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Today in Post-Race History: What I (Had) Meant to Say Was…

There are 3 things my Grandma Charlotte used to tell me all the time:  1. That books are my friends; 2. That she is always right–even when she’s wrong (she’s right); and 3. It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.  I remembered that last point when I heard about Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s comments about then-candidate Obama.  If the extent of Reid’s comments were what I read in the HuffPo article about the book, Game Change, the interview appears in, then I’m really not all that mad at Senator Reid.  In fact, I agree with him.  He’s only in hot water because we need a dose of (racial) honesty.

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid apologized on Saturday for saying the race of Barack Obama – whom he described as a “light skinned” African-American “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one” – would help rather than hurt his eventual presidential bid.

Um, this is racist?  Let’s take it point by point.

Calling a black person light skinned isn’t racist.  Obama is also skinny.  And tall.  He has big ears.  But neither of those last three physical characteristics make Americans more at ease about/around black folks.  Americans wouldn’t have liked Obama as much if he looked like Clarence Thomas–or like his father for that matter.

I suppose what makes folk most uncomfortable is the “Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one,” comment.  Perhaps it rubs folks the wrong way because it’s so true.  But any black dude wanting to become president of this country has to sound more like Wayne Brady and less like Lil Wayne.  And frankly, what Reid’s comment about BHO’s speaking voice really gets at is the way in which Obama has used and strategically employed his understanding of black oratory to endear himself to (black) audiences. And that’s really disturbing because the idea that Obama is an especially peculiar Negro who could appropriate certain tenets of blackness destabilizes the belief that somehow enough Americans overcame the(ir) history of racial prejudice to elect the first black president.

And that’s Reid’s point: that Obama was so exceptional, that his background and makeup were so unique that he actually could become president.  So, if I may echo a friend, what Reid was trying to say was: “America is really racist, but this guy right here–with the Hawaii rearing (away from the continental racism that primarily colors American race discourse), with the African student father (and not the native Negro father), with the light skin, and the ability to morph should the occasion require it–isn’t a regular black person, and that could be really beneficial for him politically, because Americans would not elect a regular black person president.”  And anyone who wants to deflect Reid’s message by parsing his words in such a way as to claim that he’s racist, or at least racially insensitive, is beyond incredibly reluctant to address the truth of racial matters, and has probably spent very little time thinking critically how race-obsessed this country remains.  Yeah, I’m talking to you, Liz Cheney.

It wasn’t what Senator Reid said.  It was how he said it.


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