By Stuart Rothenberg
Is it hypocrisy, payback or a simple case of media “gotcha?” It’s probably all three.
But no matter what you call it, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) words as quoted in a new book by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin have had the nation’s capital and the national media abuzz since the weekend.
The authors wrote that the Nevada Democrat was “wowed” during the presidential campaign by Barack Obama’s “oratorical gifts” and believed that the country “was ready to embrace a black presidential candidate.” They then quoted Reid as citing Obama’s assets as being a “light-skinned” African-American “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.”
In politics these days, it’s out of fashion to give your opponent the benefit of the doubt. Attack, attack and attack again is the way things are done. If your adversary says something that can be used to brand him or her as a racist — or some other intolerant, discriminating boor — so much the better.
So it isn’t surprising that Republicans and their talk show allies are on the attack, even demanding Reid’s resignation.
As far as I can tell, Reid made two mistakes. First, he used the word “Negro,” which was how African-Americans were described years ago, when both Reid and I were much younger. That word has fallen out of favor and is now regarded by many as a racist term. The Senate Majority Leader should have known that.
And second, Reid offered a perfectly reasonable analysis of part of the reason why Obama was a credible candidate for president.
Of course, it’s a huge mistake these days to tell the truth if you are a politician. Stick to the script of repeating mindless platitudes and talking points. Journalists will complain privately about that approach, but they’ll jump on you the minute you actually say something “off message.”
During the campaign, many of us who regularly talk and write about politics commented about Obama’s appeal, noting that most white Americans, who still constitute about three-quarters of the electorate, felt comfortable with him — with his speaking style, thoughtfulness, apparent coolness under pressure and emphasis on bringing people together.
Obama and Tiger Woods, both of whom have mixed race ancestry, transcended race in the white community, even though the election returns demonstrated that African-Americans viewed the Illinois Senator as a black political figure.
Reid’s reference to “Negro dialect” drew some chuckles on Monday morning’s “Morning Joe,” an MSNBC program that doesn’t exhibit the strong ideological bias that the network’s prime time schedule has.
Host Joe Scarborough seemed to mock Reid when he laughingly asked Georgetown University Professor Michael Eric Dyson, an African-American, “What is a Negro dialect?”
“You tell me, brother, I don’t know,” said Dyson, never at a loss for words. “Is it like this ... What’s up, you know what I’m sayin’...”
The exchange was odd, to say the least, considering that Dyson was described by Georgetown 16 months ago as “a renowned scholar and cultural critic on issues of race, religion, popular culture, and contemporary issues in the African American Community.” He was hired as a “university professor,” according to the Washington Post, which “gives him free reign across academic departments.”
Black English (or black dialect) has been a topic of discussion for the past few decades, at least in some academic circles. It wasn’t that long ago that “Ebonics” generated considerable discussion in the mainstream media.
New York University’s Linguistics Department currently offers a course, African American English II, which the department describes this way: “African American English is a dialect of American English that has influenced U.S. and world cultures.”
Linguistics 605 in the Department of Linguistics at Ohio State University is titled “An Introduction to African-American English.” According to the course description, it is an “Introduction to the structure and history of the varieties of English used by African-Americans and the relationship between language use and socio-cultural context.”
Professor John R. Rickford, the Martin Luther King Jr. centennial professor of Stanford University’s Department of Linguistics, whose books include “African American Vernacular English and Spoken Soul: The Story of Black English,” has made a career of writing about black speech.
And last year, the Center for the Study of African American Language at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst hosted a Summer Dialect Research Project that addressed a number of questions, including: “What rules and principles govern the sentence structure, sound system, and meaning and pragmatics of AAE [African American English]? To what extent is it really different from other dialects of English spoken in the Southern United States?”
Anyway, it’s pretty clear to anyone without a partisan ax to grind that Reid was noting that unlike Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, who often speak with a black preacher’s cadence and emotion, Obama rarely does.
Yes, on rare occasions during the campaign, I heard Obama fall into more of a preacher’s style when he was in front of an African-American audience. But more often than not, he sounded like your neighbor if you are a middle-upper-class white who lives in the suburbs. I assume that’s exactly what Reid meant.
I can’t imagine Reid being forced from office or from his post, and he shouldn’t be. That won’t stop Republicans from using Reid as a punching bag, the way Democrats wailed on then-Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) in 2002 after he uttered some meaningless words of flattery on the occasion of an aged Senator’s birthday. What goes around, comes around, I guess.
This column first appeared in Roll Call on January 14, 2010. 2010 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.
Monday, January 18, 2010
By Stuart Rothenberg