Op-Ed: Reid's Word Choice Reveals Character Flaw

Read Keli Goff's op-ed in the Huffington Post, "Harry Reid's 'Negro' Problem"

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has apologized for referring to President Obama, while he was running for president, as "light-skinned" with "no Negro dialect." The comments prompted many Republicans to call on Reid to resign. But political analyst Keli Goff says that although she's not ready to label Reid a racist, his poor choice of words reveal a great deal about his character.

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REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

Now, to the Opinion Page. Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, apologized for describing Barack Obama as electable because he was, quote, "light skinned with no Negro dialect." He made the comments during the 2008 campaign. President Obama accepted Reid's apology and said the book is closed. Well, not quite. Many Republicans, including, the head of the GOP, Michael Steele, want Reid to step down.

Mr. MICHAEL STEELE (Chairman, Republican National Committee): There's a big double standard here. And the thing about it that's interesting is that, when Democrats get caught saying racist things, you know, an apology is enough. If that have 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 like they were with Trent Lott.

Mr. DAVID GREGORY (Moderator, "Meet the Press"): Is the consequence that Senator Reid should step down as majority leader?

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

ROBERTS: That's GOP Chairman Michael Steele with David Gregory on NBC's "Meet the Press" over the weekend. The Opinion Pages unsurprisingly are divided on this one: Some argue Reid should resign, others say forgive and forget, Keli Goff lands somewhere in the middle. In an op-ed in the Huffington Post, she argues that while Reid's choice of words was problematic, what troubles her more is what those words tells us about him. And so that's the question we'll ask you: what did these comments tell you about Senator Harry Reid?

800-989-8255 is our phone number. Email: talk@npr.org. And you can always get into the conversation on our Web site, go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Keli Goff is a political analyst and contributor to the Huffington Post on the Loop21.com. She's in our bureau in New York. Keli Goff, welcome to the show.

Ms. KELI GOFF (Political Analyst, Huffington Post): Pleasure to be back.

ROBERTS: Do you think, based on these remarks, that Harry Reid is racist?

Ms. GOFF: No. And I try to make that pretty clear in my piece, although it's been very interesting to see some of the reactions. Sometimes you wonder if people actually bother reading pieces that you write before they leave comments. But no, I don't think it tells me that he's racist. What it does tell me is that, he has some perhaps racial sensitivity issues which often come from people who don't actually interact with people of different races very often.

And that's what I think became crystal clear is that often - and he's not the only person guilty of this on either side of the racial aisle, let me just say that. But what I've often seen happen, particularly with older people - I'll go ahead and say that - is that when there's a lack of experience in terms of interacting with someone of different race or a different culture, it becomes a lot easier to have these sort of slip-ups, where you say something that's a little awkward.

Last night, I was talking to friends who are also my age and of my generation - I'm a millennial or Gen Y or whatever you wish to call us. And we were laughing about all of us having sort of, oops, grandpa moments, if that's what you want to call it, where someone like your grandfather says something that makes you cringe and you just pray and hope that they never say it in front of your friend who's of a different race or culture. And that's sort of where this fell.

ROBERTS: So if Senator Reid were more surrounded by a more multi-culti-crowd, what do you think he would have done differently?

Ms. GOFF: Well, that's - it's not just about that, Rebecca. Let me be very clear - and this is one of the points I want to make in the piece -is it's more than surrounding yourself with multi-culti-crowd. It's about surrounding yourself with people of different races and different cultures on an equal level, and on an equal playing field. Because you know, I've seen this happen before where you have a conversation with someone and they say, I have no problem with someone of a different race. I have, you know, I have a good friend who's black or a good friend who's Hispanic. And the person that they're calling a good friend turned out to be the nanny that works for them or turned out to be their housekeeper. And I've literally seen this happened. I've had conversations. I've had white friends who've told me they have parents who are convinced that their closest friend in the world is black and they just never connected that it's the person who raised them perhaps, right?

