Harry Reid's Remarks About Race, or Much Ado About Nothing

Advance publicity for Game Change, the new book by John Heileman and Mark Halperin about the 2008 presidential race, brought with it a furor about some reportedly "outrageous" racial remarks Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid apparently made about then-presidential candidate Barack Obama. 

Republican national chairman Michael Steele — no stranger to controversy himself — was quickly joined by Senators John Cornyn (R- Texas) and John Kyl (R-Arizona) in calling for Reid's immediate resignation. Meanwhile, conservative commentator Liz Cheney pronounced upon the racist character of Reid's words; Reid's remarks, she insists, are "clearly racist" and "outrageous."  

Reid, who just spent the last several months cajoling, bargaining with, and most likely threatening his  colleagues to get a bill for what might well be President Obama's most important legacy (health care reform) through the Senate, found himself in what must have been an odd and uncomfortable situation with a man who justifibly owes him a great deal of gratitude right about now.  So, conversations about race being what they are, Reid promptly apologized to the President and had his apology quickly accepted.  

What is it that Harry Reid said?  Apparently, he opined 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.'"

Is that really so racist?  True, Reid used a term, "Negro," that has fallen out of favor with many African Americans.  It might have been nicer had he used a term like "African American Vernacular English."  But simply acknowledging that certain styles of talk are associated with people from different racial groups, and that those styles are differentially valued in various contexts, can hardly be considered racist.

Nor should it be considered racist to acknowledge that lighter-skinned African Americans are more likely to succeed in a society like our own that valorizes the lighter skin colors associated with European ancestry.  Reid was merely giving voice anecdotally to a phenomenon that economists have found to be statistically verifiable.  A 2006 study by economists Arthur Goldsmith, Darrick Hamilton and William Darity, Jr. published in The American Economic Review 96(2) indicates a substantial wage advantage among black males (about 7 percent) for having light skin.  A 2007 follow-up article published in Journal of Human Resources 42(4) further develops and tests the theory behind what the authors describe as employers' "preference for whiteness."  

In other words, Reid's remarks are not racist—unless noticing and talking about race are inherently racist activities.  And there's the rub.  After all, it is much harder to see, diagnose, and redress racial inequality if one cannot talk about it for fear of being labeled a racist. 

The truth is that people in this country desperately need to talk about race.  As a powerful system of social distinction, race is central to all individuals' experiences and to the workings of society.  And, if we are going to really talk about race, we need to be able to make mistakes and use the wrong words sometimes.  We need to be able to ask questions that might seem ignorant (may in fact be ignorant), so that we can learn about what we didn't know before.  

So did Reid need to apologize?  Not to President Obama.  After all, if Obama didn't already understand the truth of what Reid observed, then he couldn't have run such a successful political campaign. I suppose that Reid needed to apologize because the level of discourse about race in this country is at such a woefully low level that doing so was the quickest way to put the matter behind him.  The sad thing is that Reid's apology, by shutting down the issue, does nothing to illuminate the dynamics behind how race is actually being done in this situation.

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