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January 10, 2010

Harry Reid apologizes for "negro" comment

Harry Reid had to apologize because he got caught using the word "negro." Good.

Reid's remarks were revealed in a new book, "Game Change" by journalists Mark Halperin and John Heilemann about the 2008 race. According to the book, Reid was impressed by Obama's candidacy during the primary campaign, and privately said the country was ready for a black president – particularly a "light-skinned" one "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one." [Politico]

Reid isn't just a doddering old uncle who hasn't updated his racial vocabulary since the Eisenhower era. There was a time when "negro" was a neutral, socially acceptable word. (Think: The United Negro College Fund.) But language changes. Maybe there are some ancient, out-of-touch folks who aren't racist but who still haven't gotten that memo.

Reid's not one of them. He's the Senate Majority Leader and he knows better. We know he does because he manages to hold off on the "negro" talk on TV and on the senate floor. I doubt he uses that term in front of his junior staff or at parties. Yet, evidently he felt free to use the word behind closed doors, with other powerful white people. That's ugly.

Ironically, Reid used the word while making a rather banal observation. There were literally dozens of articles in the national press in 2008 about Obama's "post racial" image, which is a nicer way of saying the same thing. Still, Reid knows perfectly well that "negro" is an inflammatory, pejorative term. If he used that word, that was presumably the connotation he was after.

I'm glad Halperin chose to embarrass Reid. This kind of behavior continues because powerful people expect other members of the club to cover for them. Reid deserved to sweat over this.

[Addendum: We've got to get over the idea that criticizing racist behavior is tantamount to calling someone a bigot. I don't know how Harry Reid feels about black people. His innermost feelings are irrelevant to this discussion. I do know that he got caught speaking disrespectfully about a colleague. So, he had to apologize. That's how it's supposed to work.

Acceptable behavior is negotiated. There's no Universally Accepted Set of Rules for Not Acting Racist that we can all refer to. We learn what's okay by how people react. The Reid furor shows that there's an overwhelming consensus in that the word "negro" is no longer okay. Anyone who insists on using it is committing a major social faux pas, whether they mean any disrespect or not.

Language is like currency. You can't go around insisting that your words mean exactly what you want them to. It's like proclaiming that a $20 bill in your hands is worth $50 because you say it is. You can't use a word that's universally regarded as disrespectful and insist that it's respectful when you say it. In order to be respectful, you've got to act in a way signals respect to the other person. The would-be respecter doesn't get to make the rules.]

Comments

"Behind closed doors" isn't a secure place to be anymore, racists.

Lets forget racism. Lets try to think we all are human being.

I don't really care about Harry Reid, and I'll be happy to see him hand off the gavel to Dick Durbin if he loses this fall. But you have no basis whatsoever for the assumptions you are making.

Um, regardless of the propriety of the word negro today, "negro dialect" is a fairly specific literary term. I'm not sure it makes sense to employ it when talking about Obama, in part because I don't think he's ever employed it, but calling Reid a racist for using the term is pretty stupid.

On the other hand, I kind of doubt Reid was accurately identifying a negro dialect. I assume he was thinking more Jesse Jackson than late 19th century Southern African-Americans. So that's pretty offensive.

I was deployed to a forward operating base, Iraq, 2007 as part of the surge. During my deployment, Harry Reid said "the war is lost" and he was against the surge. This in my opinion gave aid and comfort to the enemy. Since I am a health care professional and therefore a non-combantant, I might mention that regardless of the merits of the Iraq War, when our troops are in harms way, giving aid and comfort to the enemy is treason. I come from a strong Democratic family, my mother was the chair of the Democratic Party in our county. I never left the Democratic party, it left me. I have absolutely no respect for Harry Reid, therefore his latest comments mean nothing to me because I already knew he was a goof ball. And to think that he is in a position of leadership----our country is really in bad shape wiht leaders like this.

Stupid people such as Harry Reid say and do STUPID things. Where's the outage?

Stupid people such as Harry Reid say and do STUPID things. Where's the outrage?

Carl I too am a life long democrat who has really developed a distaste for most politicians including Harry Reid. However the Democratic party still (of the major parties) best represents my political views and the direction that I think our nation needs to go into the future. I'm curious....what do you think of the leadership of guys like Mitch McConnell, Bill Frist or Trent Lott?

