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Harry Reid Shouldn't Have Said It Out Loud, but How Many Think It?

5 years ago
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It was one of the great lines said by an iconic character in a ground-breaking television show. When Mike "Meathead" Stivic wrongly guessed Harry Belafonte as the black guy Archie Bunker ferried in his taxi, the sage of Queens "corrected" him: Belafonte wasn't black, he said, just a "good-looking white guy dipped in caramel."
Archie Bunker's character was a comedic caricature, of course. But one reason "All in the Family" stayed on top of the ratings was because Archie said what a lot of like-minded people thought. And that's no joke. When some people think about black people, if they think about them at all, they rank them into a sort of racial hierarchy, as Archie did with Belafonte and his actual taxicab passenger, Sammy Davis Jr. How "black" is that person? It's not the convoluted categories of mulatto, quadroon and octoroon once favored in Louisiana, but Archie's line got a laugh because everyone knew what he meant. It no more needed a translator than the title of Chris Rock's recent documentary, "Good Hair."

Sen. Harry Reid is no Archie Bunker, though from the state of the polls in Nevada, even the fictional Archie might beat him in a head-to-head contest right about now. But all the outrage at Reid's admittedly clumsy, politically calculated remark is both cynical and hilarious.

During the campaign, he said Barack Obama's chances for the presidency were good because the country – read whites in America – were ready for someone "light-skinned" who spoke with "no Negro dialect," as reported in "Game Change," a book detailing the 2008 race by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann.
"I deeply regret using such a poor choice of words," Reid said in a statement. "I sincerely apologize for offending any and all Americans, especially African Americans, for my improper comments."

I can't know all that was on his mind, or whether he meant "black dialect" as the rhythmic cadence of a preacher or full-on "Amos 'n' Andy."

I do know there's a reason that for some, black beauty begins with Beyonce and ends with Halle Berry. I still recall that when Middle America's favorite football hero, pitchman and bad actor O.J. Simpson became public enemy No. 1, Time magazine's cover wasted no time in darkening him up. Tiger Woods – who invented the word "Cablinasian" to reflect his Caucasian, black, American Indian and Asian background – is today all "thug life" bravado on the cover of Vanity Fair, transformed by his troubles into a black man, though no black person I know is rushing to claim him.

Not long ago, I took an archaeological tour of James Madison's Montpelier in Virginia. From the main house you could the see the spot where the house slaves' quarters stood. It wasn't as grand as where the master lived, but investigative clues discovered it had wood floors and a few amenities not awarded field slaves, who lived far out of sight. Traditionally, those house slaves were the "lighter-skinned" progeny of whites whose control over their property extended to the sexual. Those closest to white by blood were allowed a tantalizing closeness to the power they could not share. After slavery, those who were light enough to pass into white society sometimes did, with the reluctant acceptance of black family members aware that in America of the time, disappearing into whiteness meant a promotion to the status of human being.

Who hasn't heard the ditty: "If you're yellow, you're mellow. If you're brown, stick around. If you're black, get back." In black high society, some private clubs followed a paper bag test (if you were browner than a paper bag, you were out of luck). Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has recalled painful prejudice he felt based on his dark complexion.

I missed out on a part in the fourth-grade play because my light-skinned, long-haired friend "looked like a princess," according to my nun nemesis. That I stole the show in my solo number as "The Little Blue Angel" of the title still, I am slightly embarrassed to say, gives me some measure of satisfaction. The history is long, it hurts and it's not yet over, as much as America would like it to be.

In the 2008 election, more than a few white folks – breathing a sigh of relief – told me they believed Barack Obama wasn't really black because he had a white parent, ignoring that few people white or black in America are pure anything. For some it was a just a failure to "get" that there have always been people with a white parent who self-identify as black because that is how society sees them and they're OK with it, proud to be identified with people who survived and thrived despite crushing, sometimes fatal acts of racism. What does it matter? Each person is an individual with a unique set of quirks and qualities, and we're all Americans, right?

A subset got downright angry when Obama called himself African American, as though, since he was given an out, why would he not take it? "Isn't he proud of his mother?" they asked me. Yes, and I'm sure she was equally as proud of her black son.

In others, you could see the familiar mind game in which people with a stereotype of a certain group declare a person who doesn't fit it as somehow different or exceptional because that's so much easier than changing that stereotypical view.

Reid didn't reference the twisted history, the generations of misunderstandings and missed connections. But his remarks acknowledged he had them in mind, albeit for a self-interested, politically advantageous reason. As usual in this partisan time, Reid's comments have lost any meaning except political cudgel. It's easier than people really discussing if his words have some truth and why in 2010, categorizing an entire race into divisions as meaningless as skin tone might be troubling.

President Obama's statement tried to cool the situation: "I accepted Harry's apology without question because I've known him for years, I've seen the passionate leadership he's shown on issues of social justice and I know what's in his heart. As far as I am concerned, the book is closed." He concentrated on Reid's record, not his words. What a concept!

Among those who are loving this? Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele, who has taken heat for his own verbal gaffes, is calling for Reid to step down. Steele compares Reid's statement to then Sen. Trent Lott waxing nostalgic about Strom Thurmond. Democratic National Committee chairman Tim Kaine countered – logically to me -- that there is no comparison between Reid, who enthusiastically supported the presidential candidacy of a black man, and Lott, who was praising a man who stood for, filibustered for, separation of the races.

Bill Clinton must be feeling relieved, as well. As my colleague Carl M. Cannon reports, "Game Change" also "asserts on page 218 that after Obama won the Iowa caucuses, Clinton called Kennedy to press for an endorsement from the influential Massachusetts liberal. But the call backfired, according to the authors, and left Kennedy deeply offended."
"The day after Iowa, he phoned Kennedy and pressed for an endorsement, making the case for his wife. But Bill then went on, belittling Obama in a manner that deeply offended Kennedy. Recounting the conversation later to a friend, Teddy fumed that Clinton had said, A few years ago, this guy would have been getting us coffee."
As long as Reid is apologizing, Clinton can dodge a comment at least as insensitive and can avoid once again shoring up his increasingly tattered race-related bona fides. Clinton's lucky that Reid's comment is more unusual than his own run-of-the-mill insult about Obama as fetcher of coffee.

Just a few days away from the holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., is it too much to ask that we honor his memory by finally having that honest conversation on race and privilege that we threaten to do each time there's a blow-up?

Though we can't afford not to in an increasingly diverse and divided country, the track record isn't promising.

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