And so, I think that that's really where the disconnect is, is getting to know people who are different on a substantive level, not just on a superficial level. And again, you know, this is not something that's a race-specific problem. I mean, you can find people of all races who sort of keep to themselves, and they say, I don't have a prejudiced bone in my body. I - know plenty of people who are white, or plenty of people who are black and we're friends. We all get along, but they don't really know anything that person or about their culture. And I think that's where this incident sort of came from and was demonstrative of.

ROBERTS: So using that definition, if Harry Reid had close black friends or people he considered equals, what would have be different about this incident?

Ms. GOFF: Well, first of all, I don't think he would have used the word Negro. Because, you know, none of my white friends, as far as I know, have - well, in my presence, have never used the term Negro, and as far as I know, behind my back have not used the term Negro. I mean, perhaps I'm being incredibly naive, but I don't think so. And, in fact, some of them, you know, who don't follow politics as closely as the rest of us, who weren't aware of it until I mentioned it and said, oh, you know, I'm writing this piece. And they cringed when I said it. I mean, they were visibly uncomfortable when I said the word, oh, you know, and they said Negro dialect. I mean, they made this sort of face like, ew.

And so that's the thing number one, is that statement was - just not have been the word of that - use of that word just would not have been possible, even if he's older, right? Because even if he's older, if he had someone who he talked to these issues with on a regular basis, he would've - that word would've been retired when it got retired in popular culture about 30 years ago. And that's what I think was sort of telling about this.

ROBERTS: Well, it's interesting. You said that there's a generational component to this. And I think the word Negro brings that up. I mean, we're seeing that in the context of the census...

Ms. GOFF: Right.

ROBERTS: ...where there's actually an older generation of black people who prefer that word or want to use that word.

Ms. GOFF: Well, so they say. You know, what's been interesting about me following that story as well is if I haven't seen the black person, the older black person on the record who they're claiming prefer to use that word. Because - so I find that a little suspect. That sounds a bit to me like someone is sort of - is now second-guessing and saying, well, this is how it happened because I have yet to meet that black person who prefers to be called Negro. I'm not saying there aren't out there. I just haven't met them and I haven't seen them quoted in any articles about this story.

And what I would say, just to that point, is my grandfather, who passed away about 15 years ago and he was 90 at the time, and, you know, he used the word, I remember, as a child, how funny I thought it was that he still used the word colored. I mean, it just used to sort of gave me the giggles. And I'd say, oh, grandpa said the word colored, you know? And my parents would explain, well, that's the word that he grew up with and that's the word he knows. And that was about 15 years ago before he passed. So there is a generational component, but yet again, my grandfather's a good example in that he did have some interactions with white people, but he also lived on a farm that was pretty isolated and things were different when he came of age, so there wasn't a lot of interaction, so it was different.

The point I was making, really, with this peace, though, Rebecca, is that when you're someone who's supposed to be in a leadership position of a party that claims to be committed to issues that benefit people of color, then wouldn't it stand to reason that to learn about the people that you claim to want to help, that you'd spend some substantive time with them? And I think this incident shows us that he probably has not and does not.

ROBERTS: You say in the piece as a black woman, I could make being offended by things people say a full time job, but I choose not to. Instead, I always consider the source and consider the intent. And as you say, this - in this case, the source is someone who's supposed to be a leader of the party that claims to be of diversity and inclusion. What about the intent?

Ms. GOFF: Well, that's what's interesting, right? Because I do mentioned this in piece. The intent was that he's actually trying to help the first black president get elected, right? And that's, I think, what sort of negates a lot of this faux outrage that he should step down. He should resign. He's a racist, too.

Well, let's look at the definition of racist. The last time I checked, it meant that you didn't like people of a different race. So I find that hard to believe that if he really was so anti-black, he'd be trying desperately to get a black man elected president of the United States.

