Code Switching: Are We All Guilty?

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid continues to take heat for comments he made about President Obama and his lack of a "negro dialect." But the dustup also shines a bright light on the practice of code-switching, when one alters his or her communication style to closer identify with the audience or setting he or she is in at any given moment. Host Michel Martin talks to political commentators Ta-Nehisi Coates, Marc Lamont Hill and Cynthia Tucker about the politics — and sensitivities — of code-switching and whether the practice helped President Obama win the White House.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now to a different public conversation that touches on race. You can call it a public relations disaster, a grave political mistake. About a year ago, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said in a private conversation that he had encouraged President Obama to run for the White House because he had faith that he could win, and among the reasons why, because he was, quote, "light-skinned with no Negro dialect unless he wanted to have one," unquote.

These comments were published in "Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin and the Race of a Lifetime." That's a new book about the 2008 presidential campaign. It's shaping up to be one of 2010's first political dramas, and we'll dig deeper into that split this Friday in the Barbershop.

But today, we want to focus on the meaning behind Senator Reid's words, in particular this reference to President Obama's lack of Negro dialect, that is, unless he wanted to have one.

Now, some people think that that is shocking. Some people think that is racist, but for many black people, such choices about how to talk and present yourself are normal. In fact, there's a name for it. It's called code-switching, and we want to talk more about that with two people who write about African-American culture and politics and life.

Ta-Nehisi Coates writes for The Atlantic. He's with us on the phone from New York. And with us here in Washington, Marc Lamont Hill. He's a syndicated columnist and professor of education and African-American studies at Columbia University, and he joins us in our studio in Washington. Welcome to you both, thank you for joining us.

Mr. TA-NEHISI COATES (Writer, The Atlantic): Thanks for having me.

Mr. MARC LAMONT HILL (Syndicated Columnist; Professor, Columbia University): Good to be here.

MARTIN: Ta-Nehisi, you wrote explicitly about this earlier in one of your blog posts. In a post about this, you write: You can quibble about the light-skinned part, but forget running for president. Code-switching is the standard MO for any African-American with middle-class aspirations. How so?

Mr. COATES: Well, I think it's just a basic rule: How you talk among your friends out in the street is not how you talk if you're going for a job interview. I don't - you know, I come up in the hip-hop generation. I don't think I could talk the way I would among my friends if I were applying to be - for a job in human resources, much less president of the United States. I think that's just a kind of basic logic that, you know, most African-Americans work under and certainly this kind of basic logic that most black parents try to impart to their kids, rightly or wrongly.

MARTIN: Marc Lamont Hill, what about you?

Mr. HILL: I agree. And that's why I think that part of what Harry Reid was doing was not just talking about the particular language choices that Barack Obama was making but also the sort of stylistic etiquette that he deployed. So for example, if you would look at Jesse Jackson in '84 and '88, he also spoke Standard English in his interviews, but Harry Reid - for the most part, but Harry Reid would likely say anyway that he spoke with a Negro dialect.

So part of it is about the language choices, but it's also partly about the aesthetics of speech and the style and also even the regional sort of distinction between North and South that Barack Obama was somehow able to avoid partly just because of his upbringing and not being around a whole lot of African-American people. So I think Barack Obama code-switches the way all African-American people code-switch, but Harry Reid saw something distinct in Obama.

MARTIN: And we can talk more about that in a minute, but I just want to just play a short clip from the president, where he seems to acknowledge this himself. Here, for example, MORNING EDITION, our colleague at MORNING EDITION, Steve Inskeep, asked then-candidate Barack Obama if he talked the same way to a black audience as a white audience. This is what then-candidate Obama had to say.

(Soundbite of archival footage)

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Presidential Candidate): I think that the themes are consistent. I think there's a certain black idiom that it's hard not to slip into when you're talking to a black audience because of the audience response. It's the classic call and response. You know, anybody who has spent time in a black church knows what I mean, and so, you know, you get a little looser. It becomes more - a little more like jazz and a little less like a set score.

MARTIN: What do you think about that? Marc, you're laughing. Why are you laughing?

Mr. HILL: I like that. That's perfectly apt, and I think he highlights one of the key points of code-switching, which is to provide some kind of either social distance or social proximity to the people with whom you're speaking. So if you deploy African-American vernacular English in a black church, it aligns you to the audience, and with the call and response of a black church, with the mmm-hmms and yeahs and that's right, it makes it much more comfortable.

Now, he could also use, if he had wanted to, a different dialect, perhaps a non-Negro dialect, a mainstream dialect, to create social distance, which is also done in many social settings. You know, we often talk about the boujie cousin that comes to the family cookout and speaks differently than everybody else. That's often done to achieve social distance. So code-switching is used for a lot of social purposes.

