Harry Reid...A Closed Book?

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version
...pic borrowed from Associated Press, snapped by Charles Dharapak
...full text also found on Truthdig

Senator Harry Reid’s comments about Obama’s racial profile might be “a closed book” for our President. After all, he’s got bigger fish to fry. But it appears that Obama is the only one who is over it. For those late to the party, Reid’s racial thinking was revealed recently in the book Game Change, by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. In this book the authors expose the inner workings of the 2008 Presidential campaign on both sides of the aisle. Their most shocking revelation is that Reid said that Obama had the right look and sound for presidential candidacy, “light skinned” and "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one." Rather than considering whether Reid’s comments are politically correct…clearly they aren’t…I think it’s more prudent and interesting to open the book on Reid’s comments and think about whether Reid has a point. So, was Reid right?

I decided to answer this question by doing some very unofficial polling. Here’s what I learned. Most people I interviewed said that they have “conflicting thoughts.” “Reid definitely shouldn’t have said it,” says Lindsay, a multiracial 30-year-old Democrat in San Diego CA. “But, all things being equal, if Obama were the stereotypical African American male portrayed by the media, then he wouldn’t have won…even if he had the same message of hope and change. So, in that way I kind of agree with Reid. Does that make me a racist too?” Jason, a 33-year-old African American Democrat from Philadelphia agrees. “Reid’s words were definitely ‘inartful,’ but he’s the product of his generation’s limited racial vocabulary. I don’t look to Reid for racial commentary. What I and others are looking to him for is health care support. And I think that’s what this is really about.”

“There is definitely something else going on here,” says John, a 63-year-old African American in Boynton Beach, Florida. “This is ridiculous. The goal is not to deal with race, but to discredit Reid, health care and ultimately, to stop Obama.” He continued, “if I remember correctly there were lots of other racial incidents that could’ve been equally explored.” John does have a point here and he wasn’t the only one to raise it. Kate, a 22-year-old white Republican from Nashville, says that “Reid isn’t the only one to talk this way about race in public. Didn’t Joe Biden once say that Obama’s the first black ‘smart’ and ‘clean’ guy to gain mainstream popularity?” In fact, that’s true. According to CBS News, Biden is quoted as saying that Obama was "the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy." Biden now sits in the White House with Obama. Is he a racist too?

Perhaps the most interesting interview was with Kai, a 35-year-old recent Peruvian-Spanish immigrant to the United States with no political affiliation. Kai asked me to play a game with him. I would name an iconic African American or mixed race person and then he would state whether he thought Reid’s comments would apply. I agreed. I asked, “Would Americans have adopted Obama so widely if he looked like Will Smith?” “Yes,” answered Kai. “Smith is very mainstream and similar to Obama in terms of presence.” How about Denzel Washington? “Maybe,” answered Kai, “Washington has a great presence and eloquence, but he might be too dark for mainstream America to embrace politically.” Then I asked about Wentworth Miller. Kai asked, “Who?” After doing a quick image search on the multiracial Prison Break star Kai answered unequivocally, “No. not black enough.” Since race has such a charged history in the United States, it seems that even though we’ve made some great strides we’ve also still got some figuring out to do.

So what does this all mean? What is the fuss really all about? For a definitive word on this I turned to Richard, a 42-year-old African American Democrat and blogger in Los Angeles. “Is the problem he used the word ‘Negro?’ Or is it something more complex (no pun intended) when he referred to Obama's skin color?” For Richard the issue isn’t that Reid used an anachronism. He said, “Words such as Negro and colored still exist in our vocabulary. We still have the United Negro College Fund, Negro Spirituals, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In fact, we have become so accustomed to identifying these institutions by said names that if we were to update them to contemporary language, it would almost seem as if we were being trite for demanding an update.” Yet, Richard told me that he’s observed that skin color is another controversy in and of itself. Richard concluded with his overall assessment of the situation. “The only thing I can see that Reid really did wrong was possibly air dirty laundry of many Americans who think this way and now some are attempting to punish him for it.”

