There’s nothing like getting your blood boiling first thing in the morning and thanks to yesterday’s news about Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s “racist” remark – as revealed in the new book Game Change by Mark Halperin & John Heilemann (a critique of the 2008 campaign – I was seething well before 12:00 noon.
As you've no doubt heard by now, the book claims: “He [Reid] was wowed by Obama’s oratorical gifts and believed that the country was ready to embrace a black presidential candidate, especially one such as Obama – a ‘light-skinned African American with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one’.”
Naturally, Reid is now back-peddling in response to the heat generated by his comment, apologizing to the nation and the president personally; the Democrats have chided but absolved him; and the Republicans, ever alert to an opportunity to make themselves look good in comparison to the Dems, are calling for Reid’s head on a political platter.
This situation is both the height of stupidity and a sobering reminder that because we still haven’t dealt squarely with the issue of race in America, coming to grips with the history and nuances of racism, we’re literally unable to tell the difference between a remark about race vs a racist remark. They’re not the same thing. And when the media and politicians use every instance of racial observation to stir the pot and make trouble where none exists, it only serves to take us further away from understanding and confronting the truth.
Racism in America in regard to African-Americans is and always has been about color, and can both fairly and simply be defined as a generally-accepted idea that lighter is better than darker. This was true during Slavery, when light-skinned (biracial) blacks were given [relatively] special treatment, ergo “house Negroes” vs “field Negroes” (lights got to work in the house while darks toiled in the fields). After the Civil War and ever since, even, to some extent, in the present, abused blacks bought into this maxi-racist distinction, as well.
Any black person over the age of 40 knows about the old “paper bag test”: blacks believed that if they were darker than a brown paper bag, they were too dark. There is a long history of antipathy between light- and dark-skinned blacks, with the lights genuinely discriminating against the darks. Light-skinned parents didn’t want their light-skinned children to marry dark-skinned blacks, etc. This was an issue that Spike Lee tackled in his film School Daze, about the rivalry between two sororities on a black college campus, one made up of light-skinned girls, the other dark. It was one of Lee’s least successful and popular films, because white people didn’t get it and blacks didn’t want to cop to it. All puns intended, it got very mixed reviews.
This attitude among African-Americans took a brief hiatus during the post-Martin Luther King Jr. Black Power movement, when dark-skinned blacks shunned the light-skinned for not being black enough. But as Black Power got beaten down, some of the old attitudes returned – and never left. As far as white people are concerned, studies and experience have demonstrated over the decades that whites are more comfortable with, feel less threatened by, light-skinned blacks. Indeed, until the last 15 years or so, one rarely saw a black newscaster who was not light-skinned and they still remain the majority. And not until Sidney Poitier made an inroad in film did darker-skinned blacks have a respectable place in the movies, relegated to playing servants, pimps, whores, and other racial stereotypes. Again, this is still true to a discouraging extent. In every area of American society, light-skinned blacks have had a relatively easier time of it: in employment, education, housing, and integrated social interaction.
What Harry Reid voiced was a political reality. He wasn’t celebrating or condoning it, he was simply recognizing a racial truth: America was more likely to accept a black presidential candidate who didn’t look or sound too black. And he was absolutely right. Jesse Jackson’s presidential ambitions failed for many reasons, but not the least of them is that he comes off (especially sounds) too black. Who was the first black person Americans (white and black) were willing to consider for president: Gen. Colin Powell! Need I say more? There’s no doubt in my mind that if Barack Obama had the hue of a Sidney Poitier and the voice of a Jesse Jackson, we would now have either President Hillary Clinton or President John McCain.
As an extremely light-skinned biracial person myself, I know the truth of this much-hidden and little-understood dimension of racism. When I was in high school during the height of the Black Power movement, I was aggressively put down by the local Black Panthers – who later invited me to join what they called their Fifth Column: blacks who could pass for white (and therefore be useful as spies, infiltrators, etc.). I passed – on their offer.
America still has a lot of work to do in dealing with its racist past and present. And making a political boogeyman out of Harry Reid is not only not part of the solution, it only serves to highlight the problem. Until we learn to make the important distinction between racial and racist, we’ll never be able to get past the imposing racial barriers that make meaningful dialogue impossible, and which ultimately damage us all.
(A version of this article appeared on Blogcritics yesterday.)