Political Correctness often runs amok, and when it does its primary fault is that it denies very real but unpleasant truths. We shrink from the real discussion of the issue by being offended when a little boy tells an emperor he has no clothes. In the news today is the story of Harry Reid apologizing for making racial remarks about Obama during campaign. The comments he's being made to apologize for are:
He [Reid] was wowed by Obama's oratorical gifts and believed that the country was ready to embrace a black presidential candidate, especially one such as Obama -- a 'light-skinned' African American 'with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.'
To those who find offense in the idea behind the words he chose, I say... What I find deeply offensive about that statement is that it is a true and accurate reflection of our still racially biased America. There is nothing we should find offensive about someone acknowledging that truth. Would anyone seriously argue that Obama's odds of election would have been greater (or exactly the same) had his skin been very dark? You and I may wish his skin color didn't matter to many of the voters, but I'm not so naive as to believe it doesn't. And no one could reasonably argue that Obama's oration, and its lack of Ebonics, didn't make him a far more palatable candidate. Harry Reid made a true and accurate statement, and now must apologize for it, because that's easier than requiring those who find knee-jerk offense acknowledge the shameful truth in his statement.
To those who find offense in the phrase "Negro dialect", I say... The phrase may have been poorly chosen, but I'm not clear if that phrase would necessarily offend most people. And I'm not sure what phrase would have been the right one. The term "Ebonics" seems to be the preferred term for what he was referring to, though I must confess I feel somewhat uncomfortable using that term, it has never felt like a legitimate word, being used primarily in non-serious contexts, as part of late night comedians' joke. And it seems like that word only came into being within the last 10-15 years. Would African-American dialect be an acceptable term? The term "Negro" can certainly be a charged word, but I've never understood it to be an automatically offensive word. The word is to be found in the terms "Negro spirituals" and the "Negro League", and while those terms represent things born of cruel and always unequal treatment, the "Negro" in those phrases calls to my mind the very best of men and women. The "Negro" in those terms is the one who triumphed against adversity, found beauty in despair, demonstrated excellence in injustice. But perhaps the word has a very bad association for many, I can certainly imagine some hideous people using it offensively, but there I think it's the context and not the word that primarily offends. (To be safe, I never use the word.) Whatever the case, I would hope people could see beyond the word, and find in this context no offense.
To those who find offense in Reid suggesting Obama could choose to speak in Ebonics, well, that is reality. People routinely vary their speach patterns to fit in. I've seen African Americans do it, Southerners do it, rednecks do it, Bostonians do it, etc.)
(I know little of Harry Reid. I've heard his name quite a lot over the last few months with regard to the health care debate, but other than that I'm woefully ignorant of the man, and am certainly not defending him on the basis of any knowledge of him or fondness for him.)
It's a few days later, and the more I see people react to this, the more it puzzles me. When I've listened to people, from pundits to politicians to people on the street, no one seems sure exactly what part of what Harry Reid said was offensive. It's quite bizarre. Everyone seems to feel some obligation to suspect offense (white guilt or black outrage), but no one seems to be able to pinpoint the offense. A few seem to feel "Negro dialect" is an offensive term, but many people (and scholars) say it's a valid and inoffensive term, but technically different from Ebonics ("Negro dialect" being the dialect of slaves and former slaves). Others seem to feel you just shouldn't speak about how much "hue" can matter in public acceptance, regardless of that horrible truth.
The Republicans are thoroughly disgusting me with their attempts to make this issue into something. It's clear they are trying to use this to derail Harry Reid and delay, distract, or derail health care. I find it hard to believe men or women of intelligence could find anything worth outrage here. Their only arguable point is that this in some way is reminiscent of Trent Lott's statement back in 2002and as such we should all stop being so "touchy". And if that's their real point (which I doubt it is), then I'd agree with that. Strom Thurmond's politics in the 1940s were horrendous. But, I don't believe Trent Lott was in any way thinking about those aspects of Thurmond's politics when he opined that America would have been better off if Thurmond had won the presidency; Lott was surely thinking about the many racist-free contributions Thurmond had made to the US in the 50 years which followed. It may have been a short-sighted, stupid, and recklessly effusive thing to say, sure. And an apology was warranted, as it was now, but only because apologies cost nothing, and give us a moment to explain what we meant, and what we didn't mean, and give those who feel slighted an opportunity to feel heard, to be magnanimous, and to be forgiving (and to be loud and rally the masses when it's truly not enough).
Today I learned an important lesson: The Nobel Peace Prize is not what I thought it was. I, like so many around the world, was under the impression that the Nobel Peace Prize was meant to celebrate those long toiling heroes of peace, the ones who managed to change the world, the Ghandis, if you will. But, nope, apparently Ghandi didn't deserve one, but this newly elected president, only 9 months into his presidency, and still very short on achievements, does deserve one.
I've heard the Nobel people explain their position, that they are using this as a platform to recognize the change in tone Obama represents in American diplomacy, and reflect how this this change has improved the overall tone of the world's diplomacy, and hey, it's their prize, they can give it out to whoever they like using whatever criteria they like. Still... I'll never look at the prize the same way again. I hope the Nobel Prize in Chemistry is actually based on achievements in chemistry, and not just who improves the overall tone of chemistry around the world.
(And I like Obama, don't get me wrong. I pretty much agree with every part of his complicated view of the world.)