Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Teachable Moment in Harry Reid’s Candid Comments

Perhaps the best thing to come out of the hypocritical and out-sized attacks upon U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid may be the sober realization of just how far the country is from entering a post-racial era.

Appraising Barack Obama’s electoral chances a private conversation during the presidential campaign, Reid is reported to have essentially acknowledged what has been confirmed countless times by social science research: light-skinned African Americans who speak what is widely accepted as standard American English are less likely to be negatively prejudged by white Americans by surface criteria and thus stand a better chance of success in society.

For stating what is basically a matter of fact documented by historians, social scientists, and the life experiences of most African Americans, In short order, Reid was vilified as a racist and called upon to relinquish his post as majority leader. The story dominated the Sunday talk shows and has been pretty much been pontificated to death by pundits of every stripe.

The partisan attacks are understandable to the degree that they are in large measure related to the understated and under-rated way that Reid has deftly guided much of President Obama’s agenda through the Senate. But these have gained no traction in the wake of Reid’s quick apology for his remark and the “no problem” acceptance of his apology by President Obama, members of the Congressional Black Caucus, and other representatives of the supposedly offended group.

The Republican assault upon Reid is simultaneously comical and offensive, with both reactions arising from the transparent hypocrisy of those who choose to acknowledge race only when it can be used as a wedge to divide or distract.

What this latest dust up does reveal however, is just how far away we are as a nation from having honest dialogue about the past, present, and future of race in America. Jeremiah Wright, Henry Louis Gates, Eric Holder, Harry Reid: each of these names is now part of a recurring pattern where an heartfelt observation about America’s racial record or its structural consequences results in lots of heat but little light.

Pain, fear, and mistrust combine to turn most public attempts at racial understanding into grandstanding. We have no common vocabulary to talk about race. I wish that instead of apologizing, Senator Reid had instead elaborated. It could have been like one of those moments when Jesse Jackson talked about a heightened level of apprehension on possible engagement with a congregation of young black men. Who didn’t identify with that unexpected moment of candor?

Too often, the anguish of the nation’s festering racial wounds gets a brutal sanitization. If we can’t put a Band-Aid on the cancer, we just shut the door and hold our noses. [Greater Clevelanders, think Imperial Avenue].

Reid’s apology just added to the confusion. What was he apologizing for? For being politically incorrect in his politically correct observation? Who was he apologizing to? Was he apologizing to dark-skinned black people for the prejudices that white people carry that limit opportunities for jobs, education, housing, and political success? Was he apologizing to all black people for a private comment that may now lead to the outing of intra-racial color prejudice? Was he apologizing because that outing may give comfort to white people who can perversely find justification for their prejudices in the prejudice of others? Or maybe he was apologizing to white people for his having dared to acknowledge that they really aren’t as color-blind as they like to pretend?

I read a lot of online commentary and watched a lot of the television coverage of Reid’s statement in an attempt to get some kind of grasp on these issues. Much of what I read and heard was singularly unimpressive. But I did encounter one or two commentators who offered a special vantage. Jonathan Walton offered this observation:

“If anyone should be offended it should be the critical mass of Americans, of all racial, ethnic and political perspectives, who are so informed by the logic of white supremacy that they fail to interrogate the correlations between dark skin tone and negativity or lightness and positive attributes.”

And this:

“There is one major problem that I do have with Senator Reid’s statement, however. For him to contend that President Obama has “no Negro dialect” reveals a parochial comprehension of the breadth and artistic beauty of black vernacular culture. President Obama is most lauded for his gifted rhetorical ability. His persuasive use of narrative, rhythmic timing, and common employment of alliteration and assonance are all creative staples of the African American homiletic tradition.”

Speaking of black preachers, next week the nation observes Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Perhaps instead of recalling King’s wonderful rhetoric and soaring phrases, we might reflect on how much listening he must have done before he could articulate a vision so compelling that it helped to galvanize a national movement. Perhaps we could honor his memory this year by listening to others with his spirit of understanding and reconciliation, and then by following up, as he did, with some action.


John Ettorre said...

All true. But we should also note here that a mountain of anecdotal evidence suggests, and social science confirms, that people of color also treat people differently based on the gradations of their color. The upshot: it's a universal human problem, not merely a white one.

Richard said...

Absolutely true, John. I think the first quote from Walton makes that point, albeit perhaps too subtly. I wrote it directly in an earlier iteration of the post, and didn't notice its unintended removal until your comment.

The topic of intra-group color prejudice is likely one I will have occasion to re-visit at a future post.