Stop the presses! Harry Reid said the word "Negro" and, worse, suggested that white people are less afraid of light-skinned blacks who don’t use double negatives. But by now you’ve heard this latest juicy tidbit to drop out of the much-discussed 2008 campaign recap Game Change. Yes, America, our Senate majority leader had the gall to spell out candidate Barack Obama’s formula for creating his post-racial brand.
Here’s how CNN reports it:
The authors quote Reid as saying privately that Obama, as a black candidate, could be successful thanks, in part, to his "light-skinned" appearance and speaking patterns "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one."
"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,’ " Halperin and Heilemann say.
GOP chair Michael Steele and other party flacks want to equate Reid’s remarks with Trent Lott’s wistful 2002 plea for an era when segregationists ruled the country. That’s an absurdity that warrants a response only because corporate media has taken it seriously. I’ll simply echo Ta-Nehisi Coates’ succinct, "Negro, please."
Reid’s real sin is acknowledging that Obama does in fact have a race and that it does in fact matter to white people. You can’t say that kind of thing in 2010, at least not in post-race Washington.
More importantly, the Reid kerfuffle shows once again just how narrow and perverse our purported national conversation on race has become. Since the civil rights movement’s end, the right has worked tirelessly and successfully to reduce the popular understanding of racism to an individualized personality problem rather than a broad, structural concern. As a result, the only time we’re willing to face race is when we catch powerful people saying things that reveal dark thoughts — Don Imus, Michael Richards, Jeremiah Wright, Trent Lott, Harry Reid.
Racial justice, meanwhile, is as anachronistic as the word Negro. It’s passe to point out — let alone make public policy based upon — the fact that yawning racial disparities exist in just about every aspect of American life. Pick any one of today’s headlining policy debates, and you’ll find racial inequality. Nearly a quarter of both blacks and Latinos are either out of work or getting by on part time. Banks demonstrably targeted blacks and Latinos with plainly predatory subprime loans, a scheme for which we were vulnerable in part because our neighborhoods were still trying to recover from the 2001 recession that white America had already left behind. A whopping 40 percent of blacks reported being uninsured at some point in 2007-2008 and the black-white mortality gap is larger today than it was in 1960.
You won’t hear Reid, Obama or any GOP spinster talking about these ugly facts. We’ll all happily fret over whether one of them has broken decorum with some racist remark. But forget about the outrageous structural racism the Senate refuses to fix every day it’s in session.
Update: Special thanks to reader David B. for catching that I called Michael Steele out of his name. Thanks for the volunteer copy editing!