A new gossip book about the 2008 election has been getting lots of press for this report about Harry Reid:
He 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.
Reid has apologized for his choice of words.
I think Matt gets to the heart of the matter:
It’s good that Reid apologized, but at the same time you can’t really apologize for being the sort of person who’d be inclined to use the phrase “negro dialect” and it’s more the idea of Reid being that kind of person that’s creepy here than anything else.
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?
But “Negro” isn’t just “old-fashioned”; it’s a racist epithet. It’s true that a half-century ago, “negro” was commonly used by both Blacks and whites. But things have changed since then. From Wikipedia:
During the American Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, some African American leaders in the United States objected to the word, preferring Black, because they associated the word Negro with the long history of slavery, segregation, and discrimination that treated African Americans as second class citizens, or worse. During the 1960s Negro came to be considered an ethnic slur.
The term is now considered archaic and is not commonly used, and is widely considered a racist slur. The term is still used in some contexts for historical reasons such as in the name of the United Negro College Fund. or the Negro league in sports.
I don’t want to make too big a deal of this; this isn’t a judgement on Reid as a person, or an indictment of his entire character. A sincere anti-racist can slip up and have a racist moment.
Nonetheless, it is racist for white folks1 to casually use racial slurs as part of everyday speech, and Mark’s mistaken to think otherwise. It’s not even slightly unreasonable to expect that someone who is sharp enough to be the head of the Democrats in the Senate, who is one of the most powerful people in the world, would have learned sometime in the last four or five decades to stop using the word “negro.”
- I’m ignoring for this post the question of Black people using the word “negro” ironically, or of elderly black people using the word non-ironically, because Reid clearly isn’t in either category. [↩]