t know that Obama's appearance & speech matter – I can think of better ways of justifying them than by saying that he was just saying everyone knows is true. "I'm just saying what everybody knows is true" (like "Whatsa matter? I'm just saying what everybody's thinking") are the excuses of boors everywhere. It’s not always & everywhere best to say everything you know, or think you do.

    Still, the main thrust is right. The right's attempt to make hay out of this is worse than childish. Cornyn’s amazing claim that Lott’s praise of Thurmond is relatively innocuous reveals something more unattractive than just minor social gracelessness; it's the real story here.

  6. Hey! Coulda been worse! Reid could have called Obama a mulatto!

    "Rhymes With Right" seems to think that Trent Lott, whose "courtly compliment" to his colleague implied that we would have been better off all these years with a segregationist president, misses the point rather badly. Whether skin color and speech patterns are correlated with electoral success is an empirical matter, well within the capabilities of a competent grad student in political science to assess. Whether we would have avoided our many problems over the past several decades having elected a racist in 1948 is a speculative matter, but has embedded within it a set of value judgments from which there is today universal disagreement.

    This amounts to a difference that makes a difference as I see it.

  7. I do not know what the upset with the word "Negro" is! It just means "Black" in another language! I can understand what the connotation is due to the past with segregation! But before the advent of "African-american" the word Black was what was considered politically correct! How about the word still being used in the NAACP and Negro College Fund? Two prestiges organizations with a honorable history! Why nitpick when you consider Harry Reid's voting record!

Comments are closed.