Senator Reid’s White Racial Framing: Obama as the “Exception to His Race”

Well, I had several interviews yesterday on the Senator Reid story with CNN television and radio, so I thought I would jell my thoughts a bit more here. As the Associated Press story put it, summarizing some of the gossipyGame Change book by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, Reid said privately that Barack Obama

should seek – and could win – the White House because Obama was a “light skinned” African-American “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.”

Reid is operating out of an older version of the white racist frame. The words “Negro dialect” suggest his age and background (senator from a pretty white state), but certainly does not excuse it. Reid seems to be accenting here the view that Obama is an “exception to his race,” an old racist notion in white America dating way back to slavery days. In this view Obama speaks well because he does not use the “Negro dialect,” and with his being light-skinned and other things, that makes him attractive to voters. He, of course, does not say, but means white voters since most black voters are unlikely to be put off by Reid’s supposedly “bad” qualities here.

The Reid comments, brief as they are, raise interesting questions that few in the media have raised. What, for example, does he mean by “Negro dialect”? He likely means a certain stereotyped way that many whites think, often erroneously, most black Americans speak. (The provocative “Field Negro” blog puts this point rather sharply here.) Of course, whites’ mocking of what they think is the “Negro dialect” is extensive in this country, and there are reportedly hundreds of websites that get into extensive mocking of what whites think and construct as “Negro dialect.” (No similar array for “white speech”?)

For example, on one site there is the mocking translation of a speech by Socrates: “How ya’ gots felt, O dudes o’ Athens, a hearin’ de speeches o’ mah accusers.” Such mocking of black speech is linked on many white-generated Internet sites to a broad range of racist stereotypes, jokes, and images. The site also listed events at a fictional “Ebonic Olympic Games”: the “torching of the Olympic City” and the “Gang Colors Parade.” Antiblack websites spread racist images globally. There is at least one antiblack site in Russian. (These examples are from the research of Margaret Ronkin and Helen Karn in Journal of Sociolinguistics).

Interestingly, commenting on Reid, Princeton Professor Melissa Harris-Lacewell takes this language issue in a quite different direction:

Obama was not a viable contender until he learned to execute the cadences, rhythms, word choice and cultural references shared in many black communities. His stiff, wonkish approach in the 2000 congressional race led many African-Americans to be suspicious of his rootedness in black communities and his understanding of black community issues.

She thus contends that with some black voters (Reid seems to forget them in his comments) Obama had to accent certain cadences and other distinctive ways of speaking. This is a quite different language issue than what Reid had in mind.

Harris-Lacewell also questions whether lighter skin actually makes a difference with most white voters:

Some social science research finds that white voters demonstrate an unconscious preference for black faces with lighter skin and narrower facial features. It is likely that physical characteristics, like skin tone, may influence voters in this third group to view light-skin candidates as more “like them” and therefore “safer” to choose in an election. [However] These effects are negligible in determining election outcomes. Issue positions, partisan identification, assessment of electoral viability and previous elected office have far greater effects on vote choice.

I think she may be missing the main point here. Reid is considering skin color as just one characteristic along other features of Obama’s white-middle class orientation or “style,” not by itself. There is also the often unconsciously sensed danger-of-dark-skin motif in much white framing, as the cited research suggests. As Adia and I put it in our book on the Obama election and racism: Had Obama been a darker-skinned black man, he likely would have faced greater difficulty in escaping the “dangerous black man” characterizations that are part of the white racial frame. Some recent research is interesting on this point. For example, research on the impact of skin color and distinctive “black features” has shown that in court proceedings white judges tend to give harsher sentences to darker-skinned African Americans that lighter-skinned African Americans with similar records.

When Adia and I were researching our book we found several news stories that illustrate Reid was correct in some of his implications that numerous white voters would like Obama’s language, orientation, background, and/or style. Reportedly drawing on the canvassing approach of trying not to make voters mad, one white Obama campaign volunteer cited on a New York Times site made this comment to a potential voter: “One thing you have to remember is that Obama, he’s half white and he was raised by his white mother. So his views are more white than black really.” The volunteer thus assured the voter that Obama was acceptable because of his substantial white ancestry and white relatives’ socialization. Another white community volunteer reportedly spoke to fellow whites at a local church about how Senator Obama “doesn’t come from the African-American perspective – he’s not of that tradition. . . . He’s not a product of any ghetto.”

