A Sensitive Subject: Harry Reid's Language On Race

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid with President Obama i i

President Obama makes remarks during a fundraiser for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on May 26 at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid with President Obama

President Obama makes remarks during a fundraiser for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on May 26 at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.

Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Once word got out about Sen. Harry Reid's recently reported 2008 remarks about then-candidate Barack Obama's skin color and speech, just about everybody thought he needed to apologize — not least Reid himself. But people had different stories about why.

You couldn't fault the actual content of the remark: that an African-American presidential candidate has a better chance of being elected if he doesn't look or sound "too black." That may be a deplorable reality, but it's not a controversial thing to say. Even George Will gave Reid a pass. As he put it on ABC's This Week, "At long last, Harry Reid has said something that no one can disagree with, and he gets in trouble for it."

But true or not, Liz Cheney said, it shouldn't have been said. She shot back, "Give me a break, George. I mean, talking about the color of the president's skin. ... It is not the way that people that I know speak to each other." Actually, I can believe that about Cheney's circle. A lot of people nowadays think of skin color like a piece of lettuce caught in someone's teeth: You should really try not to see it, and if you do, it's unseemly to bring it up.

Reid's use of the word "Negro" stirred a similar sense of unease. In the Washington Post, Ezra Klein called it weird, which it surely was, and others went with awkward, unfortunate or dumb. President Obama called it "inartful," which was a deft way of implying that the lapse was purely stylistic. And some called it a racist slur.

But it's never been that, not even loosely — if it really were a slur, there wouldn't be so many older blacks who still claim it as their primary racial identification, and whites wouldn't feel so comfortable about repeating it. Still, the word does have what the African-American linguist John McWhorter called a "tangy backwards" flavor, and it can certainly be tinged with sarcasm, depending on who's using it.

Spike Lee coined the term "magical negro" as a dig at the Hollywood stock character that's always played by Morgan Freeman. And the tang was a little more pungent when Rush Limbaugh played a record of a white Al Sharpton imitator singing a song called "Barack the Magic Negro" during the 2008 campaign.

But in Reid's mouth, "Negro" wasn't condescending or contemptuous, just clueless. To be fair, it may be that he only uses the word when he's talking about language: his reference to "Negro dialect" may have been a garbled version of "nonstandard Negro English," the term scholars were using for black English until well into the 1970s. And if Reid hasn't changed his racial vocabulary since Jimmy Carter was president, he hasn't changed his eyeglass frames, either. But over his quarter-century in Congress, he probably should have gotten out a little more.

But however you judged its severity, Reid's offense clearly fell under the capacious heading of "racial insensitivity." That phrase was introduced in the 1970s to broaden the range of conversational infractions: Even if you weren't an unregenerate Archie Bunker-style bigot, you could be held accountable for merely being obtuse about race. But the phrase also turned out to be a useful way of enabling out-and-out racism to cop to a lesser plea.

In fact, journalists almost never describe any remark as "racist" anymore. The New York Times heard "racial insensitivity" in Don Imus' reference to "nappy-headed hos," and the Los Angeles Times heard it in Michael Richards' nightclub tirade.

And back in September, National Review's Jonah Goldberg conceded that there was some "racial insensitivity" in a few of the signs at the Tea Party protests, which included slogans like "Save White America" and depictions of Obama as a witch doctor with a bone through his nose. The implication, presumably, was that those protesters could have tried to express themselves more artfully.

Geoff Nunberg

Geoff Nunberg is an adjunct full professor at University of California at Berkeley's School of Information. He is the author of The Years of Talking Dangerously. Courtesy of the University of California at Berkeley hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of the University of California at Berkeley

As the media use the term, "racial insensitivity" blurs the distinction between one N-word and another, or between Michael Steele's use of "honest Injun" and Trent Lott's suggestion that the country would have had fewer problems if we had elected a segregationist as president in 1948. Whether they're venial or mortal, malign or merely thoughtless, by the time these remarks make their way to YouTube, they're all just gaucheries and gaffes, and they all require the same formulaic apology.

Yet almost nobody called Reid to task on the one item that really did betray a deep-seated social prejudice — that word "dialect." Of course, as linguists use the word, everybody speaks one dialect or another: Tracy Morgan and Patrick Stewart, Loretta Lynn and Diane Sawyer.

But most people reserve the word for varieties of language that are seen as expressive and colorful but illogical and illiterate. Linguists have been pointing out for a very long time that those varieties all turn out to have a complicated and systematic structure of their own. But it's hard not to hear them through stereotypes of race and class.

It's striking how many of the things people say in public about black English are the same things they'd no longer allow themselves to say about the people who speak it — it's "slovenly," "lazy," "ignorant," "stupid," "broken." Those stereotypes haven't really disappeared from public life; they've just been repurposed as attitudes about language.

Everybody likes to invoke Martin Luther King's dream of a nation where no one is judged by the color of his skin, but most people are fine with judging somebody by the shape of his vowels.

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