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Opinion focus with Eugene Robinson: Harry Reid's comments were crudely put, yet true

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Eugene Robinson
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, January 12, 2010; 1:00 PM

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson was online Tuesday, Jan. 12 to discuss his recent columns and the latest news.

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Read his column Harry Reid's comments were crudely put, yet true in which Gene writes: Skin color among African Americans is not to be discussed in polite company, so Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's newly disclosed remark about President Obama -- that voters are more comfortable with him because he's light-skinned -- offended decorum. But it was surely true.

Archive of past discussions.

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Eugene Robinson: Hello, everyone, and welcome. My topic in today's column was Harry Reid's assessment that President Obama was an attractive candidate because he was "light-skinned" and spoke with no "Negro dialect." This is far from the most important news story in the world, or even in Washington, but I have spent a good deal of time thinking about issues of race and color -- that's the subject of my first book, "Coal to Cream" -- and thought I had to weigh in. My view is that Reid's analysis was impolitic and offensive -- at least in the way he delivered it -- but basically correct. I imagine some of you might disagree, so we'll talk about it. As usual, any other subject is on the table as well. Let's get started.

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Washington, DC: Reid spoke the truth and all the networks that tried to make such a big deal out of Reid's comments only reinforced what he said. How many of the networks black anchors/reporters are "light skinned"?

Why wasn't the darkening of O.J. Simpson's photo, on the cover of Time magazine one of the writers employer, discussed?

Is this really about Reid or an attempt to try to harm Pres. Obama's agenda with distractions? Saying Negro seems a little out of touch but Reid's record speaks for itself.

A lot of talk about Reid but nothing about Clinton's offensive comment - why?

Eugene Robinson: You're referring to Bill Clinton's reported comment to Ted Kennedy -- according to the book that also featured the Reid comments -- in which the former president allegedly said that a few years ago, Obama would have been "getting us coffee." I referred to it in my column and judged it more offensive than Reid's words, by a mile. I don't know the sourcing on the purported comment, and so far there has been no comment from Clinton. If he didn't say it, he should deny it. If he did -- wow.

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New Orleans, LA: Mr. Robinson, about the comments by Bill Clinton on Obama getting coffee, I took it to mean that he was merely a freshman Senator. I know that the former President can be impolitic at times and definitely has crossed the line in the past, but I find it hard to believe that he thinks that black people should be consigned to servile roles in our society.

Am I just being naive?

Eugene Robinson: I find it hard to believe, too. But freshmen senators don't have to get coffee. Harvard Law Review editors don't go get coffee. University of Chicago constitutional law professors don't go get coffee.

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Atlanta, Ga.: I think that you oversimplify the comparison of the U.S. and Brazil and color bias.

People who are considered Afro-Brasileiros don't call themselves "black" because, in Brazil, that term isn't an accurate physical description. In the U.S., I self-identify as black, but in Brazil, I have been called canelinhna (a little cinnamon), or Baiana or Carioca, because I look like someone from Salvador or Rio.

While slavery was much more pervasive there and persisted until the late 1880s, Brazil (even with its color caste system) is a much more integrated, multicultural and multiracial society. And the Brazilian gov't is indeed trying to address disparities in a progressive, if controversial, manner.

We should not expect people in other countries to absorb American racial schizophrenia simply because we haven't quite figured it out.

Eugene Robinson: I spent a lot of time in Brazil, and I love the place. Integrated, multiracial and multicultural? You bet, and it's wonderful. But the disparities are enormous, and I think you'd have to acknowledge that in terms of addressing those disparities, Brazil is far behind the United States. Our way of dealing with race is scratchy and uncomfortable, but we do deal with it.

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Richmond, Va.: Your column and the current race discussion brought to mind something I witnessed in New Orleans in the mid seventies. While dining at the Royal Orleans hotel with a female business associate (who was Creole) we were approached by an African-American bus-boy she knew. They were exchanging pleasantries, when the Maitre d' came up and scolded the young man saying "You know n-----s aren't supposed to talk to the customers." The Maitre d' was very light skinned. My dining companion was embarrassed but explained to me about a "brown bag test" that was used in some circles of New Orleans society for quite a while. Skin tones darker than a brown paper bag were generally excluded from certain organizations and ranked lower on an intra-racial class system. I believe William Raspberry wrote a column about this several years ago. It seems that some sort of caste system may still exist in the Black community as evidenced by some pre-election criticism of President Obama for not having "slave blood" and challenges to some newer politicians for not having been involved in the civil right movement of the 60s.