After listening to these varied opinions I’m left only with my own. To be blunt, Reid was right and he’s not necessarily a racist. In fact, I see the controversy over Reid’s comments as evidence that some racial progress is being made and that we still have a long way to go. Whether we care to admit it Obama’s persona and status are forcing us to confront the legal, linguistic, and socially constructed residues of racism and unequal opportunity with important implications for contemporary race relations. In light of this I propose that we understand Reid’s comments and the firestorm they sparked as opportunities for some racial, interracial and multiracial dialogue initiation. Let's talk...


Was Harry Reid Right???/

Harry Reid was right. I don't believe he made these comments to sound or be racist, after all he is a learned man who knew his comments would be published and read by many. I believe he was being blunt in pointing out the fact that our country could not handle something too different, being that President Obama was/is already a great leap in our country's social/political acceptance. It is quite possible that Reid voted for President Obama, we would never know because of the confidentiality in our voting system. But what we have perceived in the comments of Reid is that he is a racist who sees only the outer layer of our current president. I believe it to be inaccurate to jump to such conclusions. Reid was simply being "real with it."

was harry reid right?

While I do not think Reid is a racist, I am not exactly sure he is right. I think he made a poor choice of words in his exclamation of President Obama. His remarks make the claim that Obama has the right "image" to run for president. I personally would hope that Americans can base their vote on something more concrete than image. However, with all the Hollywood glamor and reality TV that our country has become so overly obsessed with, there may be a large portion of America that does make such superficial decisions about people. In this aspect, I think Reid was right.

Sad but true

While it probably would have been best to not say, we all know Reid is right.

Love this dialogue!

Barack Obama is considered a 'safe' African American figure to much of the U.S. population. He is clean-cut, well educated, and well-spoken; traits that appealed to his 'audience' and undoubtedly aided in his election. Reid's comments do sort of unmask the hidden opinions of so many American people. Reid's statement rings true, however, it is more likely the callousness of his wording that had people taken aback, contributed to some of the outrage. When it comes down to it, I consider his statements to be much less offensive than Joe Biden's comments. Biden would have us think that no educated, articulate African American preceded Obama in mainstream society. What about Colin Powell, or Condaleezza Rice (he didn't say male)?

The bottom line? Reid's comments were racial, but definitely not racist.

Kaye Ponnusamy

Totally agree with you!

Totally agree with you!

Separate Water Fountains - Not Anymore!

Great article Marcia! Of course, we all knew that race would be an issue in some form or manner regarding our President. I often wonder if people understand that it was the government that pushed the African-Americans into the position of racism that they have faced for decades. The government offered help and in turn manipulated these Americans into believing they needed governmental help or they would not survive. Once and for all, we are all made from the same dust of the earth with the same abilities.

Reid may not be a true racist. More than likely, Reid chose to articulate his thoughts based on the conditioned belief system he grew up with. As a white 45-year old female, I believe that individuals from my race are surprised that the belief system of their ancestors has now been challenged. There is also a jealously factor based on conditioned belief systems. We must remember that it was not just blacks, Hispanics and other races that elected Obama, but the whites came out in full force and voted for this man.

Times have changed and I believe we have come a long way if you look at history. I do not see the evidence of horrific racism that was evident many years ago. There are interracial couples, children and now a black (sorry mixed) President. Racism is here, but not to the degree so many claim in today's society. Sure we have further to go, but for now I believe we have made great strides.

So, Reid said something that so many others may have thought or said themselves at some point in time. Reid did not use the disrespectful "N" word or become like a trailer-trash white racist idiot. It is ok, everyone relax. I mean look who is in the Oval office! Case closed.

Great work!

I think the Dawkins column was just great, thoughtful, clear and based on some old-fashioned interview reporting.

R. Scheer, Truthdig

the media treats race like catnip

let's not forget about how the media treats race like catnip. There is no meaningful discussion, and this kind of "gotcha" racial coverage in the media is driving us into our seperate corners. That's what's happening here.

Jehmu Greene (Women's Media Center)


Yes. This Reid incident is a clear example of "The Crash-ification" of racial dialogue. It's all just focused on individual interactions with no discussion of systems or structural oppression. Welcome to post-racial America. Scary...


Today, the Republican National Committee has a black chairman, but even he still plays games with race. Listening to phony expressions of outrage over the word Negro by the Republicans, including RNC Chair Michael Steele, is an insult to every American’s intelligence. Do they think everyone has forgotten how Rush Limbaugh repeatedly mocked President Obama on radio as “the magic Negro”? That didn’t disturb any of the politicians and pundits who now angrily demand the head of Harry Reid. Their nasty hypocrisy is far more shameful than his clumsy sincerity.

