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Nadra Kareem Nittle

Reid Says Obama’s Skin Color and English Helped Him Win Presidency

By January 9, 2010

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Nevada Sen. Harry Reid has apologized for saying that the fact that Barack Obama is a light-skinned black who speaks without a "Negro dialect" made him electable as president. Game Change, a new book about the 2008 presidential campaign, includes Reid's opinions on what made Obama the first victorious African-American presidential contender.

Reid's associates told the New York Times that his comments on the president were supposed to be off the record, but the Nevada senator issued an apology anyway.

"I deeply regret using such a poor choice of words," Reid stated. "I sincerely apologize for offending any and all Americans, especially African Americans for my improper comments."

While his use of the outdated term Negro is problematic, I believe that Sen. Reid has a point. The Rev. Al Sharpton and the Rev. Jesse Jackson have been openly mocked in the mainstream media for delivering speeches with a distinct African-American cadence. That the biracial Obama can choose to speak in a way that's deemed race-neutral likely contributed to his crossover appeal.

As for Obama's lighter skin, we know that colorism thrives both in and outside of the United States. Lighter-skinned people are generally considered more desirable in a variety of racial groups. Whites prefer blondes over brunettes. Many Asian ethnic groups associate brown skin with peasants or farmers and fair skin with the upper classes. And in the black community, being able to pass the paper bag test (having skin lighter than the standard paper lunch bag) was historically an admirable achievement. Moreover, studies have indicated that lighter-skinned blacks in the U.S. excel in the workforce at a higher rate than their darker-skinned counterparts. So, yes, perhaps the fact that Obama could pass the paper bag test made him more attractive to Americans of all backgrounds than a dark-skinned black candidate would've been. As an African American who is not light-skinned, I detest this phenomenon but can't ignore its reality.

Thus, although Reid's choice of words was lacking, the gist of his words isn't altogether objectionable. Seems the senator was pointing out that racism exists in the U.S., and Barack Obama possessed certain qualities that helped him transcend the nation's racially stratified social structure in some ways. While the savvy way Obama ran his campaign, his message that he symbolized change and his stirring speeches all played a role in helping Obama win the election, being light-skinned and not peppering his language with black English vernacular surely didn't hurt his chances.

Comments

January 11, 2010 at 2:11 pm
(1) neil cronk says:

Certainly Reid’s use of the term “Negro” shows both his age and a certain amount of being out of touch…he is from Nevada, not a hugely African-American state, after all. But, let’s face it, what he said was true…a dark-skinned man with stereotypical African-American features and the language style currently popular in pop-culture wouldn’t have had a snowball’s chance of winning, and we all know it. And, when Harry Reid was growning up, Negro was the “right” word for African-Americans. Trent Lott, on the other hand, extolled the virtues of a long time, racist who had been active in helping to craft and defend legal policies that denied rights to and oppressed African-Americans. That shows a certain amount of “unreconstructedness,” shall we say (for a Senator whose home state had been a big focus of “Reconstruction.”)

January 11, 2010 at 3:36 pm
(2) Ty dePass says:

i agree that Reid called it correctly: Obama was the Dem’s not-Jesse-Jackson candidate. it might be considered bad form to comment on it in “post-racial America,” most Whites, and not a few Blacks, understood this implicitly. as legal scholar Derrick Bell has pointed out many times, no advance for people of color will occur w/o the acquiescence of Whites. Branch Rickey chose articulate/reserved Jackie Robinson over outspoken – if more talented – Josh Gibson to break baseball’s color line. and if our president’s record-to-date is any indication, little has changed 60-some years later. James Baldwin spoke of Blacks and Whites being “trapped in a history” neither understands.
and as King reminded us, Reid’s generation only grudgingly conceded changes wrought by generations of Black struggle (and unevenly, at that) and, sometimes, they slip up on the proper use of contemporary code words describing racial relations/attitudes. this doesn’t excuse the lapse, but it pales in comparison to Trent Lott’s lament for the failed Dixiecrats.

January 12, 2010 at 9:14 am
(3) Osei (Osay) says:

America has a serious problem with accepting the truth (black and White). A third grader has enough sense to accept the fact that this is the most racists society in the world…still. Because we have a Black president simply means just that. We elected him not only because of his vision and intelligence but because Bush was the absolute worst of the worst leaders in history. Don’t forget the white businessman in Geogia who proudly stated he would hire a white ex con before hiring a Black with a PHD. Of course what Senator Harry Reid said was true and some Blacks have the audacity to be upset about it. You don’t have to look far to see the proof of his statement when the commercials, the music videos and magazines all portray the light skinned Blacks as the most attractive. How sad that we’ve taken on the ways of the oppressor. No wonder I love traveling to Africa so much where there they have no doubt as to who they are or whose they are. Just remember the old saying “tall, DARK and handsome” not tall, white and handsome. There’s a reason the tanning salons do so much business. I wonder why this is so? Let’s not become the United states of Amnesia (how quickly we forget).

January 20, 2010 at 2:27 am
(4) Efe says:

I DONT THINK OBAMA’S SKIN TONE HELPED HIM. OBAMA SOUNDS BLACK ENOUGH TO ME BUT I THINK IT IS RIDICULOUS TO SUGGEST THAT OBAMA’S LIGHT SKIN HELPED HIM.FOR CRYING OUT LOUD, THE GUY IS INTELLIGENT, LET THEM GIVE HIM SOME CREDIT. HIS WIFE IS DARKER THAN HIM, SO WHY DID PEOPLE STILL VOTE FOR HIM? I AM TIRED OF THE WAY PEOPLE WANT TO WHIP UP SENTIMENTS IN EVERY SITUATION.

January 20, 2010 at 9:01 am
(5) truth says:

Obama won because ACORN got out and got people to vote who never voted before. You could have become a millionaire if you took that bet. the black race voted Obama in.

January 29, 2010 at 1:18 pm
(6) Dr. Gregory Diggs says:

I enjoyed your observation, Nadra. But I don’t fully agree. Even though Reid had a point. Even though Reid was clearly commenting on the state of America. He was also clearly “excited” about a light skinned African-American who didn’t talk Black unless he wanted to, as a Presidential candidate. Yes, he might have been referring to the racists status of America. But he was clearly expressing his own personal participation in that as well. And that is a fundamental form of racist ideation and expression. I think we need to name it and confront it.

Now. It’s not the same as a Trent Lott. Or Bill O’Reilly or Glen Beck. It is the same as Chris Matthews. Because some of this liberal racism is well intended and meant to be complimentary. It’s just that the celebration of light skin in Blacks or “proper” speech in Blacks, really just reinforces racist stereotypes about Blacks. It is not really complimentary.

I hope that you will consider writing about this (particularly with Chris Matthews “forgetting” that Obama is Black). Even if I do not fully agree, I think you present a nice, balanced take on the issues.

April 7, 2010 at 11:14 pm
(7) Andreas Aescher says:

Even if he was not biracial and dark as Eddi Murphy he would still have won because he spoke eloquently and chose to BE EVERYONE’s President–not just one particular constituency. Since he has to appeal to everyone he can’t speak in a dialect, that’s a fact.

January 10, 2014 at 11:49 pm
(8) Cathie says:

Notice. All ( the ones I know of) are all light skinned people. The only
Dark one I have seen is Reggie, his assistant. Makes you wonder.

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