America see the light

Published: Thursday, January 21, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 20, 2010 at 3:02 p.m.

Change or drop one word from Harry Reid's remarks about then-presidential candidate Barack Obama and the Senate majority leader might not be catching the same amount of flak. Yes, the word is Negro.

According to "Game Change," a new book about the 2008 presidential race by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, Reid predicted that Obama could win despite being African-American because he was "light-skinned" and had "no Negro dialect."

In the 21st century, the word Negro is archaic, and too closely associated with its derisive derivative, whose use has become all too common in popular culture.

Reid, who was promoting Obama's candidacy, seemed to use Negro in the genteel fashion of whites decades ago who felt the term was more embracing than black. Reid is 70; perhaps his friends talk like that.

Other than his rather odd way of referencing blacks, Reid was generally on target in his assessment. Sure, there are exceptions, but typically it is easier for light-skinned black political candidates to attract white votes. Whites feel more comfortable with them in the same way that they feel more comfortable with the light-skinned black models who are more often chosen for advertising campaigns.

It isn't right, but it's the truth.

Similarly, white voters, as well as quite a few African-Americans, are turned off by what in recent years has been called Ebonics, a speech pattern popular especially among the young in black communities that takes liberal liberties with the English language.

It is interesting, though, that the same linguistic prejudice isn't always applied to white candidates, particularly those from the Deep South, whose colloquialisms are considered quaint and an asset. Southern politicians with advanced college degrees may hone their down-home speaking skills to win votes. That wouldn't have worked for Obama.

Reid could have said it better, but he spoke the truth about what voters like in a presidential candidate. That, however, did not prevent the predictable purveyors of partisan politics from using his words as fuel for their bonfires.

It was particularly disheartening to see Michael Steele, the African-American head of the national Republican Party, compare Reid to former Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., whose racial comments in 2002 led to his ouster as Senate Republican leader.

Reid meant no injury to Obama or to any other black. Lott, on the other hand, said the nation would be better off had Strom Thurmond won his race for the presidency in 1948. That's when Thurmond ran on the segregationist Dixiecrat ticket.

Reid's comments have Americans talking about race again, but political exploitation of the subject leaves little optimism for the discussion to result in progress. Part of the promise of Obama's election was that it would help usher in a new day in race relations. But he's going to need more help from both sides of the aisle.

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