From one vet to another thanks for your service.


What is far more disturbing than Reid's comment itself, is that elected officials, paid with taxpayer dollars, would spend valuable time criticizing Reid, or any other politician who just happened to say something offensive, inappropriate, or stupid, instead of tending to the important business of the nation. And this applies to members of ALL political parties.

And why do they do it? To advance the long-term positive and material interests of the nation? No. It is pure and simple grandstanding for their political purposes.

They ALL should arguably be voted out at the next available opportunity. As for we citizens, we should never underestimate the power of laughter, and ignoring people.

Doesn't it also reflect on the audience in front of whom Reid felt comfortable in using the term? He is politically astute enough not to use it in public venues, as you noted.

Nice of Halperin et al to save the anecdote until now, dontcha think?

Was Reid trying to be educational by winning his audience over first? He was among those who privately encouraged Obama to run.

Recall that Biden committed the "articulate" gaffe during the primary season.

And, Michael Steele, Lott's remark does not compare to Reid's, regardless.

You can call someone out on their racist behavior without calling them a racist. I'm not assuming that Harry Reid is a generally bigoted person. I don't know him personally, but I bet he's a basically a tolerant guy. But "Negro dialect" is a racist thing to say. So, I'm glad he's taking some heat for it. Racism is systemic and it affects all of us to a certain extent.

I'm sure when I'm 70 and say African American, which by then won't be an acceptable term anymore, some morons will think that means I'm racist.

Reid grew up in crappy little Nevada mining towns; places that are 101% white and naturally reactionary. (I've spent enough time in the Great Basin to know.) The fact that he's a Democrat at all is a pretty giant step, considering. That he might say something stupid and offensive like that is hardly surprising given his background.

Is he a racist? - Who knows what's in his private heat of hearts. All Americans have learned by now how to speak in the coded terms that race in America is addressed with. Not having been in the room where this was uttered, I have no way to judge the context. It sounds however more like something that was simply stupid and not necessarily a reflection of the kind of smoldering racist hatred that characterizes the endless stream of rabid dog whistle speech one hears on national hate broadcast 24/7-365 from people like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Michael Savage, Laura Ingraham, Bill O'Reilly, Brit Hume, G. Gordon Liddy, et al.. GOP politicians use a subtler, more nuanced version of the same language, but it still amounts to the same kind of race-baiting, KKK shit David Duke uses. We were warned that a black president would bring the racists crawling out from under their rocks, and indeed it has. (Exhibit A: tea baggers.) I wouldn't put Reid in that category. I think that we do need to make a distinction between people like Reid who in an unguarded moment may say something stupid and vulgar and the legions of genuinely racist white people who just can't get over the fact that there is actually (Oh My God!!!) a negro (!!!) in the White House.

Make that "heart of hearts".

Steve and when you do, your grandkids will exclaim, "Grandpa! That's racist." Then you'll know. Because you're a decent person who would hate to sound racist, you'll switch to whatever term is considered respectful 20, 30, 50 years from now.

To me, this isn't about what's in Harry Reid's heart of hearts, it's about his behavior. He spoke inappropriately about a colleague and he had to apologize. That's how it's supposed to work. When you get caught behaving badly, you apologize and move on. It doesn't automatically make you a terrible person.

I'm not angry at Harry Reid and I agree with Lindsay that it doesn't make him a terrible person, but it does make me uncomfortable that he would say something like that. In 40 years or so I can't imagine that this kind of thing will be dead as the dodos.

Reid was making an accurate observation about race in America. He was observing that most white Americans are still racists, and would not vote for a black man who sounds black. But a black man who sounds white could be a viable candidate. There's nothing new or surprising about this - Ralph Bunche, anyone? Julian Bond? Edward Brooke? My congresswoman, Donna Edwards, is a black woman who has no trace of a black accent and attracted a large number of white supporters. The mayor of DC, next door to where I live, is a black man who has very little trace of black speech patterns, and who also proved to be a strong vote getter among whites.