And that's what's sort of - I think again, goes back to what we talked about is the difference between racism and someone who has just doesn't really have a substantive understanding of people of a different race, for whatever reason. Because, again, the irony is he was trying to talk about all the things that do make President Obama electable, and this is the word choice he used. I think what one person quoted the White House as saying is that they consider him someone with a tin ear and a golden heart, and I think that sort of comes through it a bit in that he was trying to be helpful and not in a particularly fashion to himself.

ROBERTS: Well, in the considered-the-source vein, you tell a story in the piece of meeting a young man who used the term colored, and in your mind, that was a teachable moment instead of a moment to be offended.

Ms. GOFF: Right. Because what was so funny about this story, and I - you know, I remember it so vividly, because it had never happened before, so it sort of stayed with me, is that he clearly was trying very hard to make friends. And that's what made it so profound to me, is that he was clearly - I could tell he hadn't interacted with a lot of black people. He essentially made that known when he talked about what small town he was from, which was - didn't have a lot of minorities, still pretty segregated in some ways.

And he was clearly going out of his way, I could tell, to try to make me feel comfortable, and yet he's telling this story about, you know, how he - he said, oh, you know, I met another young woman and she's a woman who - he was just telling me this story about her, and she sounded wonderful. And then he says, you know, she was colored, too, and she - and he kept talking. And I could tell that, okay, I don't think that that's the right word, but I also don't think that he meant it, you know, that he meant anything nasty by it.

So, hmm, how I should handle this? And I was thinking if I, you know, -there are a couple of options you have in situations like that. But you have to think about - at least I do - what's the long-term takeaway, right? So if I had reacted in a fashion that embarrassed him, that would probably been the last time he tried to - he'd say, I tried that once. That didn't go so well. I don't know that I ever need to talk to any of, quote, unquote, "them" again. So, instead, you know, I considered it a teachable moment.

And look, those pop up all the time, in varying degrees. You know, I've had people who I'm friendly with, who've said things that have made me uncomfortable. And again, I try to consider the source. Is this someone who's been a friend to me, who cares about me, and I just don't think they understand the context of what they're saying. Let's try to talk through it.

ROBERTS: But in the case of the majority leader of the Democratic Party, even if you consider the source and consider the intent and don't come down on a feeling that he was being intentionally insensitive at some way, he should know better. He should have more life experience that teaches him better.

Ms. GOFF: Well, one would hope so. Sure. I mean, I would absolutely hope so. I would absolutely hope so. And if anything, I actually hope as -just as I said about that young man I met in college, I called that a teachable moment. I hope this one is, as well. I think that a lot of people, and I've - this is not the first time I've said this. I mean, I've discussed this in an entire chapter in my book, "Party Crashing," which you guys have had me on to discuss before, that I think a lot of people coast by on the idea: It's enough for me to vote right, right? It's enough for me to think right. I'm a member of the right party. I'm a liberal, that means - that's more than enough to show that I am committed and I get "it" - it in quotations, right?

And I think that this is a perfect example of how sometimes it's really - it's about more than that, and a lot of times people don't realize it. And I think that hopefully after this, he will. It's - look, it's sort of a continuation of a conversation when we look back on the beer summit that was at the White House, right, where people think I'm a nice person, I'm a good person, that's more than enough. And that's enough to get by in life, but sometimes it's not really enough to continue this conversation that our country began 200 years ago when it comes to race.

ROBERTS: My guest is Keli Goff. She's a contributor to the Huffington Post and to TheLoop21.com. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's hear from Rich in Rochester, New York. Rich, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

RICH (Caller): Hi. How are you doing today?

ROBERTS: Good. How are you?

RICH: Hi. I would say I have to agree with Keli on a lot of the things that she's saying. But I think the - using this term teachable moment, which, to me, I'm beginning to - I think is being used ad nauseam. But I think the real issue here is what the statement - what he said.

