By Ruth Marcus
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid acted like an idiot.
Also, he was right.
It’s a measure of the suffocating culture of political correctness that it feels risky to say that. It’s a measure of the insulting how-dumb-do-they-think-we-are culture of incessant partisanship that Republicans leapt on Reid’s remarks as racist.
Reid, assessing Barack Obama’s chances in 2008, cited the fact that the candidate was a “light-skinned” African-American “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.” Those ill-advised comments, to Mark Halperin and John Heilemann for their new book, “Game Change,” produced an apology by Reid to the president on Saturday. That was followed immediately by presidential forgiveness: “As far as I am concerned, the book is closed.”
For a politician, especially a white politician, to comment on another politician’s race is treacherous. Just ask Joe Biden. (Remember “articulate and bright and clean,” the future vice president’s description of Obama in 2007?)
For anyone in public life to use the word Negro in 2008 is beyond stupid. What was once polite has become demeaning, although, interestingly enough, the U.S. Census chose to retain the word on the 2010 census form because so many respondents wrote it in 10 years ago.
So Reid, already swamped with herding 60 cats and facing a tough re-election campaign, needs this headache like he needs another Joe Lieberman. The lame explanation offered by an aide—that the remarks were not intended for use in the book—is about as convincing as Jesse Jackson’s assertion that he did not consider his “Hymietown” comments to The Washington Post’s Milton Coleman to be on the record. (“Let’s talk black talk,” Jackson had said to Coleman.)
But: There is a big difference between Reid 2008 and Jackson 1984—or, more to the point, Lott 2002. When soon-to-be-former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., said that the United States could have avoided “all these problems” if Strom Thurmond’s 1948 segregationist campaign for president had succeeded, there was an unmistakable—if unintended—whiff of racism. As much as Republican critics would like to use the Reid incident for partisan purposes, the current majority leader’s blundering comments were made in the context of supporting an African-American candidate, not praising a segregationist one.
Not that critics were stopped by this distinction. “These are fairly racist comments,” declared Liz Cheney on ABC’s “This Week.” Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, who ought to have some charity toward those who say dumb things, called on Reid to step down as majority leader.
So much for the idiotic part. But, to a degree, Reid’s assessment of the salience of Obama’s skin tone was on target. Not only do we not live in a colorblind society, we live in an exquisitely color-sensitive one. A 2007 study that used magnetic resonance imaging to examine brain reactions to photos of light- and dark-skinned subjects found more activity within the amygdala, which reflects arousal to perceived threats, when dark-skinned faces were shown. “Disconcertingly, to the extent that Afrocentric features increase the likelihood of making stereotypic inferences, this may result in severe consequences for those possessing high levels of Afrocentric features,” the authors write.
As for “Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one,” well, do we all have to pretend we don’t know what Reid is talking about? There is a distinctly recognizable African-American voice and many African-Americans dial it up or down depending on the setting. It was striking during the campaign how Hawaii-born, Indonesia-raised, Chicago-living Obama sounded so strikingly Southern when he was campaigning in Southern states. That “blaccent” was useful to Obama in some venues. But I have little doubt that it would have been held against him by some white voters, perhaps subconsciously, if it were his regular voice.
Reid’s analysis was correct. Even if it was, as he said in a masterpiece of understatement, “a poor choice of words.”
Ruth Marcus’ e-mail address is marcusr(at symbol)washpost.com.
© 2010, Washington Post Writers Group