(Reid also has a track record on racial matters that makes one less likely to give him the benefit of the doubt in these matters. For example, he reportedly opposed some leading (and well-elected) black politicians in Illinois as unelectable replacements for President Obama.)

The white racial frame is so strong in white minds, even in relatively liberal white minds like Reid’s, that it is blurted out from time to time, and thus shows what many whites are really thinking–thinking they mostly try to hide in frontstage settings. We should take Reid’s commentary, and other such liberal-racist commentary, as a sign of what is really going on in the society. Reid’s commentary, and much more vulgar forms of it, were likely very commonplace across white America during the 2008 primaries and election. They still are. It is just that somehow this bit of the backstage got out without the cover of more socially “correct” language. One issue that has not come up much in the public controversy so far is the profound meaning of this backstage racist reality—the extensive blatant racism that goes on in the white backstage, something we have examined numerous times on this blog.

I should point out too that the book that generated the Reid controversy has even more dynamite quotes indicating the anti-Obama and hostile racialized views of Bill Clinton, such as those he made to and about Ted Kennedy endorsing Barack Obama. To Kennedy, Clinton reportedly said, “A few years ago, this guy would have been getting us coffee.” And Clinton also said, “the only reason you are endorsing him is because he’s black. Let’s just be clear.”


  1. marandaNJ

    Interestingly, it’s the Republicans who are jumping all over Reid to resign, because he’s a Democrat. This is yet another ploy to demean the Democrats in general.
    I agree with 90% of what you said Joe. I do have a problem with the Ebonics issue. Many cartoons[think Lil’ Abner and The Beverly Hillbillies] have ridiculed speech patterns in America by white “red necks” or white people from the deep south or people from “New Yawk” etc. The “joke” was that these people were ignorant and stupid because of their speech. Example: “Hey Pa! Them squirrels you cooked sure smell good! Can I get me some?”
    So it’s not exclusively the territory of people ridiculing blacks to ridicule speech. Being president dictates that Obama must speak in Standard American English or people in Europe, Africa, Asia etc will have difficulty understanding him. Especially when dealing with foreign powers when so much is at stake, it’s very important that translaters and political figures etc speak in an agreed-upon dialect or speech pattern.
    Thus, I don’t know how much of a racist Reid was to comment on speaking SAE. The skin tone issue is much more indicative of racism to me. What difference does an individual’s skin tone make regarding his ability to lead a nation? Nothing. But, Reid is simply echoing, unfortunately, white America’s bias against dark toned skin. This is something that needs addressing.

    • Dr. Terence Fitzgerald

      I agree with you Maranda, but I disagree with your argument in terms of Joe’s comments on language. Even though many people from different geographical locations have been mocked throughout time, especially in the popualr media; “Black mocking” carries with it the weight of hundreds of years of slavery, oppression, rape, murder,intimidation, and etc. The history acssociated with it forces a different perespective to be taken into account.

      • distance88

        Not to mention the fact that while the the rules governing Standard American English (or any language or dialect) are important for communication, they aren’t inherently true or better–it is arbitrarily that way.

        To me, it’s not only that Reid assumes there’s one stereotypical ‘black’ manner of speaking, it is also clear through his comments that he ascribes the so-called “Negro dialect” negative connotations–probably more so than he would “white dialects” (which aren’t entirely dissimilar) i.e. New England or Southern dialects like MarandaNJ mentions…

        And just because his statement is logically correct (most white people do see ‘black’ dialects as negative and it could be a political disadvantage), it’s still a dumb thing to say (and poorly worded).

  2. Joe

    Thanks for the insights, Maranda. You are right that there is class stereotyping and derogatory class-biased language in regard to “rednecks” and “white trash,” but my point is that there are not hundreds of websites, including some in Russian, that spend a lot of time on jokes about white people….. There are in regard to things like N-word jokes. Check out the Ronkin pdf I cite.