MARTIN: Marc, let me ask you. If you and I were here by ourselves - we're both African-American - would we be talking this way?

Mr. HILL: We absolutely would not be.

MARTIN: Well, show me.

Mr. HILL: But that's the whole point, right?

MARTIN: What's up?

Mr. HILL: Exactly. What's going on? You know, that would be the first thing I say. I'm from Philly, so I say ya mean, but the interesting thing is that part of what code-switching is is that it happens organically and naturally. It's not so much a thought-out performance.

Now, when Hillary Clinton was in Selma, for example, and she starts putting a little something extra in her voice, she's doing it for a very particular, performative purpose that got kind of mocked by the media because it seemed so intentional.

MARTIN: But she lived in Arkansas for much of her adult life. So I again have to wonder. Ta-Nehisi, this is a question I have for you: Is this a black thing or a politics thing or just a thing for people who speak in front of audiences that are different?

Mr. COATES: You know, I had an editor at a job a few years back that I worked at who was from Mississippi, and when I met her and for most of the time I worked with her, I could not tell she was white. I would not have known where she was from.

And then one day, I happened to hear her on the phone calling somebody back home, and she sounded totally, totally different. If you have African-American West Indian friends, and you ever hear them talking to their, you know, friends who are from wherever they're from, you'll notice that they sound a little bit different.

So I think it's just a matter for all people across, you know, all races recognizing your audience and recognizing who you're talking to. You just feel a different level of familiarity when you're dealing with people who are from where you're from, who share your experience.

MARTIN: You know, Cynthia Tucker's still with us. Cynthia Tucker from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution is still with us. What do you think about that?

Ms. CYNTHIA TUCKER (Atlanta Journal-Constitution): I have been enjoying everything I've heard. This is such a familiar conversation for black Americans, but as a Southerner, I have to tell you, I have heard white politicians who could pray in a black church, and if you were standing outside, you would never know that they were white. Part of it is exposure, part of it is performance, and part of it is, for all of us who aspire to middle-class status, knowing what the, quote, "proper English" is and knowing how to speak that.

MARTIN: We're going to take a short break, but when we come back, we'll return to this conversation about code-switching. Is it just a black thing? I'm speaking with Cynthia Tucker, Marc Lamont Hill, professor at Columbia University, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, a writer for the political journal The Atlantic.

More of our conversation. Please stay with us on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, the alleged Christmas Day airline bombing attempt forced the Obama administration to reconsider its terrorism strategy, but it has also forced Nigerians to explore what may have led one of their own into terrorism. We've called on the award-winning Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, to talk about that in a moment.

But first, we're going to continue our conversation about code-switching among African-Americans. It's become part of the water-cooler conversation surrounding remarks that Senate majority leader Harry Reid made privately about how skin color and dialect may have affected then-candidate Barack Obama's electability.

With us to talk about this is professor Marc Lamont Hill. He's a syndicated columnist and professor of education and African-American studies at Columbia University. Also joining us is commentator and writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, a writer for The Atlantic. And still with us, Cynthia Tucker, columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

So since we've all agreed that this is something that we all consider normal, even enjoyable, I think it's fair to say, so why are people so made at Harry Reid, Marc Lamont Hill?

Mr. HILL: Well, I think part of it was his use of the term Negro dialect because the term Negro obviously harkens back to a different moment in American history, not just in terms of racism and segregation and all those things that we sort of hashed throughout the news cycle for the last week, but in terms of language. It also harkens back to a moment where black language was seen as a substandard form of expression.

So you know, in 2010, we talk about African-American vernacular English - not even Ebonics but African-American vernacular English - as a thoughtful and systematic way of functioning and speaking in the world. And we talk about Negro dialect. It's almost like he doesn't talk that jungle talk, you know what I mean? It's a whole different way of thinking about it, you know.

MARTIN: Cynthia Tucker, what do you think? Why do you think it's caused such a ruckus?

Ms. TUCKER: Well, that's exactly what offended me about it, the notion that there was a Negro, quote, "Negro dialect" assigned to most of us, that most of us were not expected to be able to speak English well, appropriately, as if 50 Cent represents most black Americans, and that was the part of - no matter how well-intentioned Harry Reid was - and I think he was well-intentioned. After all, he was saying that he believed Obama could be elected. But that was the part that offended me, that somehow was apart from most black Americans when the vast majority of black folks I know can, in fact, speak English appropriately in the circumstances in which they believe that's appropriate.