Now, yes, he is - the guy seems like he got stuck on some time warp from 1967 in using the word Negro, but the truth of the matter is why isn't it - the real issue needs to be addressing that - the whole thing that Obama was electable because he's light-skinned or because he doesn't speak like a African-American from the ghetto or - and I think as black man, the biggest - one of the big things that's not being taught is that he doesn't have the African-American slavery heritage that has to be looked at and dealt with.

I think these are some of the things that need to be spoken to that aren't being spoken to. I think this moment is a time that that can be brought up and dealt with. Because those are - I think that's very true. I just don't think - I think people gloss over those - I could use the word fact, but I would say more of my opinion on that. I think he is the lighter-skinned, non-threatening, non-African-American with the slavery heritage that things - those are things that didn't had to be dealt with in electing him. And I think those are issues that need to be discussed, too, in this. So it has...

ROBERTS: Yeah. Keli - let's give Keli Goff a chance to respond. Keli?

Ms. GOFF: Well, I would agree with the statement of fact on that. I think what I would disagree with is that it hasn't been talked about. It actually was discussed quite a bit during the election. Perhaps it didn't percolate enough to some of the quote, unquote, "mainstream media." But even that's not entirely true, because when the New York Times did the piece, it wasn't called "Is Obama Black Enough," but that's pretty much the summary takeaway of the piece was.

And it really did delve into every single issue he mentioned. And I did discuss certainly the skin color thing on my piece, which I have written about before a couple of times, actually. It just hasn't gotten covered quite as much as it is now - thanks to Reed - in that it is true that in our country, historically, most racial barriers - well, let me clarify -ones that are subjective, in subjective fields, not objective ones like sports, where it's based almost purely on how many, you know, baskets you can make or balls you can hit - are usually broken by those who are lighter skinned or perceived to have some white heritage.

And that is true, and I discussed it in this piece. I've discussed it in others, and other people have written about it. I think, again, it just sort of got pushed to the fore, where everyone's willing to talk about it because a white person in position of power, frankly, said it out loud. And so I think a lot of African-Americans assume that that was sort of a secret in our community that we notice it and no one else noticed it. Harry Reid made it clear that other people notice it.

And as far as his heritage, I think you're spot on, and that has been written about, the fact that there was a perception of President Obama, for lack of a better term, had less of a chip on his shoulder because his forefathers were not enslaved. There was just - it as almost like he just seem less angry and less threatening because he wasn't holding a grudge about that. So I do think that there's truth in what you said.

ROBERTS: Rich, thanks for your call. Let's hear from Roe(ph) in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Roe, welcome to the TALK OF THE NATION.

ROE (Caller): Hi. Yeah. I mean, aside from his obvious bad, poor use of words, using the word Negro, yeah, what they were just talking about - well, it speaks to a problem in society that still exists, and I think a lot of people don't want to admit it still exists, the fact that a lighter skinned black man is more electable than a darker skinned black man, the fact that he speaks eloquently, basically speaks like a white person, that definitely makes him appeal to more of a broader base.

And I kind of just wonder if some of the people who are now calling for Harry Reid to step down, they're kind of using his use of the word Negro as an excuse to kind of fight back over him pointing out the deeper problem in society.

ROBERTS: Roe, thanks for your call. Keli Goff, we have just a few more seconds here.

Ms. GOFF: Well, to his question, I mean, honestly, the first question I have for anyone who called him racist and asked for him to resign is what exactly about the statement was racist? I mean, and I'm not even saying that to be funny. Like I, you know, I watched Liz Cheney make the case of this was racist and he should resign. But no one's been able to articulate yet for me what was racist about the statement and what was inaccurate about the statement, with the exception of the fact that he used an outdated word that used to be the legal work for black.

ROBERTS: Keli Goff is a contributor to the Huffington Post and to TheLoop21.com. We have a link to her op-ed at npr.org if you click on TALK OF THE NATION. Keli Goff, thank you so much.

Ms. GOFF: Thanks, Rebecca.

ROBERTS: Tomorrow, we will talk about the economy and how things have changed.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Rebecca Roberts in Washington.

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