Senator Harry Reid of Nevada has had all of political America talking about an issue that used to be confined mostly to the African American community — whether or not a black person with a lighter skin tone who spoke in a standard English vernacular without any noticeable twang or drawl enjoyed an advantage over their darker hued, more idiomatic counterparts. It is a subject that has been revisited over and over again since Reconstruction, when the first men of color were elected to the House of Representatives and the Senate after the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution were ratified. And yet, to ignore this latest incarnation of that age-old debate is to ignore the elephant in the room that race has become in America.
I tried to address some of these same issues in 2008 when Barack Obama became the front runner in the Democratic primary. In an attempt to get beyond the limitation of my own experiences, I took a look at Obama’s story from a literary point of view:
“To take this premise a step further, then — if Obama is accepted by mainstream America because he doesn’t exhibit any of the traits of the stereotypical African American — those of us who do not use standard English, who do not have conservatively styled hair, who are not highly educated are in effect rendered invisible to white Americans, much like Ralph Ellison’s main character in Invisible Man.
Most black authored racial literature here in America has been about black men and women dealing with and entering a white world — three classic examples are Frederick Douglass, Narrative and Life and Times, Richard Wright, Native Son, and Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man.
We have been striving since slavery to shake off the strictures of bondage and discrimination in order that we might fully inhabit all phases of American life. Barack Obama’s autobiography, Dreams From My Father, on the other hand, tells a story that is the exact opposite of our traditional tale of racial transformation – it is the story of a man of amorphous race dealing with and entering the black world.”
Barack Obama grew up in a white, middle class household for most of his formative years. In an ironic twist, it was his entrée into black Chicago that began his political career. So was Senator Reid’s assessment of Obama’s future political prospects wrong, or was he simply telling the truth, clumsily garnished with the outdated term “Negro dialect”?
Jennifer Hochschild, Traci Burch, and Vesla Weaver compiled a report for the Harvard Government Department titled “Effects of Skin Color Bias in SES on Political Activities and Attitudes”. In their report they cited research by Keith Maddox and Stephanie Gray, who found that “perceivers do notice skin tone and can use it as an organizing cue, suggesting that skin tone is a basis of categorization among both Black and White perceivers.”
After the furor over Senator Reid’s comment dies out and fades away from the talk show circuit, that elephant will still be in the room, waiting on us to figure out how to get him out of there without tearing down the house.