MARTIN: Yeah, I'm trying to think of an analogy, an analogy, and I'm having a hard time with it. I mean, I attribute it in part to Harry Reid's age, I mean, 70 years old, and Negro was the preferred and perhaps even polite term when he was coming, you know, coming up. But I'm trying to think of an analogy of perhaps somebody with a different ethnic origin, where that kind of language would have been used, and I'm having trouble with it. Ta-Nehisi, what do you think about that? Why do you think this is such a big deal?

Mr. COATES: I think - in agreeing with everything that's been said, I think also there's some confusion as to why African-Americans have been upset in previous instances. So, like, the comparison with Trent Lott, I think what's often missed is that Trent Lott was, at the very least, perceived as endorsing a candidate who basically ran on segregation. There's no way to spin what Trent Lott said to make it better. With Harry Reid, you can at least kind of understand the point, but there was no deeper point with Trent Lott to get to that would make it any better.

But I think a lot of people missed that and just heard, oh, black people are really upset, and some people think Trent Lott's a racist, so we should get him on it, but there was no real understanding of why or what was happening. And I think that's why you hear the comparison between the two.

MARTIN: Well, there's also the partisan aspect of it.

Mr. COATES: There is that.

MARTIN: There is the partisan - I mean, hello, it's Washington. Marc?

Mr. COATES: Definitely, yeah.

MARTIN: You wanted to say something?

Mr. HILL: No, no, I was going to say an apt example may be Bill Richardson had he continued to go along, had he been a candidate and had he won. And he said, you know, he's a great candidate. He's clean, you know, but he doesn't lapse into Spanglish, you know, in the middle of his speeches. No one would - people would find that odd because you wouldn't expect a Latino to - you know, with a degree and who's been secretary of Energy - to lapse into Spanglish in the middle of a campaign speech.

Yet somehow, there's this sense, as you said, of bewilderment and surprise whenever African-American people are able to speak Standard English. And I think that speaks to the broader narrative of Barack Obama as exceptional rather than being, as Ta-Nehisi said, part of a whole legion of African-American people who do this code-switching every day.

And this is something that happens not just in America but - I've been traveling, you know, throughout Africa doing research, and this is a very common linguistic practice of people throughout the globe.

MARTIN: In fact, I've seen the president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, there's something called Liberian English, which is a particular vernacular. And one of the things that I found very interesting and enjoyable is listening to her switch from Standard English into so-called Liberian English when she does different events.

Mr. HILL: Absolutely.

MARTIN: And I don't find anybody - nobody questions that. But I do think, and I guess the final question would be do you think there should be any further implication from this? Do you think there should be any further consequence? There are those like Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele who's calling for Harry Reid to step down saying it's a double standard. We take Ta-Nehisi's point that these are completely different circumstances that Trent Lott was being called out for than this. But Cynthia, do you think there should be any further consequence?

Ms. TUCKER: Absolutely not. I mean obviously, Harry Reid ought to be much more cautious about what he says publically than he has in the past. But again, he was supportive of Barack Obama seeking the presidency. So no, I don't think that there should be any consequences for him. There ought to be a broader effort for all of us though, to get beyond stereotypes and I think that there was some stereotyping in his use of this Negro dialect.

MARTIN: Ta-Nehisi, what do you think?

Mr. COATES: Well, I completely agree with that and I would just state that there probably needs to be some recognition in the broader country that as was said earlier, 50 Cent does not represent all of black America and we all do not speak that way. And certainly, we don't speak that way when we're trying to be president of the United States.

MARTIN: And Marc, final thought from you: What about that cultural conversation? Do you think that there ought to be - we've talked about the political consequence, do you think that there are any more interesting cultural conversations that could arise?

Mr. HILL: Well, see that's what's most interesting to me because so many people have talked about, you know, this being a new phenomenon. I'd like to have a national conversation about code-switching and race and language. That to me is much more interesting than politics right now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Okay. Okay. Well, we'll serve snacks if you decide to do that. And Marc Lamont Hill is a syndicated columnist. He's professor of English. Which English: Standard, code-switched English?

Mr. HILL: A little bit of everything.

MARTIN: A little bit of everything?

Mr. HILL: Yeah.

MARTIN: At Columbia University. He joined us here in our Washington D.C., studios along with Cynthia Tucker, who was kind enough to stick around. She's a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. And Ta-Nehisi Coates writes for The Atlantic. He joined us by phone from New York.

I thank you all so much.

Mr. COATES: Thank you.

Ms. TUCKER: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Everybody all right?

Mr. HILL: Yeah, we all right.

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