By Marcia Alesan Dawkins
Sen. Harry Reid’s comments about Barack Obama’s racial profile might seem beside the point to our president. After all, he’s got bigger fish to fry. But it appears that Obama is the only one who is over it. For those late to the party, the Nevada senator’s racial thinking was revealed recently in the book “Game Change,” by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, in which the authors expose the inner workings of the 2008 presidential campaign from both sides of the aisle. Their most shocking revelation is that Reid said that Obama had the right look and sound for presidential candidacy, “light skinned” and “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.” Rather than considering whether Reid’s comments are politically correct—clearly they aren’t—I think it’s more prudent and interesting to re-examine his comments and think about whether he has a point. So, was Reid right?
I decided to answer this question by doing some very unofficial polling. Here’s what I learned. Most people I interviewed said that they have “conflicting thoughts.” “Reid definitely shouldn’t have said it,” says Lindsay, a multiracial 30-year-old Democrat in San Diego. Calif. “But, all things being equal, if Obama were the stereotypical African-American male portrayed by the media, then he wouldn’t have won … even if he had the same message of hope and change. So, in that way I kind of agree with Reid. Does that make me a racist too?”
Jason, a 33-year-old African-American Democrat from Philadelphia, agrees. “Reid’s words were definitely ‘inartful,’ but he’s the product of his generation’s limited racial vocabulary. I don’t look to Reid for racial commentary. What I and others are looking to him for is health care support. And I think that’s what this is really about.”
“There is definitely something else going on here,” says John, a 63-year-old African-American in Boynton Beach, Fla. “This is ridiculous. The goal is not to deal with race, but to discredit Reid, health care and, ultimately, to stop Obama.” He continues, “If I remember correctly, there were lots of other racial incidents that could’ve been equally explored.”
John does have a point here, and he wasn’t the only one to raise it. Even Kate, a 22-year-old white Republican from Nashville, says that “Reid isn’t the only one to talk this way about race in public. Didn’t Joe Biden once say that Obama’s the first black ‘smart’ and ‘clean’ guy to gain mainstream popularity?” In fact, that’s true. According to CBS News, Biden is quoted as saying that Obama was “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” Biden now sits in the White House with Obama. Is he a racist too?
Perhaps the most interesting interview was with Kai, a recent Peruvian-Spanish immigrant to the United States with no political affiliation. Kai asked me to play a game with him. I would name an iconic African-American or mixed-race person and then he would state whether he thought Reid’s comments would apply. I agreed. I asked, “Would Americans have adopted Obama so widely if he looked like Will Smith?” “Yes,” answered Kai. “Smith is very mainstream and similar to Obama in terms of presence.” How about Denzel Washington? “Maybe,” answered Kai; “Washington has a great presence and eloquence, but he might be too dark for mainstream America to embrace politically.” Then I asked about Wentworth Miller. Kai asked, “Who?” After doing a quick image search on the multiracial “Prison Break” star, Kai answered unequivocally, “No. not black enough.” Since race has such a charged history in the United States, it seems that even though we’ve made some great strides, we’ve also still got some figuring out to do.
So what is the fuss really all about? For a definitive word on this I turned to Richard, a 42-year-old African-American Democrat and blogger in Los Angeles. “Is the problem he used the word Negro? Or is it something more complex (no pun intended) when he referred to Obama’s skin color?” For Richard the issue isn’t that Reid used an anachronism. He said, “Words such as Negro and colored still exist in our vocabulary. We still have the United Negro College Fund, Negro spirituals and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In fact, we have become so accustomed to identifying these institutions by said names that if we were to update them to contemporary language it would almost seem as if we were being trite for demanding an update.” Yet, Richard told me that he has observed that skin color is another controversy in and of itself. Richard concluded with his overall assessment of the situation: “The only thing I can see that Reid really did wrong was possibly air dirty laundry of many Americans who think this way and now some are attempting to punish him for it.”
After listening to these varied opinions, I’m left only with my own. To be blunt, Reid was right and he’s not necessarily a racist. In fact, I see the controversy over Reid’s comments as evidence that some racial progress is being made and that we still have a long way to go. Whether or not we care to admit it, Obama’s persona and status are forcing us to confront the legal, linguistic and socially constructed residues of racism and unequal opportunity with important implications for contemporary race relations. In light of this, I propose that we understand Reid’s comments and the firestorm they sparked as opportunities to start some productive racial, interracial and multiracial dialogue.
AP / Charles Dharapak
President Barack Obama stands with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid at a fundraising event in Las Vegas last May.