Monday, January 11, 2010

Harry Reid is no Trent Lott (but he is a fool)

I'm sure by now we all know that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is no expert in linguistics or tact. Saying privately that President Obama had a chance to win because he didn't speak "Negro dialect" and was light-skinned was a silly, foolish thing but it's time to break this down with some consideration.

First off, as I explained on Facebook, what is "Negro dialect"? Is it Southern Black speech - an offshoot of Southern English? What about Black people in California, Chicago and the Northeast, who each speak their own dialect - their own slang/jargon. Trust me, I've been to the South and they talk very different than I. An educated Black person speaks differently than an uneducated one. So again, what is this "Negro dialect" the good Senator speaks of.

Any smart linguistics professor will tell you that there are various branches of Black speech. But I digress to my point. I believe most reasoned folks of color are not offended by what he said, but in fact tickled at Reid's stupidity to even say that (more on this point later).

Second, the newest way to deal with insensitive comments is with a knee-jerk reactions. It used to be calling some racist and now it's fire somebody for making a ignorant comment. Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele is leading the charge for it by equating it to Trent Lott (more on this later)

This attitude is prevalent among people who apparently want to prove how the race conversation will never happen because they act like children. Call it taking care of a problem, I call it cutting off the head of a Hydra (go read your Greek mythology kids).

This is a chance for a teachable moment but unfortunately wanting Reid to step down is akin to hoping this goes away without making sure it does. It doesn't take away what he said or remove it from that public discourse. It's almost like treating a problem without asking how it got there or why it was there.

I almost want to say this is an example of White guilt where White people want to punish someone for saying something racial because they know its wrong but lacking the ability to learn from it. It is Black people who have had a history of forcing the racial dialogue, men like James Baldwin and Malcolm X that said the issue is NOT Black people but White people understanding the monster they have created and needing to learn how to fight it, not run from it or respond to it like children.

So like Coldplay - let's talk.

This leads me into Point No. 3 - what Reid said was poorly arranged (who since the 1970's has used the word Negro in everyday speech?) but unfortunately how many people have thought the same thing.

How many people saw Barack Obama after his 2004 speech - a well-spoken man who didn't appear threatening like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton - and felt comfortable enough to believe what he said.

I dont even have to use the President. I'll use myself. As a Black male who's pretty wellspoken, I've had people express surprise at the way I talk and carry myself. Growing up (and I know this is true for most Black kids), it was understood that speaking properly would help you get places which is why Mom corrected me all the time on it.

Think about when you watch sports. How often are you surprised when you hear a Black athlete speak well and sound like he has some sense. It's something that I've had the chance to see up close covering sports - people gravitate towards those who are well-spoken and have the ability to express themselves well.

The light-skinned comment goes back to old beliefs that light-skinned Blacks were given favorable treatment because they weren't as dark and able to pass. I never bought into it (didn't even know about until last decade) but it is historical.

So with all of that said, Harry Reid was a fool for how he said it. But let's be honest, how many people thought that about Obama but never said it. Yes he won on his credentials but to assume it didn't cross some older people's minds is naive.

Finally - and this is why Reid should not resign/be fired - what he said was not as bad as Trent Lott in 2002. Just to recap what Lott said as Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday: When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over the years, either."

Thurmond ran for President in 1948 under a segregationist agenda and Lott indirectly implied that electing a racist would've made our country easier. Now my friends, is that similar to what Harry Reid said. Are we that stupid to not see the difference?

Lott made his comments publicly. Reid made his privately and off-the-cuff. While there is no difference in them both being insensitive, the weight the comments carry is far different. Implying America would be better off with a segregationist as the President vs. implying that a President would be electable because of skin color and how he speaks.

There are several degrees of murder. Several degrees of burn marks. Several degrees of various crimes (larceny for examples). All treated according to their level and none treated the same way. Why can't comments be given the same measuring scale when actions clearly are (and actions speak louder than words).

It goes back to why I said Reid should keep his job in the first place - people have said far worse and as a society we should be able to judge how to punish people appropriately. What he said was foolish and ignorant - but he's no Trent Lott. Give him the hell he deserves and let's keep it moving since we still lack the vocab/ability to discuss this appropriately.

Why do we seek to punish people when the target of someone's words considers the matter closed? Says more about us than them.


  1. Great write up (as usual), Evan.

    Like you said, I had that same thought (as Reid), but I know why I thought it, and it was coming from of a place of knowledge of our society, not of racism. I mentioned to friends "If a Black man is to be elected, he needs to speak well. It will make White people feel safe..." That's pretty much it.

    And on the opposite coin of "Negro dialect" is when I hear Black people say (to another Black guy) something like "Man, that guy talks like a White guy"... what is wrong with that? What does that even mean? All of us, in all races, have preconceived notions of how we should speak and act. Sad. Actually, Chris Rock did a bit that reminds me of that.

    But I do have a prejudice, and that is against dummies. I can not stand people who misuse the English language. It is a huge pet peeve, and lets be honest, if you can't spell and use proper grammar, then how is anyone suppose to understand what you mean?! All the "cool" kids who use texting shortcuts, well, guess what? You are idiots. You are limiting who you can communicate with. The better English you can speak/write, the more people around the world you can connect with. By speaking with intense slang, you disconnect from society, you go outside of the box. Why would anyone be accepting of that?

    We need better education for everyone, parents must be more involved, but I digress. Sorry for writing so much, but you got my fire burning. I think that's a good thing. :)

  2. Great analysis Rich. I was about to cite Chris Rock b/c he did a bit on speaking well being a requirement for success in the idea of some people.

    But I tell you what, I heard that speech all my life. "I talk like a White guy" or I speak proper. It is ignorant to assume that how you speak plays no role in how you are perceived. James Baldwin once said that how one speaks says the most about who you are, where you come from.

    I believe everyone speaks a certain way in different environments. The trick is knowing how to sound like you know what you're talking about and I believe young people today need

    We all knew that the first Black president would fit a certain criteria. But Harry Reid was foolish in how he said it.

    Haha I love great feedback. Long or short, as long as people think I'm good.