  3. No1KState

    So many thoughts come to mind.

    – I gotta find video of your interviews to show my mom I got “connections!”

    – Steele’s op-ed for the WSJ seems kinda ironic now, huh?

    – Guess “us negras was’n raught ’bout Clinton,” huh? (African American voters correctly diagnosed some degree of racism on the part of Bill Clinton.)

    – Lacewell did talk about the systemic racism that Reid’s comments get at. I mean, just intuitively, if only 10% of whites think as racially, if not racistly, as Reid, it’s relatively cut and dry to imagine the type of negative compound affect this thinking would have on the opportunities available to black Americans.

    As for Negro dialect, I think she was making a distinction between sidewalk vernacular and the rhythm of public/preacher style speaking. During the primaries, lots of commenters on HuffPo took exception to his use of the cadence familiar to most black church-goers. They contended he was imitating MLK in an unauthentic way – because his authentic self is “white.” This was before Rev. Wright came out. Of course, that only showed how little they know about Obama and black culture – I can use the same cadence if I had to. And the biggest thing about the cadence is the way it can kinda build up emotional electricity in a crowd. I think it was another CNN interviewee months ago who talked about this. She said that while the cadence builds up synergy, people can also leave not remembering the actual speech – hence, some comments I read on HuffPo and even a few pieces by THE NATION magazine that Obama’s speeches were “empty” and that after hearing him, you’d leave without being able to recall what he had said. So there’s my mouthful on “Negro dialect” as it pertains to Obama.

    – To finish up my mouthful on “Negro dialect,” you mentioned the sites mocking black vernacular which would be enough. But to add insult to injury, they can’t even get it right!! Ughh!! What immediately comes to mind is a criminal in CSI who protests about his being arrested while injured, “This be cruel and unusual punishment!” Using the verb “to be” that way is grammatically incorrect in Black Vernacular English. So while the intent is usually to stereotype and demean speakers of Negro dialect, if you ask me, you can’t be all that “superior” if you can’t even getting mocking right. Moreover, if white Americans, whatever their political stripe, insist that black English is unintelligeble to them, that only augments arguments that black English is a separate language.

    – Back to Reid, it seems the black community may be split on what this means for Reid. You got those who, like Field, are disgusted and have little love left for Reid, the “dumbocrats,” and “his O ness.” Then, there’re those like me who expect nothing less for someone like Reid and are ready to move on. I agree with Field that Obama let a teachable moment slip by; that said, Reid’s comments seem more observational than racist. Commenting on someone’s complexion and dialect is, to me, less offensive the “blame the victim” rhetoric. When it comes to policy, Reid’s been pretty good. So, it’s just not that big a deal to me. Like you say, Clinton’s comments are worse. They seem to hint at what he believes as opposed to what he’s observed politically. It’s not as though some black folks, me included, didn’t observe the same thing Reid did, even if I would’ve said it better.

  4. Joe

    No1Kstate, thanks as usual for the savvy comments. You are right away black folks noting some of the same things.
    Of course, the black take on Obama mostly does not come straight out of the white-racist framing as it does for Reid. It is key that Reid is unreflective about his white-centered framing, as he assumes white voters to be his reference and uses old racialized language. Black folks critique/take has usually been quite clear about Obama’s appeal to the racist framing of “good” black people among whites. The mainstream media seem clueless on this point, except for a few pundits of color.

  5. Dr. Terence Fitzgerald

    Joe, I found your take on the Reid issue insightful. The first point I would like to make is that Princeton Professor Melissa Harris-Lacewell glossed over the comments made by Reid. I have found that CNN has called on her numerous times and her take on hard racial issues seems weak in terms conjuring a just and critical analysis. Secondly Joe, the only reason the brow raising comments made by others in regards to President Obama were not brought up after the release of Game Change was simply due to their insignificance to the health care debate (i.e., Bill Clinton). The focus by the media and those opposing health care overhaul, only attempt to take steam out of the sails of the efforts for universal health care.


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