Message to Harry Reid: Dude, "Negro" is So 1960s

BlogHer Original Post

By now, everyone has probably heard of the Harry Reid and Rod Blagojevich outbursts about society's punching bag ... black folks. In case you haven't been paying attention (which in some ways, is quite sad): In a new book, Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime, Reid is quoted as saying that the  believed Obama could become the country's first black president because he was "light-skinned" and had "no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one."

In a recent article in Esquire magazine, disgraced ex-Chicago Governor Rod Blagojevich said that he is "blacker" than Obama:

"What the (expletive)? Everything he's saying's on the TelePrompTer," Blagojevich told the magazine for a story in its February issue, which hits newsstands Jan. 19.

"I'm blacker than Barack Obama. I shined shoes. I grew up in a five-room apartment. My father had a little laundromat in a black community not far from where we lived," Blagojevich said. "I saw it all growing up."

Okay. well, by Blagojevich's standards, since I never shined shoes nor lived in a five-room apartment in a black community, I guess I'm not really black. Thanks for clearing that up.

The two incidents have had a bittersweet effect. When the national media decides to publicize the latest racial gaffe, race-baiters such as me can think it's a good thing, as it solidifies the undeniable fact that we have a long way to go in terms of combating racism. On the other hand, I'm beginning to think that the perpetrators (the authors of the book and Blagojevich himself) know which buttons to push. While Game Change looks interesting, it was the race bit that was first publicized. I refuse to think that Blagojevich is really that stupid and probably knew that taking a swipe at President Obama would be great to get his name in the headlines again.

Now the most pressing question in the blogosphere is ... are these dudes racist? I don't know, but I'm leaning to the affirmative. Woefully ignorant? Umm, yeah. But for Reid, I would add he is a bit archaic in his thinking. From The American Prospect:

Reid's use of the term "Negro dialect" is uncomfortable because the term is archaic and recalls a time when black people were legally denied equal treatment under law, but the sentiment that being black and light-skinned confers its own kind of privilege is so uncontroversial among black people that it's banal. Code-switching -- changing one's speech based on racial or class context -- is an equally mundane phenomenon. 

From City Link:

Negro? Who says Negro in 2010? It makes Reid’s assessment look less Dave Chappelle, more minstrel show. I can’t recall the last time I heard anyone use the word Negro. Maybe it was Strom Thurmond, before he’d gone home to hell. Reid is 70 years old. One could just dismiss the use of the word Negro as the ramblings of an old man from a bygone era. One could, but it doesn’t make much sense. It’s not as though Reid has been a shut-in for the past few decades. He’s the Senate Majority Leader, for God’s sake.

At the same time, there are some important questions here: At what point does awareness of other people's racism based on skin tone alter people's actions to the point where they're making decisions based on skin tone in anticipation of the decisions others will make? Would Reid have been justified in not supporting Obama if Obama were dark-skinned or not biracial because he thought whites might reject him? How would that have been different than simply declining to support Obama out of racism or colorism? How often does this ostensibly non-political calculation cause someone to be denied a job or opportunity just because they happen to be black or dark-skinned?

In his own wonky way, Reid was saying what a number of people had previously muttered about why Obama got elected. Albeit, they said it in the privacy of their homes or among friends, but never to a writer. There have been countless instances where light-skinned blacks and blacks who are devoid of accents (do not fit the negative stereotypes about African-Americans), as seen as more acceptable than darker-skinned black folks who might reside in a state or country where they have either an accent that is related to where they reside or speak in slang.

What was troubling about Reid's remark is that he used the word "Negro," which has negative connotations. "Negro" - and yes, I use it all the time when I'm being sarcastic - hearkens back to the Jim Crow era, a time when there was more overt racism than there is today.

Natasha from Ivy's Blog discusses the response from author / professor Michael Eric Dyson, who said that once again, Obama ducked from using Reid's comment as a teachable moment for all Americans:

"I think that we should push the president,” Dyson said. “This president runs from race like a black man runs from a cop. What we have to do is ask Mr. Obama to stand up and use his bully pulpit to help us. He is loath to speak about race.”

The line about Obama running from race “like a black man runs from a cop” is vulgar hyperbole, and it detracts from the message. But the accusation that Obama is “loath to speak about race” is fair and worth thinking about. Later, in another interview on CNN, Dyson chose better words when he said that the Reid comments presented us with a teachable moment and “the professor” was nowhere near the classroom.

Reid is one year younger than my father, and while my dad knows better than to refer to blacks as Negro, both were born and raised in an era where white male supremacy was seen as the norm and in my opinion, an era in which a lot of white male pride and confidence came from the fact that they ruled  the American political, social and economical platforms. No one really expected the progress that both women and African-Americans would make in the next two decades. Reid's usage suggests a resentment that a Negro is commander-in-chief.

Rod Blagojevich? As I mentioned above, I think he wanted the publicity and knew how to get it. But he got it by throwing the entire black population under the bus, and even though he is a truly ignorant man, he did nothing that others haven't done before him. From Black Voices:

Perhaps rather than having a "blacker than Obama" contest with the president, you can simply stand on your own merits as a genuine advocate for the black community. You can cite your record for doing things that support the issues that matter most for African Americans, evidenced by the fact that so many African Americans in Illinois stood by you during your difficult time.

Oh yeah, trying to present yourself as the only genuine politician in a world of phonies is an old trick. Every politician does it, including Barack Obama. I'll believe you're a genuine politician when you're no longer a politician. Then, my friend, I might consider you to be "blacker than Obama" (whatever that's supposed to mean).

What troubles me is that logically (and I'm also thinking of Bill O'Reily's trip to Sylvia's Restaurant and his shock that the servers and the customers in the black-owned restaurant knew how to use knives and forks and left their AK-47's at home) is that both men are in (somewhat) influential positions and they still hold these biases, judgments and stereotypes which quite frankly, do not make any sense whatsoever.

They are also pretty dumb to make these comments in public. What does that say about the rest of us? What perceptions are we carrying around and how do they affect our judgement when we interact with people from a different ethnocultural background? While Reid and Blagojevich's comments do not affect me personally - they are just another indication that despite living in close proximity of each other, we really do not know each other at all.

Contributing EditorRace, Ethnicity & Culture

Blog: Writing is Fighting:

Writer: Hellbound:


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