By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 14, 2010; C01
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."
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."
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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."
"This etiquette for race relations is breaking down largely because people are on the scene who are not aware of this racial etiquette who feel they can freely appropriate the terms and the values of a culture into the public sphere," Walters says.
Andra Gillespie, an assistant professor of political science at Emory University, says Reid's remark about Obama's skin color raises questions about whether the speaker really understands the role skin color has played in the nation's history and among African Americans. "Would a black person have said it that way in a formal interview? I think the answer is no," says Gillespie, author of the recently published book "Whose Black Politics? Cases in Post-Racial Black Leadership."
"For black people there is often an unspoken rule about the extent to which they will talk about skin color in mixed company, in part because of the normative desire for those hierarchies not to be real. [And] . . . because it is painful. By giving weight to those concerns, they are giving it power."
While elderly blacks sometimes still use the word "Negro," Reid's use of the word was a dead giveaway that the politician is not so racially aware, Coleman says. "Hey, Harry, you didn't get the memo. We don't use that word anymore."
"It shows a bit of detachment from the African American community," agrees Avis Jones-DeWeever, director of research at the National Council of Negro Women. DeWeever says her organization still uses the word because it was commonly accepted 75 years ago when her organization was established. "That is a term that is at least 50 years old," she says. "It is not that it is an offense or a racial slur, but an indicator of the historical context of this organization. At the time this organization was established, it was a widely accepted social reference. Since then, we have gone from Negro to black to African American. So you rarely hear the term Negro anymore."
Reid, whose remarks were revealed in "Game Change," a book detailing the 2008 race, by Time's Mark Halperin and New York magazine's John Heilemann, also apologized. "I deeply regret using such a poor choice of words," Reid said in a statement.
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Even though many blacks have openly questioned Obama's racial bona fides, Blagojevich's comments were offensive to many. "He has a skewed idea of what black is," Coleman says. "It's as though we are not diverse. As though we all come up with the same background and that someone from Hawaii with an Ivy League education is somehow not black. This is someone trying to define blackness in a very narrow way."
Walters said he thought Blagojevich's comments were more mean-spirited than Reid's. "It was ignorant," Walters says. "I don't quite know why he said this, except to draw some attention to himself and downplay the president."
But despite the focus on Reid's and Blagojevich's statements, the most egregious remark may have come from former president Bill Clinton. "Game Change" quotes Clinton, trying to persuade Ted Kennedy to support Obama. In that conversation, Clinton allegedly says, "A few years ago, this guy would have been getting us coffee."
Mouths dropped. Definitely not something African Americans would say about themselves.
"That was infinitely more offensive," DeWeever said. "But because there are no political points to be gained, that is being overlooked."