Sen. Reid Takes Heat For Descriptions Of Obama, 'Negro Dialect'

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is under fire for comments he made in 2008, referencing Obama as a "light-skinned" African-American "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one." Host Michel Martin speaks with Omar Wasow, a PhD candidate at Harvard for Politics and Government, for more on the controversy. Wasow recently penned an article for the online magazine theRoot.com, titled "Was Harry Reid Right?"

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

More on the word Negro. Who would have thought we'd be spending so much time talking about this word? But the census is offering the option of describing oneself as Negro, once again, as a race identifier, and some people take issue with that. We'll hear more about that in a minute.

But first, the term popped up again, as you may have heard, because Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid privately said that he thought President Obama, now President Obama was a great candidate in part, because he is, I quote, "light-skinned," end quote, with no Negro dialect unless he wanted to have one. He made this comment, two reporters picked it up and it surfaced in a new book recently published.

Well, Reid apologized to the president and the president accepted the apology. But RNC Chairman Michael Steele, among other Republicans, is saying this is racist and Reid should step down. But others are saying was Harry Reid really wrong?

Omar Wasow just published a piece in the online journal The Root, saying - was Harry Reid right? Mr. Wasow is currently a Ph.D. candidate in African-American studies and government at Harvard University. He's one of the founders of blackplanet.com. And he joins us now on the phone from Cambridge. Welcome, thank you for joining us. Happy New Year.

Mr. OMAR WASOW (Ph.D. Candidate, African-American Studies, Harvard University): Happy New Year. Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: You wrote that the substance of Reid's comments is spot on. How so?

Mr. WASOW: Well, there are two core points that Reid is making. One is that a light-skinned candidate has better odds of winning than a darker-skinned candidate, and that talking with a sort of black dialect or speaking kind of black English might have negative consequences politically. And both - there's strong evidence and research that suggests Reid is right.

So, for example, there's a political scientist who did a study where she presented people - white voters were randomly given a candidate, a governor's candidate, where the descriptions were exactly the same except for one detail, which is that some people got a white candidate, some people got a light-skinned black candidate, and some people got a dark-skinned black candidate. And as you might predict, the lighter-skinned candidate did significantly better than the darker-skinned candidate in her study.

And so, that's the kind of evidence that suggests that Reid is actually talking about something that's a real dynamic in American politics. And - yeah.

MARTIN: We could parse this whole question of whether Obama is light-skinned or not - and I don't know how interesting it would be - but I am puzzled by that because he is identifiably African-American. I don't think there's any question about his racial identity, I don't. So I'm just, I'm a little puzzled that that's - huh?

Mr. WASOW: These are subtle things but it's, you know, there's clearly a continuum of color in the black community. And to use the term that is very commonly used in the black community about, you know, people being color struck. This country is definitely very conscious of those sorts of gradations, even though we don't tend to talk about them much.

And so, while you're right that Obama is clearly of African descent, he's much fairer than, say, Wesley Snipes. And that's the kind of subtlety that, in some form or another, people seem to respond to when they're in the voting booth.

MARTIN: And you did also mention the point about linguistics 101, that everybody's style shifts or code switches depending on the context, politicians especially. So, but what about the pushback that he's receiving that this was racist as it were. That Michael Steele, the chairman of the Republican National Committee - we've just been talking about his problems - said on Meet the Press this weekend that there's a double standard at work, that had Reid been a Republican, he would be criticized more than he is now. I'll just play the short clip so you can hear what he had to say.

Mr. MICHAEL STEELE (Chairman, Republican National Committee): When Democrats get caught saying racist things, you know, an apology is enough. If that had been Mitch McConnell saying that about an African-American candidate for president of the United States, trust me, this chairman in the DNC would be screaming for his head very much as they were with Trent Lott.

But I can assure you that if I had, as national chairman, said that, well, it's behind us and he's apologized, let's move on, no one would be accepting that. There has to be a consequence here if the standard is the one that was set in 2002 with Trent Lott.

Mr. DAVID GREGORY (Host, Meet the Press): And it - is the consequence that Senator Reid should step down as majority leader?

Mr. STEELE: I believe it is. From my perspective, whether he steps down today or I retire him in November, either way he will not be the leader in 2011.

MARTIN: Do you buy that, Omar, that this is comparable to Trent Lott's comments saying that the world would be a better place if Strom Thurmond had been elected president when he ran in 1948?

Mr. WASOW: What's remarkable is that Steele was making an argument of sort of moral equivalent between Reid and Lott. And when you look at the intention, when you look at the context, when you look at the content, they're not equivalent at all. And the conservative critics have often criticized the left for sort of this inability to make distinctions in moral hierarchies, and there's nothing racist in what Reid said.

He used an archaic term but he was describing a sort of, kind of realpolitik of race in America. There's nothing racist about that. Whereas Lott's statement that America would be better off if a segregationist candidate had won and that the problems we've seen wouldn't exist is, in intention and in content, is substantively different. It is sort of advocating segregation. And so, there's just no moral equivalence.

MARTIN: Well, what about the question of stupidity. I mean, do you think that in this day and this age perhaps the Senate majority leader or the leader of the majority party in the Senate ought to know better or do you think not? If he's just speaking the truth, it doesn't matter, in your view.

Mr. WASOW: Well, I think, I mean it's clearly - I mean, it was not smart to say this to journalists. This is a conversation that you have, you know, behind closed doors as, again, a kind of realpolitik, but it doesn't strike me as stupid in the sense as it's somehow un-savvy about race in America. I think, in fact, what's more striking to me is that it reflects a level of nuance in understanding how race and politics interact that I wouldn't have expected from Harry Reid.

MARTIN: And what kind of reaction are you getting to your piece? I know it's just recently out. I'm just curious. What are people saying?

Mr. WASOW: Yeah, it's been, you know, a lot of people make the comment that there's a double standard, and I reject that. But a lot of people have said thank you. This is, you know, it's like people are making a mountain out of a molehill. And, you know, to pick up on your point about the census as well, there are organizations like the United Negro College Fund, like the Council of Negro Women that use the term Negro. And so, there's this inability by, I think, the broader, really a lot of the media, but also people like Steele to make distinctions between how people use certain words.

Negro can be an epithet in some context, but generally it can be a, you know, pretty neutral term or even a term of endearment. And we should be sophisticated enough to tell which way it's being used.

MARTIN: That was Omar Wasow. He helped launch blackplanet.com. Now he is pursuing a Ph.D. in African-American studies and government at Harvard. And he was kind enough to join us on the phone from Cambridge. If you want to read the piece we're talking about, we'll have a link on our Web site. Omar, thank you.

Mr. WASOW: Thank you, Michel.

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