Eugene Robinson: I hope the old "paper-bag test" is a thing of the past. In the old days, when I was a kid, any caste system within black America was in the context of everyone, beige or tan or brown, having to ride in the back of the bus. Color prejudice was more common in the old-line black communities of Southern cities like New Orleans and Charleston, but there were more factors holding those communities together than splitting them apart. As for today, I think what you're seeing is mostly a generational divide. I remember Jim Crow segregation; African-Americans ten years younger do not.

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Joe Wilson: "My view is that Reid's analysis was impolitic and offensive -- at least in the way he delivered it -- but basically correct." Couldn't that apply to me as well?

Eugene Robinson: You lie! No, I take that back, it's rude for the discussion host to insult the participants. If Harry Reid had jumped up and yelled "light-skinned!" during a presidential speech before a joint session of Congress, then we could talk.

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RE: Reid's "crudely put" comments: You're no doubt aware of the that old Southern jingle: (If you're white, you're alright. If you're brown, stick around. If you're black, get back, get back, get back)? Its origin dates back to the days of slavery when lighter skinned Blacks got to work in the big house while others had to toil in the fields under the hot sun. Gwen Ifill said studies show that light skinned & well speaking (without a dialect) Afro-Americans and other ethnic groups generally fare better in work situations than darker skinned and dialect laden persons. Keep in mind that many Blacks today refer to themselves as Negroes. Harry Reid used a poor choice of words when he spoke of Obama's election chances in 2008, but he spoke the truth. Trent Lott's comment (The country would've been better off had Strom Thurmond & the Dixiecrats won) is false, hurtful and racist plain and simple. Lott's comment harkens back to a dark period for many in American history. The two situations aren't comparable despite Republican protestations to the contrary.

Eugene Robinson: I, too, see a big difference between Lott's comments and Reid's. But the much bigger difference between the two situations is that when Lott made his gaffe, the long knives were already out for him in Washington. The White House was openly trying to get him bumped out of his post. That's what sealed his fate, not the egregiousness of his comment (which served as more of an excuse for the party to dump him). Reid is the administration's point man on health care, and nobody in the Senate is openly angling for his job. (Who would want it, at the moment?)

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Yachats, Oregon: Mr. Robinson. You are one of my favorite political columnists and I always enjoy seeing you on Hardball, Countdown and Rachel Maddow. I am a BIG fan. Looking at you last night, though, it appears you have dyed your hair. Please, please tell me it isn't so!!!

Eugene Robinson: I'm tempted to quote Joe Wilson. I just let it grow a little. No artificial enhancement.

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Skinners Bluff, Ore: A more general question. I had hoped that the Era of Outrage would have died out with the ending of the decade. What will it take for our politics to return to the 'People's Business' rather than the cable news outrage of the day?

Eugene Robinson: Maybe when the giant asteroid hits? Seriously, I have to hope that at some point we'll begin to suffer Outrage Fatigue. But I don't know when.

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Millville, Calif: I saw some online criticism of Lee Daniels, director of Precious, for casting dark skinned blacks as the bad/evil characters and light skinned blacks as the good characters in the movie. Were people reading too much into it?

Ta-Nehisi Coates at The Atlantic has an ongoing blog discussion about this topic.

Eugene Robinson: Well, don't get me started on "Precious." I believe totally in artistic freedom and will defend to the death Lee Daniels' right to make his movie. But I don't even have to get to a question of light-skinned versus dark-skinned. The level of dysfunction and depravity is almost pornographic. Not my cup of tea.

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Pittsburgh- Can I ask a Race Question?: Eugene, Do you think about race every day? I am a white male, age 51 and I rarely if ever consider my race. I am sincerely curious though, do Afro American/black people think about their race a lot? Daily? To you personally, do you consciously, every day at some point say to yourself: "I am of the Afro American ("black") race"?

Thanks for this dialogue.

Eugene Robinson: You're welcome. I don't repeat a mantra to myself, but I do look in the mirror and I suppose I do think about race just about every day. At a party, for example, I would probably notice if there were no other black people there. But if I were hanging out with close friends, of any race, I doubt that I'd think about race unless it came up. It's just a fact.

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Washington, D.C.: Eugene, the Anglo-American culture seems unique in being particularly sensitive to any mention of race. In other countries, racial remarks do not arouse any controversy even from the racial groups being mentioned.

