I’m no fan of Senate majority leader Harry Reid, though I’m closer to his age than to the younger generation in Congress. Maybe that’s why I’m having trouble seeing what was wrong with the remarks he’s being criticized for making in 2008 about then-candidate Barack Obama.
A new book about the campaign, Game Change, describes Reid’s remarks:
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 has apologized for the remarks, to Obama and to all African Americans. But I’m still scratching my head over the whole issue. Obama, although half white, is considered a black man in the US; he is “light-skinned” compared to most other African Americans. And he does speak like a college-educated man, one who has shed virtually all the accent/dialect he might have had as a young man. Yes, you could criticize Reid’s use of the word Negro, but it’s not defamatory; it’s just outdated. And when he says “Negro dialect,” I assume he means pronunciations like “wif” for with, etc., which do seem to me to be more common among less educated blacks.
Reid was describing Obama as he is and as he would be perceived by much of the electorate. He could have chosen to be politically correct and not mention Obama’s race, the color of his skin, or his way of speaking. But he was not speaking publicly; he was speaking privately. He was assessing Obama’s appeal as a candidate as realistically as he could, in private. Private being the operative word here.
How is it offensive to mention someone’s race when it’s so obviously relevant to the discussion and, in this case, the election? Or a way of speaking? If I were the only white woman running in a field of black candidates, I’m sure at some point someone would mention I’m white. They would mention the way I speak, and wonder why a college-educated woman still had such an “Okie accent.” It’s unrealistic to think I could go through my entire life without being described as what I am, without people pointing out what distinguishes me as an individual. For me to feign offense and demand an apology when it happens would be ridiculous. (Notice Obama was not the one demanding Reid’s apology.) For someone else to presume to express offense on my behalf, as the GOP is doing, is in itself offensive.
So at the risk of aligning myself with a man I don’t like and at the risk of seeming very much like him, I have to say I think Reid owed no one an apology for what he said. Oh, he has plenty of things to apologize for, but this isn’t one of them. Those who demanded he apologize were/are being hypersensitive … and opportunistic. It’s no coincidence that those screaming loudest about Reid’s language are Republicans hoping to sink his re-election chances.
In our society, it’s useful to exhibit offense — loudly and publicly — when one wants to make political hay. But then, that’s why it’s called “political” correctness. It often has more to do with playing politics than it does with reality.
We may like to think we are a post-racial society, but until we are all struck blind, we will continue to see differences in skin color. Until we are made deaf, we will hear differences in ways of speaking. We will continue to perceive and think on these things because we are sentient beings. It is our behavior after we notice that is important.