Monday, January 11, 2010

The Harry Reid Affair: Identifying the Elephant

Despite Republican Party Chairman Michael Steele's insistence to the contrary, Senator Harry Reid should not resign because of his alleged racist comments in analyzing then candidate Barack Obama's chances of winning the presidential election. I don't believe that Sen. Reid needs to apologize and quite frankly, I'm a bit tired of hearing the man continually apologize for a nonexistent offense.

Reid simply expressed that Obama's chances of winning were better because he didn't scare white voters. Reid's supposedly racist offense: he privately told two journalists in 2008 that Obama was more electable because he's "light-skinned" and lacked a "Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one."

It's an ugliness that we don't like to talk about but skin color does matter in the minds of a lot of people and not just in the United States. Skin lightening products are large sellers in parts of Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East. In India and China, lighteners are a multi-million dollar industry. 

Historically, there have been tangible benefits to having lighter skin. In the U.S., lighter skinned slaves were more likely to be assigned as house slaves, a step above working in the fields all day. I won't digress as to the reason some of the slaves were significantly lighter than others. If you honestly don't know, follow this link.

In many cultures lighter skin is linked to class distinctions. Dark skin is a sign that one works outside; pale skin is an indication that one is of a higher class and not subject to manual labor. Think of the look of Queen Elizabeth I and other European nobility who achieved their pale complexions via lead based powders, some laced with arsenic and if all else failed, the application of leeches to leave one pale and beautiful. In Japan and China, rice powders were applied by the upper class to achieve whiteness. Men and women sought to achieve pale skin as a sign of their elevated class. In the United States, this obsession reached a peak with a fervent need on the part of European Americans to declare their superiority to African Americans and to ensure that children born to a slave mother of a white father were not in line to inherit any of the property of the landowner. Anti-miscegenation laws were still in effect in 16 states when the U.S. Supreme Court declared them unlawful in 1967.

Sen. Reid's comments merely sum up the history of race relations in this country in a few words. Strategically, Obama possessed qualities that made him more likely to become this country's first black president. Reid summed it up well--Obama didn't look too black and he was quite eloquent in his speech. Even the reference to Obama's lack of a Negro dialect except when he wanted to have one was dead on target. If Obama spoke like Snoop Dog he would have had a good chance of success as a rapper but not in becoming President of the United States.

A 1993 study on the effect of skin color on white voter preferences by political scientist Nayda Terkildsen yielded some interesting results. Terkildsen presented a random sample of adults with descriptions of one of three fictional candidates running for governor. The candidates were described in identical terms. The only difference was that one of three photographs were attached to the descriptions--a white male, a light complexion black male, or a dark complexion black male.The report found that there was a statistically significant impact in that black candidates were penalized by white voters based on the candidates's race, skin color, and individual levels of racial prejudice. Or in simple terms, white voters preferred white candidates, but if they had to choose between a dark skin black candidate and a light skin black candidate, they chose the lighter skin black man. (Want to check out your own attitudes towards race, gender, weight and other potential areas of bias? Check out the Harvard's research site, Implicit.)

American culture is schizophrenic when it comes to skin tones and other attributes of people of color. In the early part of the 20th century, pale was still the beauty standard, but somewhere about mid century, tan became the measure of good looks and health for whites. Of course, a lot of black folks had permanent tans, but there were those who could pass for white. I like to imagine that the fixation on tanning came about because of Annette Funicello and all those beach movies. Whatever the reason, in spite of the warnings about the sun and skin cancer connection, tanning salons abound and the beaches are lined with bodies sprawled under the sun. At the same time, quite a few white women are getting collagen injections to make their lips fuller, further mimicking attributes more generally seen in black women. 

It's absurd for Michael Steele and his fellow Republicans to attempt to tar Reid with the same brush as Trent Lott, who commended Senator Strom Thurmond's racist policies stating that if the rest of the country had also voted for Thurmond the country would have been better for it. Thurmond supported segregation and was an advocate against the mingling of the races. Lott's remarks and Reid's comments do not arise from the same place. Reid's remarks were in the context of explaining why he was enthusiastic that Obama had a good shot at winning the 2008 presidential election.

Perhaps Steele is trying to divert attention from his own foray into bigotry. Last week, Steele declared that the RNC platform was the best in 25 years,"Honest injun on that." To add further insult, Steele's apology was less than sincere; when host Chris Wallace pointed out that "honest injun" was perceived as a racial slur, Steele answered, "Well, if it is, I apologize for it.” Steele went on to state, “It’s not intended to be a racial slur. I wasn’t intending to say a racial slur at all.”

Evidently, Steele is a believer in the, "I didn't mean to offend" defense.

This tempest in a teapot over Harry Reid's off the cuff observations regarding the potential for success of Obama's campaign for president could have a beneficial aspect if it leads to honest dialogues about race and race relations in this country. However, I'm not holding my breath. Race is the perpetual elephant in the room that most of us pretend not to see.


Sybil said...

I don't think we will ever change the thinking of the majority of people, however hard we may try. with the U.S. it is it is class..
Personally I think it matters not a jot, just amazes me and makes me shake my head...

Love Sybil x

Nance said...

I admire your cool and even-handed analysis of this issue. Much like our president, you take the no-drama perspective and that has a way of clearing things up so well. May I call you No-Hysteria Sheria? (It doesn't work as well as a spoken phrase, but it looks pretty cool in writing). Thanks for another meaningful post.

Sarcastic Bastard said...

I love how this society just skewers you for being honest.

I once accidentally bought some rice powder. I went to work looking all Kabuki and shit. The lighting in my bathroom was bad so I didn't know it until I got to work.

I send my love, dear Sheria.

Anonymous said...


-- Christopher

( BTW, I emailed you to make sure you were getting my PRIVATE ENTRY EMAILS )

Mark said...

My friend Effie told me about the "paper bag test" in the black community. "Are you lighter or darker than a paper bag?" being determinative in the issue of self-image and beauty. Another black guy in the room said "Sister, don't tell the white people our secrets!"
Its impossible not to internalize to some degree the prejudices of the society you grew up in, even if you're the victim of those prejudices. And race is still huge. When I asked the white guys in prison if they'd rather wake up tomorrow white and gay or black and straight, they ALL chose white and gay. Whereas the black guys all chose white and straight rather than black and gay.
I try to imagine if Michael Steele would seem any more idiotic if he was white. I guess we just assume that black people will be naturally cooler, and when we see someone try so hard, it's more painful. You sort of expect Harry Reid to be inartful--he looks like he just arrived to the diner for the early bird special.

Bucko (a.k.a., Ken) said...

Acknowledging ethnicity does not make you racist. I wish we could focus on the reals issues.