As far as I can tell, there is no politically correct way to say that due to white racism a black person who sounds black has little future in electoral politics outside of majority-minority districts. A black person who doesn't sound black is unusual - there are even educated black accents that differ from educated white accents from the same region - and a black person who's got political skills and no black accent is a rare find. It's something everyone knows, and it's of great importance, but it's impossible to articulate without giving offense.

And Reid did not use the word "Negro" in describing Obama, so I don't understand your statement that he "spoke disrespectfully about a colleague." He used the phrase "Negro dialect," meaning stereotypically black speech. You can say that the term Negro is offensive, if you like, but since the point he making was that Obama doesn't talk like that, I don't see how you can say he was being disrespectful to Obama. He was making a perfectly true and very relevant point about race in America, and one that played a significant role in the election.

Of course it's harder to get elected in a racist country if you make racists nervous! That's the essence of racism. It's hardly racist to say so--as long as you're not implying there's something wrong with seeming black. Dragging the world "negro" into the discussion suggests a pejorative view of black culture. It's as if Reid had said that at least Obama wasn't "ghetto."

Bloix, the term "Negro dialect" is not the correct linguistic term for today's stereotypically black speech. The correct terms are "Black English," "African-American English," and similar variants (and not "Ebonics" or "Black/AA Vernacular English," which refer to a grammar). No linguist that I've read and no popular account of modern American accents that I've read uses the word "Negro."

Lindsay, you're generally right about using the word "ghetto," but there are instances in which it would be appropriate - for one, all instances in which the word is not used as an adjective. It's like the appropriateness of the word "Jew."

Ghetto as a noun can be just fine. Nobody would fault you for referring the the Warsaw Ghetto. It's problematic to use "ghetto" as an adjective evoke the worst stereotypes about urban black culture.

Kind of building off what Lindsay wrote to update her post--all this stuff that certain people seem to have problems with when it comes to race/ethnicity/religion and language use is stuff that we're all pretty adept with on an interpersonal level. For example, nicknames. I had a friend named "Michael" who almost everyone called "Mike" (which he would tolerate, but did not prefer) and whom I would occasionally call "Mikey" (which he hated). If he was my boss, would I call him anything but "Michael"? No way in hell. Did I make an effort to call him Michael because it mattered to him? Yes. Did I call him "Mikey" when I was trying to be irritating/assert some kind of dominance? Also yes.

So if we can manage this kind of fine-tuning on an interpersonal basis, where it varies for each person (my brother likes to be called Mike, for example) I don't see any reason why we can't do the same thing with race/ethnicity/religion. Especially because unlike the Michael/Mike divide, there is a majority rule about what terms are "in" and what terms are "out." Something I've noticed in my own (privileged) life--if someone wants to refer to me based on membership in a racial/ethnic/religious group, whether perceived or actual, usually what they have to say about me isn't that nice.

Funny how that works.

What's really sad is the fact that the observation that anyone who has skin any darker than your typical Italian and has any trace of African-American English in his/her idiolect can't be elected for higher office, is in fact banal and unremarkable. White politicians crank up the Southern accent until they're almost unintelligible and it's a mark of a proud heritage, while outside black-dominated congressional districts a black politician using any conspicuously “black” speech pattern will be mocked for using “eubonics” and lose any chance of winning an election. It's particularly sad because the one group of people in the United States that was (and in many ways still is) denied access to written language developed exceptionally rich traditions of spoken language. Black American English is part of the common heritage of all Americans and in a sense of all English speakers. If black American English is somehow debased language, what are we supposed to make of the impoverished tongue-tied twang our last president tried to communicate with?

Reid was probably right, though clumsy and imprecise.

Had Obama been very dark-complexioned as was his late father, had he not had Euro-American (i.e. white caste) ancestry in his mother and had he spoken primarily using the linguistic elements of various African-American Vernacular English dialects (as do many African-American elected officials in some parts of country), he would probably have lost Virginia, Pennsylvania and Indiana.

African-American Vernacular English differs significantly from region to region; one hears a different tone and diction in Harlem than in the Mississippi Delta or Tennessee.

The bigger issue is that we have a Senate Majority Leader who uses the word Negro in published works anachronistically and either condescendingly or with shocking ignorance of political context.

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