01.10.10

Harry Reid Was Right

Yes, the Senate leader’s “light-skinned” comments about Obama were uncomfortable. But that’s because he spoke the truth about white attitudes—a truth even Colin Powell concedes.

There’s nothing Americans love more than demanding “honest talk” about race and then kicking the teeth out of anyone who engages in it. Thus the tale of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who is now in political purgatory because he told authors Mark Halperin and John Heilemann that white people were more open to voting for Barack Obama because he’s “light-skinned” and has “no Negro dialect.” Reid’s use of the word “Negro” was, to be sure, unpleasantly retro. But everything else about his statement is undeniably correct. Political scientists have proved it. Famous African Americans have testified to it. So now Reid must be punished, because he said things about the contours of white racism that you’re not supposed to say, except behind closed doors, where everyone knows that they’re true.

First, skin color. White people (and perhaps African Americans and other minorities as well) are more likely to vote for lighter-skinned blacks. In 2007, when Harvard’s Jennifer Hochschild and the University of Virginia’s Vesla Weaver surveyed every African-American governor, senator and member of Congress since 1865, they found that light-skinned blacks were dramatically overrepresented as a share of the black population. Similarly, they found that when light-skinned blacks run for office, they win at higher rates than their darker-skinned brethren.

Reid’s statement was less an example of white racism than an analysis of white racism. He dared to discuss an aspect of race prejudice that people generally find too toxic to publicly discuss.

But how do we know that this particular species of racism informs people’s view of Obama? Because in 2009, Eugene Caruso of the University of Chicago, Emily Balcetis of New York University and Nicole Mead of Tilburg University in the Netherlands proved it. They showed three pictures of Obama—one lightened, one darkened and one undoctored—to people who planned to vote for him, and to people who did not. The Obama voters were significantly more likely to claim that the lightened photo was the real one. The McCain voters were more likely to claim that the darkened photo was.

How about “black” speech patterns? Yet again, social science is on Reid’s side. In 1999, Thomas Purnell of the University of Wisconsin, William Idsardi of the University of Delaware, and John Baugh of Stanford had people answer apartment-rental ads in the San Francisco area using a variety of dialects. The callers who “sounded black” were substantially less likely to secure an appointment to see the apartment than those who “sounded white.”

Meghan McCain: Give Michael Steele More TimeIs any of this really a surprise, in a country where the extent of one’s blackness, as well as the fact of one’s blackness, has been the basis of oppression for centuries? In the antebellum South, states like Louisiana even maintained special legal categories for “quadroons” and “octoroons,” blacks whose mixed-race ancestry allowed them rights denied their “full-blooded” brethren. And as African Americans generally understand better than whites, that legacy remains alive today. When asked in 1995 why white people liked him so much, Colin Powell replied that “I speak reasonably well, like a white person,” and, visually, “I ain’t that black.”

So if what Reid said was palpably true, why is he in so much trouble? Yes, his use of the word “negro” was unattractive. But overall, his statement was less an example of white racism than an analysis of white racism. He dared to discuss an aspect of race prejudice that people generally find too toxic to publicly discuss. But it should be publicly discussed. Because amid the triumphalism that has followed Barack Obama’s election—the insistence, particularly on the right, that his election proves that racism has all but died out—it is worth remembering that while Obama’s election constitutes racial progress, it is also, peculiarly, testament to how far America still has to go.

Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.