Correction to This Article
This article on Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid's 2008 remarks about Barack Obama, and how comments about race are received differently depending on the race of the speaker, incorrectly described Bill Clinton as trying to persuade Edward M. Kennedy to support Obama for president. Clinton was actually trying to persuade Kennedy not to back Obama when, according to the book "Game Change," he said, "A few years ago, this guy would have been getting us coffee." The word "not" was inadvertently omitted from the article's description of Clinton urging Kennedy not to support Obama.

Harry Reid's word choice shows a double standard that's seen when color comes up

By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 14, 2010

In talking about the delicate issue of skin color and dialect, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) raised a question: Why is it worse when a white person makes a comment like that than when a black person says the same thing?

That question also applies to the remarks of former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, who, in the February issue of Esquire, says he is "blacker" than President Obama. Blagojevich explains that he shined shoes and his father ran a laundromat in a black community.

Blagojevich's comments sound as though they could be a punch line in a routine by a black comedian. And yet they set off a storm of outrage and a stream of apologies. "What I said was stupid, stupid, stupid," Blagojevich told reporters earlier this week. "Obviously, I'm not blacker than President Obama."

Obviously, yes.

What may not be so obvious to some is why such comments by whites are still considered by some to be offensive in a so-called "post-racial society," a term that is itself riddled with questions.

It's true that in private conversations at home, on the job, in beauty shops and barbershops, at church and in restaurants, many black people have voiced versions of both politicians' comments. Blacks have privately and publicly debated whether Obama is "black enough." And they've echoed Reid in saying that Obama's skin color and speech have been factors in his political success, because there's a certain truth there.

But such comments are considered, by some, taboo coming from the mouths of white people.

"We can be the best of friends. . . . There are certain things we can say to each other. [But] it's the same code of: I can talk about my relatives, but when you start talking about my relatives, that is a problem," says Arica Coleman, assistant professor of black American studies at the University of Delaware.

Racial comments by whites may become more frequent in public as people get more comfortable talking about race, which is the goal of many in the country, Coleman says, but "there is a line you just do not cross."

The reason, Coleman contends, is that even in the Obama era, "we haven't dealt honestly with race." Conversations about race still tend not to mention the role of white privilege and discrimination in the current problems of black people or in race relations. "It's as though we live in a vacuum," Coleman says. So much of "what goes on in terms of race in this country is a response to white oppression."

* * *

Conversations about race are more fraught with peril because there are unwritten rules. "There are certain conversations that are legitimate within groups, that are not legitimate outside the group," says Ron Walters, professor emeritus of government and politics at the University of Maryland. "This has been true not just for African Americans, but there are other cultural groups that find themselves ensconced in a majority culture."

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