Joe Conason, The New York Observer

what's right and just

As somebody who loves Obama (I saw him speak at least 10 times), it was all an interesting read. Maybe what is most important to consider is that Obama got to where he is by ignoring such silly talk and has been able to rise above everybody else. He doesn't care what people think, he only cares what is right and just. I have no idea how Obama puts up with the jokers in Washington.

my thoughts

I feel like the gut instinct for anyone that read/heard Reid's comment for the first time could be either of two instinctive responses: The first is something along the lines of, "he's a total racist; I don't know why we put him in any sort of power in our government!" and the other is something like, "absolutely! He's just saying what the rest of us are thinking! Good for him!" The first response, I feel, is a very snooty "holier than thou" attitude of people that think that they have a more advanced point of view than general society. The second response is more the mainstream thinking of today's society- not yet fully accustomed to the idea of complete racial equality, nor completely prepared for full acceptance of the changing times and ever-dissolving (however slow the progression rate seems) racial boundaries. The upshot being that I think Reid's comment was accurate in his reflection of today's thinking in general society, but could have had a more polished articulation so as not to draw negative attention to a remark that, in his opinion, was meant as a compliment.


I think Reid's comment was clearly indicative of the public majority's perspective about African American government leaders. Because of the negative stereotypes depicted in the media, often utilizing African Americans as comedic backdrops, as well as the informal, grammatically incorrect vernacular of most rap/hip hip songs, the public does not associate intelligence, tact, or any "dignified" characteristic with African Americans, sadly.

I discovered something

I discovered something a long time ago as I went into the corporate environment and saw that so many within it had never had any real interaction with black folks.

In school we all know that we self segregate and unless you are part of a sports program even surrounded by other cultures there is little interaction.

So in contemplating this truth it became clear that I was the representation of my culture. I have actually had one of my white supervisors say to me "You are a credit to your race."

I didn't get insulted by that and replied "Thank you but more than that I want to be a credit to humanity." He actually was lost for words and hopefully I gave this one man something to think about beyond his limited experience.

Surrendering to the fact that I cannot control the thoughts of others or their perceptions I realize I can only present myself in the best light for all to see.

Not a white person or a black person but everyone who looks upon me will look and see a "good man", an "intelligent man", a "decent man". Perhaps with that, one person at a time, I can change perceptions within my sphere of influence.

So I surrender to the fact that everyone is not going to get it. If we look at it in biblical terms did they not crucify one without sin? So life becomes much simpler when I take on the attitude of "Those who matter don't mind and those who mind don't matter".

-Henry Busby

Reid's Comment

Unfortunately race and racism in 2010 America are still alive and well. As the late comedian Richard Pryor once said, "America is like a most beautiful dress with a big stain on it. That stain being racism". As a native born African American male senior citizen, I am still reminded of an age old color saying. "If you're white you're all right, if you're yellow, you're my fellow, if you're brown, you can stick around, but if you're black, you better get back." Sadly, Mr Reid is till correct, if Mr Obama were dark he would not be the 44th U.S. President.


RE: Reid's Comment

Reid's comment was just that...a comment. However, it does bring to light the conflict and dilemma many Americans are facing (even blacks) regarding the questions "What is black?", "Who is really black? Dark-skinned, light-skinned, in between, etc?". Who sets these standards? Did President Obama set the standard on what or who is black or do random individuals like Reid with their ridiculous comments dictate what or who is black? Maybe this is a question we should ask ourselves but for those who know, we know Obama has helped blacks and others that it is possible for them to achieve whatever they put their minds to. Let's just hope they put their minds into something constructive, not ignorant.

Necessary Dialogue

I agree that this is an opportunity to talk about racial, interracial and multiracial dialogue. Many Americans may be thinking similarly, but because Reid is a public figure, he will get the punishment. Thank you for providing this insight. - Jennifer


Thanks Jennifer. Seems like we're not the only ones having this conversation. Check out: http://www.swamppolitics.com/news/politics/blog/2010/01/obama_harry_reid...