Over the weekend Senate Majority leader Harry Reid has been criticized for making insensitive racial remarks about President Barack Obama during the Presidential campaign. In their book “Game Change,” Time magazine’s Mark Halperin and New York magazine’s John Heilemann quote Reid meeting with Obama and being impressed by the junior senator. Speaking about his ability to win the Presidency, Reid stated that he “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 later put it privately.”
Everybody is having issue with the comments. I cannot, however, figure out what the big deal is.
First, people are disturbed by Senator Reid using the outdated term “Negro.” Well, Negro is not a racial slur. To put it frankly, the term “Negro” is not the same as using the “N” word. Similar to Latinos, many people have challenges determining which term to refer to our community– even people within the African American community. My great, great aunts, for example, used the term “colored” until they died in the 1990s. As our community evolves, so do the terms that refer to it. Throughout American history “Colored,” “Negro,” “Afro-American,” “Black,” “African American,” etc. have all and continue to be used interchangeably to refer to the African American community. African American is just the most commonly accepted term in this historical era. Coincidently, during one of the conferences I attended on African American studies in the 1990s, one of the presenters stated that the term will continue to evolve! He predicted that the next term our community will endorse is “Pan-African,” so the term African American will soon be out of date! Choosing politically correct labels to refer to a group is also challenging beyond the African American community. The Spanish, I mean Latino, I mean Hispanic, I mean … (you get the point), has the same type of challenges with labels within and outside of the community as do African Americans.
Secondly, there has always been a debate about if, why and how Obama could potentially win the Presidency. Personally, I have participated in this type of conversation and debate many times both privately and publicly. Many African Americans have participated in discussions about the characteristics of Obama that appeal to the Anglo majority. We know for a fact, as much research has proven, that the Anglo majority will support a lighter-skinned African American or Latino over a darker-skinned one. Additionally, language also dictates acceptance. Speaking ebonics or having a Spanish accent can close the doors for many despite their ability.
Senator Reid was right, color and language do matter in America. Anglos know it, and as a matter of fact, African Americans and Latinos know it, as well.
Can we now stop making unnecessary controversy about Senator Reid’s comments and move forward with obtaining jobs and health care for all Americans?