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.”