Harry Reid, Trent Lott, and Race

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Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) has come under fire for some race-related comments he made a while back about President Obama's election that have recently come to light:

He [Reid] 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,'

I wouldn't say that there's no problem with Reid's words, but I'm wondering how it amounts to what a lot of critics have been saying. The comments from a number of politicians make fascinating reading. Republicans want to say that the remarks are racist or at least inappropriate, and they point to a double standard by Democrats, who find little problem with Reid but were calling for Trent Lott's resignation for speaking off-the-cuff at a birthday party for Senator Strom Thurmond (R-SC) to say that if he'd been elected president we wouldn't have some of the problems we have. Of course, the same could be said for those who defended Lott but have now attacked Reid.

What Trent Lott said was totally unproblematic in its actual content. It's the context that made people think he meant something more. He was talking about someone who has long been hailed as a stalwart conservative, and if he'd been president we surely would have had more conservative policies than the ones we actually got with President Truman. So a conservative senator could indeed have said what he said and not meant anything even racially-related.

But he was also talking about someone with a history of supporting segregation, who was actually running with a segregationist party on the occasion Lott was referring to. He was speaking at an event in the South, and there were almost certainly people present who fully agreed with Thurmond's former views who would have heard such a statement as support for such views. I doubt Lott was even thinking of that. He was probably just trying to be nice to a very elderly colleague celebrating a birthday, and I find it unlikely that the racial issue was even on his mind. It doesn't amount to racism, but it amounts to racial insensitivity and ignorance, and it perpetuates patterns of such behavior that are worth calling attention to and seeking to undermine. So I do think it was good for people to call attention to it, even if it does seem a bit much to me to insist that he resign from a Senate leadership position over it.

On the other hand, Harry Reid's problem is not in the content of what he said but in his choice of actual words. What he said is actually either true or at least certainly arguably so. He made two claims: (1) that Obama couldn't have been elected as easily if he seemed "more black" to more people and (2) the reason he seems "less black" to some people is that he has lighter skin and doesn't naturally speak the way a lot of black people do.

The second claim is certainly true. Linguists study the language patterns of sub-communities with particular dialects, and one common dialect occurs among black people across the country, with similar traits no matter what part of the country they're in. This isn't another language. It's English. But it has some different grammatical rules and pronunciations from standard American English. It's usually associated with inner city or poor and very rural blacks. A lot of black Americans speak more standard English most of the time and occasionally take on an affect of what some linguists call Black English. The rest of the time their grammar and pronunciation are pretty standard. There is also a southern-like element to some word pronunciations for a lot of black Americans even if they don't ever use the dialectical elements unique to Black English, and this is true no matter what region of the country the person is from. That accent is sometimes detectable over the phone, and people often associate it with race, sometimes looking down on people for speaking that way. This is all just a matter of linguistic and sociological fact. Acknowledging it is neither racist nor succumbing to pressure to cater to racists. Knowing the facts about how race works in this country does not amount to liking those facts or wanting them to be that way. It seems to me to be simply true that President Obama does not speak the way a lot of people who have negative stereotypes about how black people speak would expect a black man to speak, except when he chooses to do so.

As for the first claim, I think it's at least arguable that Obama would have had a harder time getting elected if people with negative stereotypes about black people had seen him as "more black". With a white mother, lighter than average skin for a black man, and speech patterns that are more ambiguous, a lot of people who might hesitate to identify with him could more easily do so. A lot of people who might have a harder time respecting him might more easily do so. I don't want to minimize how far this country has come with race in being able to elect him. Nevertheless, interviews showed that people with racial animus or some resistance to voting for a black candidate were able to pull the lever for Obama. One possible explanation that's certainly not obviously false is that they saw him as "less black". Would someone who looks and talks like Chris Rock have as easy a time getting elected president? I don't think so. Could someone who looks and talks like Chris Rock do it? Maybe. I'm not as sure as Reid. But the claim he was making doesn't seem ridiculous. I've heard a number of black academics make exactly that claim in meetings at the American Philosophical Association where his becoming president has come up.

The only thing I see that's seriously wrong with Reid's statement is the expression "Negro dialect". I haven't encountered that exact expression before ever, but I suspect it's a relic of Reid's growing up with "Negro" as the preferred term for black people, and he's not so heavily involved with the black community or racial issues to have gotten the immediate sense of its inappropriateness the way anyone with any racial sensitivity nowadays would have. So, like Lott, it shows that he's racially out of touch. It's not about referencing a racist or racially-harmful ideology as good, which I think Lott did unintentionally and lots of people claimed he did intentionally. It's about overt language that's usually offensive nowadays but used to be fine. The result is the same, though. He showed some racial insensitivity, even if the Democrats defending him are right that he's voted the right way all along. Voting the right way is compatible with being extremely insensitive. Democrats generally take Ted Kennedy to have voted the right way with women's issues, but there's no arguing that his attitude toward women was always wonderful. The same goes for Bill Clinton.

So that makes me conclude the following two things. First, the nature of the offense is different in the two cases. One involves overt language without ill intent in one case and potential implicatures that probably weren't but could have been meant in the other. Second, the real problem this analysis reveals is that both senators showed serious insensitivity and ignorance about race issues. So I do wonder if calls for Lott to resign should consistently be made against Reid and if those who thought Lott's statement shouldn't require a resignation should apply the same reasoning to Reid. I don't think either requires a resignation, but both should lead us to consider how ignorant and insensitive those who lead us are about race issues, and the most important fact about racial ignorance is that it's an unknown unknown. You don't know you have it until someone points it out. We should use moments like this to raise understanding to a higher level, not for political points or to try to remove someone in an influential position from that position merely because the person's ignorance is now known (as if the ones who haven't happened to reveal it are just fine). I'm therefore much more inclined to direct my criticism to those who don't recognize the parity between these cases than I am to direct it toward the two senators in question.

1 Comments

On the expression "Negro dialect" - the early work on Ebonics (which is of course different from African-American English) by Bill Labov and others referred to that dialect as 'NNS' for "Negro Non-Standard" English. You could see how the phrase "Negro dialect" might arise from that, especially if (as is likely) whatever knowledge Reid has of the subject is very indirect. Of course, it seems even more likely to me that Reid has no knowledge at all (direct or indirect) of academic socio-linguistics, so I wouldn't want to be too quick to excuse him on that ground.

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