Harry Reid’s “Light-Skinned” / “Negro Dialect” Comment

The complaints about Sen. Reid’s quote (“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 later put it privately”) strike me as much ado about relatively little.

First, the substance. As I understand it, Sen. Reid was simply speaking about what he saw as political reality: that a majority of voters would be ready to accept a lighter-skinned black man who spoke mainstream English, but that only a minority voters would be ready to accept someone who was darker-skinned or who generally spoke non-mainstream English. This is a report of what Sen. Reid perceives as racism against dark-skinned blacks; it is certainly not itself racism against blacks.

Second, the form. As I understand it, in modern English, the word “Negro” is generally viewed askance, much as, say, “Hebrew” as a noun for Jews. Both were once accepted terms, not just among the majority but also in the public speech of the group itself, and of its prominent organizations; the United Negro College Fund and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society are examples. But they are now so archaic that a person’s use of them is likely to reasonably lead people to wonder, “Why is he doing that? What does he mean by that?”

“Negro dialect” is a subtly different matter. A search through the Lexis Major Papers (MAJPAP) file in the NEWS directory reveals that the term is used occasionally in leading mainstream publications (including the San Francisco Chronicle, Newsday, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times). A search through Google Scholar also reveals that as late as the 1970s it was pretty commonly used to refer to the dialect of black Americans. But as best I can tell, these days it is used to refer only to black American dialect of the 1800s and early 1900s and not to modern black dialect. Presumably that tracks the broader change from “Negro” to “black” or “African-American”; “Negro dialect” generally refers to the dialect of the era where “Negro” was the common broadly accepted term for blacks (including accepted by many blacks and black organizations themselves).

So it seems to me that the use of the “Negro dialect” is at least offputting, and the sign of a tin ear in someone who by profession ought to be more aware of what terms are likely to be offputting. What’s more, Reid could have made the same substantive point by simply replacing “Negro dialect” with “black dialect” or some such.

But it’s hard for me to see this as evidence of racism, as opposed to unwise but likely unthinking use of terminology that was common in accepted educated use — again, I think even among many blacks and black organizations — when Reid was young. It’s also hard to see this as equivalent to Sen. Trent Lott’s remarks, which cost Lott the Senate leadership, that “When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we [in Mississippi] voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over the years, either.” Since Sen. Thurmond’s 1948 run for the Presidency has generally been understood (correctly, to my knowledge) as expressing support for racial segregation, Sen. Lott reasonably appeared to have been endorsing the propriety of that very idea. As I mentioned, nothing in the substance of Sen. Reid’s statements endorses any such thing.

Nor do I think that Reid’s past statements, including the ones that wrongly faulted Justice Thomas, change the analysis. I don’t think they reveal any genuinely racist subtext of his statement about Obama. That statement remains a plausible and possibly correct political evaluation, of the sort that political officials have to make and should feel free to make.

Finally, I’ve seen some people suggest that if a Republican had made this statement, he would have been faulted by the media in a way that Reid has not been. That may be so, though it’s hard to tell for certain. But that hardly seems to me a reason to fault Reid, though it is a reason to remember this example as a future analogy if the media does go after a Republican for something similar.