In Chris Rock’s classic concert, Bring the Pain, he famously mocked the conversation among whites regarding the prospect of retired four-star General Colin Powell’s run for president.
“[They have said] ‘he speaks so well, he really speaks well,” Rock said. “He’s an educated man, what is he supposed to sound like? – ‘I be Prez-o-dent?'”
The joke captured the feeling of some whites, and blacks alike – that there is such a thing as a universal black demeanor and dialect. An African-American who can transcend these behaviors is somehow a diamond-in-the-rough. This idea resurfaced recently upon the release of the new book, Game Change, which goes behind the scenes of the 2008 election and quotes Senate majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada describing then-candidate Barack Obama as a “light-skinned” African-American who lacked a “Negro dialect,” except when he wanted one.
Republicans, including national party Chairman Michael Steele, were quick to label Reid’s comments as racist and asserted that he should resign. Liz Cheney, rightwing pundit and daughter of the former vice president, called the comment “blatantly bigoted.” But surprisingly, conservative columnist George Will disagreed with the Republican attack machine and praised Reid for “a moment of rare honesty.”
I’m more inclined to side with Will on this one.
All of the intense partisan attacks conveniently overlook Reid’s actual record as it relates to minorities. Despite his comments, he ultimately did support Obama in the Democratic Primary and general election. He has a strong record in supporting the NAACP and programs like Headstart, which benefit many African-Americans.
I don’t think his comments undo that record.
There is an element of truth in his words. There is a certain opinion in this country that African-Americans of a lighter skin-tone and “proper” dialect are more accessible and acceptable to whites.
Blacks and whites alike believe that complexion tends to dictate perception about a person’s abilities, temperament and eloquence. Let’s not forget how blacks themselves questioned whether Obama was “black enough.” This is essentially similar to what Reid expressed, but no one seemed to complain about it.
Keli Goff, a columnist with The Huffington Post, noted the ways in which racial barriers in the country tend to be broken by fairer-skinned minorities – the first popularly elected black U.S. Senator, Edward Brooke; New York Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.; and two Miss Americas: Vanessa Williams and Suzette Charles, to name a few.
You can also add the first African-American Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall, and Colin Powell, the first African-American Secretary of State, to that list.
One by the University of Georgia in 2006 found that light-skinned black men had the edge in hiring over dark-skinned black men, regardless of their credentials. As doctoral student Matthew S. Harrison told Post-gazette.com: “We found that a light-skinned black male can have only a bachelor’s degree and typical work experience and still be preferred over a dark-skinned black male with an MBA and past managerial positions.”
Why are blacks perceived differently based on their complexions and accents? What are the historical implications attached to these assertions? As Georgetown University Professor Michael Eric Dyson notes, these perceptions date back to slavery “when lighter-skinned blacks were considered less threatening and closer in appearance and disposition to whites.”
The question deserves to be tackled without finger-pointing. I think a more proper response to the Reid controversy is to see this as a teachable moment in tackling the historical correlation between complexion and perception.