Was Harry Reid Right?

Harry Reid - Getty Images
Harry Reid - Getty Images

CNN is aflutter. Bloggers are calling it a "big-time" mistake. Newspapers describe the "racially tinged" remarks as "sensational." What is this "juicy revelation"? Apparently, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid privately told two journalists in 2008 that Obama was more electable because he's "light-skinned" and lacked a "Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one."


With the publication of Reid's impolitic quote in the new book Game Change, journalists John Heilemann and Mark Halperin have landed a PR coup. By revealing Reid's racial faux pas, they've also set in motion the now tediously familiar process of a media frenzy, an inevitable apology from Reid acknowledging "deep regret," and an equally inevitable gracious acceptance of the said apology from Obama.

Lost in all the handwringing and shock, however, is any clear explanation of what's wrong with Reid's comment. Clearly, using "Negro dialect" is about half-a-century behind the times, but does anyone think Reid meant ill by his anachronism? Moreover, as the recent kerfuffle about the 2010 Census revealed, "Negro" is still used by a non-trivial number of older black folks. In 2000, for example, more than 50,000 people went the extra effort of writing-in that they identified themselves as "Negro" (over-and-above the millions who checked the box for "Black, African-Am., or Negro").

And what term would you use? Ebonics, a neologism coined in 1975 from ebony and phonics, is now laughably dated. Linguists currently refer to "black or African-American vernacular English," but that hardly rolls off the tongue. Yes, Reid (and the Census) should get with the times, but using dated language with no bad intent should hardly be grounds for days of media analysis, conscience-stricken mea culpas or organized damage control. And, more importantly, the substance of Reid's comments is spot on. Research strongly suggests that white voters do favor lighter-skinned black candidates. Political scientist Nayda Terkildsen studied the effect of skin color on white voting preferences in her 1993 paper, "When White Voters Evaluate Black Candidates: The Processing Implications of Candidate Skin Color, Prejudice, and Self-Monitoring." In an experimental study, she presented a random sample of adults descriptions of "one of three fictitious candidates running for governor." Each candidate was described in identical terms with the only difference being an attached photograph of either "a white male, a light-complected black male, or a dark-complected black male." Terkildsen found a statistically significant effect that "black candidates were penalized by white voters based on the candidate's race, skin color, and individual levels of racial prejudice."

Put another way, when presented with otherwise identical candidates, white voters generally preferred the white candidate to the black candidates and the lighter-skinned candidate to the darker-skinned candidate. (Terkildsen's analysis only looked at white voters, but perhaps Reid's remarks will encourage someone to study the effect of skin color on candidate preferences among blacks, Latinos and Asians, too.)

Similarly, black English is regularly associated with negative perceptions of blacks. John Edwards (not the candidate, I assume), writing in 1999 about "Language Attitudes" in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology, notes "hundreds of experiments have revealed negative reactions toward Black English." Though there don't appear to be any academic studies on the effects of black English on voting, it ain't much of a stretch to think such attitudes would extend to candidate evaluations and voting booth behavior.

Further, Reid's statement that Obama could choose to use a "Negro dialect" is Linguistics 101. Everyone "style shifts" or switches their manner of speech depending on the context, politicians especially so. Given American history, such color and culture hierarchies in voting preferences should be unsurprising. That Reid would highlight these advantages for Obama's candidacy merely reflects the fact he's a savvy politician (if not a savvy commentator about race). Pointing out political realities is not the same as endorsing them. Moreover, as CNN Political Analyst Roland Martin noted, Reid's comments would have been entirely unremarkable in a discussion among a group of adult African Americans, almost all of whom have seen and experienced forms of color and language bias.


Even a cursory knowledge of black history suggests colorism shapes which blacks attain leadership positions (I'm looking at you Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois and Douglas Wilder). So, given all the evidence that Reid was right, what's he apologizing for? Perhaps, Reid's real faux pas was talking about our "post-racial" America as if race still mattered.

Omar Wasow is a Ph.D. Candidate in African and African American Studies at Harvard University. He was the co-founder of BlackPlanet.com. Follow him on Twitter.


Omar Wasow is an assistant professor in Princeton’s Department of Politics. His research focuses on race and politics, protest movements and statistical methods. Before joining the academy, Omar served as a regular on-air technology analyst and was co-founder of BlackPlanet.com. Follow him on Twitter.