Monday, January 11, 2010

We can talk about race, just not tell the truth in public

This is a copy of Star Tangled Banner, a column I write occasionally for The Badger newspaper in Saskatchewan, Canada:

 Lots of people will tell you that Americans are not allowed to talk publicly about race. That is wrong.

We can talk about it all we like. We just aren’t allowed to tell the truth in public.

This is the nexus of the current commotion about election-year comments by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, about Barack Obama as a candidate. Probably you’ve heard something about this since it recently emerged in a new book. Reid said Obama’s race wouldn’t be as big an issue in the election because he was “light-skinned” and spoke with “no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.”

Much of the press coverage of this belated, incidental revelation has followed a predictable “gotcha” script, almost all of it focused on peripheral questions. Nobody has seriously suggested that Reid — an early, enthusiastic and persistent supporter of the Obama candidacy and presidency — is actually a racist. Instead, the conversation is primarily about the fact that people may be offended that he said it. How can an experienced politician have been stupid enough to say that?

The president, a political ally of Reid, moved quickly to accept the senator’s de rigeur apology: "I deeply regret using such a poor choice of words. I sincerely apologize for offending any and all Americans, especially African-Americans for my improper comments," Reid said. This is not surprising, for a couple of obvious reasons.

The first is that Obama needs Reid’s support in Congress. Health care reform. Economic programs. Regulatory changes. Stuff like that.

The second is that Obama himself has said much the same thing. In particular, he acknowledged that his speaking style changes when he addresses a mostly-black audience (which anybody with ears can hear, by the way). In 2005, he said, “I know if I’m in an all-black audience that there’s going to be a certain rhythm coming back at me from the audience. They’re not just going to be sitting there. That creates a different rhythm in your speaking.”

As to the other observation? Well, you may have noticed that the president actually does have lighter colored skin that lots of other Americans, including many whose hyphen isn’t African-.

Reid’s use of the word “Negro” also generated criticism, and that was indeed a strange thing to say. The term, once a respectable alternative to a hateful derivative, is long out of fashion although a fair number of African-Americans (mostly older) still prefer it. One of the leading civil rights groups is still called the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, but of course “colored” is otherwise discredited, too. “Black,” a description the president and many others use interchangeably with African-American, is also now rejected by many. This seems sensible to me since nobody I have ever seen is actually black. (I’ve noticed that people described as “white” aren’t really that color either. Go figure).

But as a wise old Juneau politician once warned me, “If you give your enemy a stick, he’ll use it to hit you.” Sure enough, the African-American chairman of the Republican Party and others have now picked up on Reid’s statement as reason for him to resign, at least as majority leader. One argument: Republican Sen. Trent Lott had to resign when he was majority leader in 2002 after revelation that he had praised the frankly racist and segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond and suggested it would have been good had he been elected president. (If the Lott and Reid cases seem alike to you, the GOP wishes you were Americans and could vote here.)

There is one more thing worth noting about Reid’s observations: they are indisputably true. Barack Obama could not have been elected if he had much darker skin and usually spoke with a thick dialect. Everybody knows that, but it’s not okay to say it.

Personally, I think it’s going to be tough for Americans to come to grips with the way race yanks us around until we’re willing to be candid about how we feel, and talk about why. But what do I know? I’m a white guy. Well, pink, actually, or sometimes red. Purple, kind of.