Recall that during the Olympics, there was a scandal in the US and Britain about a photo where some country's team was seen making "Asian face" (jokingly playing with their eyes). When the Chinese team were asked if they were offended, they were a little puzzled--"No, why would we be?" No one in the world saw any controversy, with two exceptions: the US and Britain.

In Mexico, when a stamp came out showing the face of a black boy, the US erupted in outrage, while the people of Mexico (including black Mexicans themselves) were scratching their heads at the US' reaction.

The paranoia surrounding race seems like a cultural US/Britain issue which the rest of the world doesn't share (or understand).

Eugene Robinson: In fairness, though, other parts of the world have their sensitive points, too -- look at the reaction to those Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed. I suspect that one reason for our sensitivity is that this has been a diverse society from day one. As full rights -- and respect -- have been expanded to groups that weren't included at first, including black people and Asians and Latinos, any sign of disrespect seems retrograde and threatening.

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Urbana, IL: Hi Mr. Robinson, great column today. I wonder what your thoughts are on Michael Steele's indignation over Sen Reid's comment. How does someone who uses "honest injun" or explains his efforts to invite blacks into the Republican's tent by saying he's got "the fried chicken and potato salad" express outrage over racially insensitive language from someone else?

Eugene Robinson: Disingenuously.

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washingtonpost.com: Hi Gene, I'm curious about your take on the poll released today showing that "African Americans' assessment of race relations and prospects for the future has surged more dramatically during the past two years than at any time in the past quarter-century..."

Eugene Robinson: It's the Obama Effect. I think it's no exaggeration to say that the fact that we have an African-American president is STILL almost literally unbelievable to most African-Americans.

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Bowie Md.: Mr. Obama knows how to "code" for a very wide range of cultural situations - almost required for a community organizer because you have to be able to persuade blocks and boards. How would you rate the nation's white politicians at being able to effectively "code" for the various non-white cultures?

Eugene Robinson: I've never met a successful politician, of any race, who doesn't know how to modulate his or her tone for different audiences. Can you think of one?

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To Pittsburgh: Mr. Robinson may I answer this too?

First off, Yes, yes you can ask a question about race and please do. As far as thinking about my race, I was brought up by Indian immigrant parents and a White/European-American from rural Virginia. At Grandma's house from the time I was one month old, I never knew race existed. But outside of her home in Baltimore in the late 60s and 70s, I was made aware of race early and often. Not just in the abstract, but in my own experiences. Imagine being a 3 year old and seeing your father insulted for being colored. Or 7 years old on a trip to Disneyworld and having another kid sneer, call you blackie and storm off when you came over to play and asked his name. It is good that you don't have to think about your race. I honestly wish that I didn't have to. But that and a million other experiences that I have had personally, make it something that I am forced to think about even today. After 9/11 I couldn't sit in a restaurant without having people stare at me. I felt like I was back in the midwest in some small town where people like me had never been seen before. I was born and raised in the US. I love being and American. And yes, unfortunately my beloved homeland still makes it impossible for me to forget my race and the races of others.

Eugene Robinson: Thanks. That's a good answer.

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St. Louis, MO: What do you make of former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich calling himself "blacker" than Obama? He said this right on the heels of Senator Reid's statements. Is Blagojevich's statement worse than Reid's, or is it just as ill-advised?

Eugene Robinson: It was just stupid, as Blagojevich later acknowledged. If one were to take him seriously, one would have to ask what "blacker" means to him. Is he talking about speech patterns? Economic or social status? Even through that hair-helmet of his, he should have gotten the message by now that there are all different types of black people.

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Falls Church, Va.: If you look at Ezra Klein's blog from yesterday, he has a post discussing the effect of racism on politics, and he cites a study that measured participants' racism by how well they categorized a list of first names as stereotypically black or not.

In other words, recognizing stereotypically black names is racist. And yet you and others say that recognizing a stereotypically black manner of speech is not racist.

It's hard for a white person to navigate these extremely fine distinctions, given the penalty for getting it wrong. And if some white people conclude that the standards are being applied such that Democrats get a benefit of the doubt that Republicans do not, it's partly because no other reasonable distinction can be easily discerned.

washingtonpost.com: Here is that blog item and here is the study.

Eugene Robinson: I think I would reject the premise that guessing race from naming patterns is racist. Making further assumptions from those names -- about intelligence or ability, for example -- would sound racist to me. I don't think the distinctions are so fine that nobody can see them.

Anyway, folks, my time is up for today. Thanks so much for tuning in, and see you again next time.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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