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Social Studies

Symbols

By Vincent Williams | Posted 1/13/2010

I wonder what Sen. Harry Reid's (D-Nev.) apology to Barack Obama was like. How do you apologize for saying that Obama was electable because he was "light skinned" and "with no Negro dialect unless he wanted to have one"? As impolitic as the statements are, they resemble something like the truth. We don't like to talk about it, but, as Reid's cold-blooded assessment reflects, most of us approach the president as more symbol than individual.

Like it or not, the comment about Obama's electability vis-à-vis his skin tone is demonstrably true. Black people have always suspected it; anecdotally, I've heard about it my entire life; and statistically, study after study proves that it is easier for lighter-skinned blacks to succeed in the professional world than their darker-hued compatriots. It sucks, but that doesn't make it any less true, and though Reid may be the first white man I've heard say it, he certainly wasn't the first . . . or fifth . . . or 20th person I've heard qualify Barack Obama's appearance in this way.

Now, that whole "Negro dialect" thing was weird. I'm not even sure why he would use a term like that, though it makes me wonder if maybe Reid has an acquaintance named, like, Cleophus "Sassafras" Jones who shuffles around bustin' up chiffarobes and so is unused to speaking to different audiences. I myself prefer the term "code switch," bristle at the term "talkin' white," and have made peace with "talking proper," but we all know what Reid meant. Now that "Negro dialect" has entered my life, however, the phrase has given me the opportunity to walk around my house and periodically ask my wife, in a deep voice, if, "dey's any mo' yams in de embas ob dey coal out bac'?" My never-ending quest for yams aside, Reid was just inarticulately commenting on a phenomenon that most black people who have to be around white people engage in on a daily basis.

The real reason Reid's comments hit a nerve is because of what they tell us all about the way we view President Obama, and, by extension, the continually thorny issue of race. There is an aspect of Obama's appeal that can be connected to the simple symbolism of his presentation. As that other great white communicator, Joe Biden, said, Barack Obama is clean cut and articulate, and frankly I believe a large part of the reason he reaches audiences that previous black politicians have not is because he doesn't come from that mostly Southern, mostly preaching political background that white voters view as overly racialized.

The thing is, we all do it. You know the veeeeery first thing I heard about Barack Obama among black people? I heard people discussing Michelle Obama and what she looked like. You think the light skinned/dark skinned issue is sticky? Well, try talking about the spouses of successful black men. I believe the fact that Barack Obama is married to a brown-skinned, professional black woman is one of his most endearing features to many African-Americans. He's neither married to some model-y looking, video type woman nor, heaven forfend, a white woman, and lots of black folks noticed that before they knew anything else about him. No, the symbolic power of the Obamas as a regular (and, yeah, there's a loaded word) black family has gone a long way toward securing his continued support.

And when I say we all do it, I really do mean all of us. Before the comments came out and I realized the world needed jokes about someone named Cleophus "Sassafras" Jones, I had written a sort of "one year later" column about Obama. In it, I acknowledged that I'm pretty much happy with his performance over the past year, not least because he shows well and he's not embarrassing. In my defense, the most influential man in black America spends much of his time mangling the English language (maybe that's a Negro dialect . . .) while jumping around in a ridiculous wig and a house dress with two beach balls flapping around underneath, and the worst Baltimore political scandal of the past 20 years involves a black politician and the words "gift cards" and "Best Buy," so I'm always happy to have someone to point to as an example to my daughter.

When it comes to race, it's all symbols and examples and code. As much as we all profess to view each other as individuals, we're all guilty of reducing one another to simple ciphers. Harry Reid was just dumb enough to get caught saying it. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to find some yams.

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