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TERRY GROSS, host:

The media have spent the last few weeks chewing over the revelation in the book "Game Change" that Senator Harry Reid said privately that Barack Obama would be acceptable to the electorate because he was light-skinned and had no Negro dialect unless he wanted to have one. According to our linguist, Geoff Nunberg, the responses to Reid's remarks say a lot more about American racial attitudes than Reid himself did.

GEOFF NUNBERG: Just about everybody thought Harry Reid needed to apologize, including Reid himself, but 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 controversial. 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 according to Liz Cheney, it still shouldn't have been said. She shot back at Will: Give me a break, George. I mean, talking about the color of the president's skin; it's not the way that people that I know speak to each other. Actually, I can believe that about Cheney's circle. There are a lot of people nowadays who think of skin color as like a piece of lettuce caught in somebody'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 Negro stirred a similar sense of unease. In the Washington Post, Ezra Klein called it weird 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, confusing outmoded with outrageous. But it's never been that. If Negro really were a slur, many older blacks wouldn't still be claiming 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 who is using it.

Spike Lee coined the term "magical Negro" as a dig at condescending racial stereotypes in Hollywood films. And the tang was a little more pungent when Rush Limbaugh was playing 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, Reid may not use the word except in 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 the man isn't exactly stylin'. If he hasn't changed his racial vocabulary since Jimmy Carter was president, he hasn't changed his eyeglass frames either. But over a quarter century in Congress, he probably should have gotten out a little more. But even if we couldn't agree about 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 still 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. For The New York Times, there was racial insensitivity in Don Imus's reference to "nappy-headed hos" and the L.A. 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 was presumably that those protesters could have tried to express themselves more artfully.

As the media use the term, "racial insensitivity" blurs the distinction between one N-word and another, or between Michael Steeles 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 those have offenses are venial or mortal, malign or merely thoughtless, by the time they get 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 dialect 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.

GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who teaches at the School of Information at the University of California at Berkeley.

Geoff recently sent me a CD by a country singer he really likes, who I'd never heard of, but I'm sure glad I know him now. He is Vern Gosdin, who died last year. So, now I want to play a track for you. This is "Chiseled In Stone."

(Soundbite of song, "Chiseled In Stone")

Mr. VERN GOSDIN (Singer): (Singing) You ran crying to the bedroom, I ran off to the bar. Another piece of heaven gone to hell. The words we spoke in anger just tore my world apart. And I sat there feeling sorry for myself. Then that old man sat down beside me and looked me in the eye, and he said, son, I know what you're going through. You ought to get down on your knees and thank your lucky stars that you got someone to go home to.

You don't know about lonely, or how long nights can be, till you've lived through the story that's still living in me. You don't know about sadness till you've faced life alone. You don't know about lonely 'til it's chiseled in stone.

GROSS: That's Vern Gosdin.

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