I am not light-skinned. Also, despite being the only African-American in the world to earn a PhD in Finance during the year 2002, I confess that I sometimes speak with a “Negro dialect.” Therefore, according to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, I would never, in a million years, be qualified to run for president.
I don’t think that Senator Harry Reid is a racist. Although Reid seemed to think that President Obama could win the election because he is “light-skinned” and speaks with very little “Negro dialect,” he wasn’t necessarily giving his own opinion. Rather, he was giving his assessment of the preferences of the American public.
We might be able to argue that Reid was engaging in “racist white male dialect” by using terms like “negro,” but I can almost forgive him for that. Like most politicians, he is a bellwether of public opinion and an accurate reflection of the “political pulse” of the white American voting population.
Like Harry Reid, many black people across America have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and worked hard to become successful. I identified with Reid when I read his life story, for he has overcome more than most of us could ever imagine. What is saddest about Reid’s commentary, however, is that it reminds many African-Americans across the country that if our speech patterns or appearance are “too black” (whatever that means) or too different from what some consider acceptable, we are going to be deemed inferior. It seems that looking, sounding and behaving like a white man is the only way I might be considered to be as good as a white man. That is White Supremacy 101.
You don’t have to be a racist to embrace white supremacist thinking. You don’t even have to be white, since many African-Americans also believe that whites are superior. White supremacy is reflected throughout the American experience, whether it is conservatives spewing disdain for single black mothers, or paternalistic liberals who feel they are doing black people a favor by supporting African-American causes. Black scholars feel this burn through the academic imperialism that devalues African-American scholarly work, so Harry Reid’s words are painfully connected to the day-to-day challenges that black people face all across America.
Given that we are nearing the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., perhaps this is the time to have the conversation we’ve been waiting to have for the last 400 years. America needs a national conversation on race, led by the President of the United States, and we should be allowed to have that conversation in whatever dialect we choose. Fulfilling the dream of Dr. King is going to take hard work, not another string of benefit dinners and superficial Black History Month celebrations. It is going to take a commitment to policies that seek to eliminate systemic inequality, and a commitment to the dialogue necessary for all Americans to understand each other.
This problem is far deeper than Harry Reid.