According to John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s Game Change, back in 2006 Harry 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,’ as he said privately.” Last night I tweeted Mark Kleiman’s response to this, but today I see that not only has this non-story not disappeared, it’s actually getting more attention from our stalwart media titans. So here’s Mark:
Other than using an old-fashioned word to refer to African-Americans (a word which was the standard word for about the first half of Reid’s life), what did Reid do wrong?
It is the case that Obama is light-skinned and that he is a native speaker of American English, though he can and does, on occasion, use Ebonic cadences for rhetorical effect. And it is the case that both his skin tone (and the ancestry it reflects) and his command of the common dialect are among his political assets. If he had looked, or sounded, like Jesse Jackson, he wouldn’t be President. A darker hue and a more Ebonic speech pattern would certainly have cost him some votes among white Anglos, Latinos, and Asians, and almost certainly cost him some black votes as well. (The internalization of racism in the African-American community is a well-known phenomenon.)
It would have been insane for anyone considering an Obama candidacy not to weigh those factors. In October of 2008, when the dark-skinned, Ebonic-speaking David Alan Grier, on “Chocolate News,” urged white voters to “vote for the white half,” he was repeating a joke I’d heard at least a year earlier.
This whole thing is ridiculous. That Reid immediately apologized and Obama immediately accepted his apology isn’t surprising. It’s all part of the kabuki of American politics. Nor is it surprising that buffoonish attack dogs like Liz Cheney and Michael Steele are trying to pretend Reid is some kind of stone racist. But Reid was speaking privately, he was a political pro talking about Obama’s electability, and he didn’t say anything offensive anyway. Are we seriously at the point where we have to rely on George Will (!) to talk sense into the conservative movement?