Problem Word

Monday, January 11, 2010

Senate majority leader Harry Reid's comments about the candidacy of then Senator Barack Obama and the use of the word "negro" on census forms has caused some controversy. John McWhorter, linguist and senior fellow with the Manhattan Institute, discusses the controversy and the word.


John McWhorter
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Comments [57]

Dr. Linda from Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, NY

8. Until we as Americans acknowledge the existence of a phenomenon, we cannot address and hopefully eradicate problematic aspects of racism, colorism and classism. 9. We have once again "scratched" the surface of a long festering wound in the interstices of our society. Are we now mature enough to actually dialogue and finally resolve the most pernicious aspect of our wonderful democracy? We shall see!!

Jan. 12 2010 12:35 AM
Dr. Linda from Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, NY

Con't 6.The brother who said "all blacks are not African American" was correct. That's why my generation chose "black" as a descriptive terminology. People are trated the way they are perceived --until our society "grows up". All who have family members of different shades know that societal treatment determines behavior as well as self-perceptions. 7. The talking heads and "media" will milk this for all it's worth to sell copy and take up TV space. --Materialistic as well as narcissistic --Yeah for Adam Smith and Freud.8. Until we as Americans acknowledge the existence of a phenomenon, we cannot address and hopefully eradicate problematic aspects of racism, colorism and classism.

Jan. 12 2010 12:32 AM
Dr. Linda from Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, NY

I couldn't get on air this morning.Following are my comments. Writers# 5,14,16,&21 above make the most lucid and comprehensive points.
As a light-skinned, articulate, extremely well-educated "black" professional woman, I wanted to expand the dialogue a bit.
1. Reid's comments reflect political realities of America today. 2. Inartful as his comments may or may not be, they are "objective, descriptions of American political realities". Maybe now many naive, mainly young blacks and whites will stop talking about "post-racialism". 3. Thoughtful and/or truthful black individuals will admit that there has always been a preference
for "light skin", "straight hair"
and "chiseled features" and rejection of darker skin color, curlier hair and broader features. Think--Spike Lee's-"School Days";"paper bag test"; the Clark doll studies; my own dissertation research many years ago; sayings such as " if you're black get back, if you're brown stick around, if you're white all right", and all other ditties and terminology in black and white society referring to these things. The negativism has been there unless, as one commentator said, one wants to "get a sun tan" in which case darkness becomes a status symbol. 4. Reid was reflecting political and social realities in both 2008 and 2009. 5. Michael Steele is in an untenable position and has finally realized he might as well cash in on his "figurehead" status by peddling his book and taking advantage of lucrative lecture fees which is his right to do. See how fast his party has turned on him. Republicans never seriously wanted him as a spokesperson --they just wanted a veneer of "inclusiveness", without the words, to attract "faces & bodies" to the Republican party. That's why they don't muzzle Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich.

Jan. 12 2010 12:24 AM
Stephen Ferrari from New York City

For comparison: "I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy." Joe Biden, February, 2007. This almost derailed his opening Presidential bid and was called "highly suggestive" by Jesse Jackson.

Jan. 11 2010 05:06 PM
Voter from Brooklyn

#47 (Jane),
Sorry if I was unclear, but I do think lighter skinned blacks treat darker skinned blacks differently. Maybe not as much in the past, but still.
Think of the collegiate black greek organizations. Think of terms like “pretty eyes” and “good hair”.
Some things are personal preferences, which may seem a little self-hating or racist, but there is the lingering sense that looking “white” is what is right.

Jan. 11 2010 11:20 AM
John from Wantagh

Now wait a moment...

I think I might shed some light here?

In my humble opinion, the RNC Chairman's absurd comparison between Sen's. Reed and Lott makes absolutely NO sense


we continue to read the copious facts from the book which corroborate all the embarrassing details of the failed McCain-Palin ticket...

This seems to be a huge diversionary tactic by Mr. Steele, doesn't it?

Let's be real, folks! Let Sen. Reid apologize for being a flawed human (as we all are) and let's get re- mavericky and ask the RNC re: 2008 campaign strategy, "What were you thinking?"

Your thoughts welcomed.

Jan. 11 2010 11:16 AM
geo from astoria

When a republican makes race comments they are usually veiwed as racist because Republicans are fundamentally racist.
Their party platform is: , i will defend and insure prosperity for the white man, at all costs, while i create an enviornment of servitude for the rest.. Long live white-y!

Jan. 11 2010 10:56 AM
tobyfrom queens

I think the reason this is causing such a ruckus is that Harry Reid is white.

Jan. 11 2010 10:54 AM
rob from brooklyn

There are only superficial similarities between the asinine comments by Reid and, say, those of Trent Lott or George "Macaca" Allen. While they may use arguably similar language, it is important to examine the effects of their POLICIES on Black people. Republicans may take great care to avoid using obviously insulting racial language, but it is hard to ignore how much damage their actions do to Black populations. If Reid's racial language reflected the way he GOVERNED, it would mean something. It is smoke and mirrors BS for the Republicans to cry scandal.

Jan. 11 2010 10:49 AM
JohnE from NYC

Republicans are clutching at straws by comparing Trent Lott’s pumped up endorsement of a segregationist Presidential candidate and Harry Reid’s political analysis of current political reality.
On the other hand, there are black intellectual who are outraged by this. However is it wrong to say that a political candidate in modern America must transcend his narrow, ethnic identity to win elections?

Jan. 11 2010 10:48 AM

@5...can I ask if you think Black Americans treat lighter skinned Blacks differently as well? Henry Louis Gates made that point in a documentary about the economic viability of lighter skinned actors in films.

Jan. 11 2010 10:48 AM
Voter from Brooklyn

Yosif (13),
Negro dialect is a little different than saying Spic-dialect or Chink-dialect. If Reid said nigger-tongue, I’d be more incline to agree with your disgust; many black people don’t like the word black. I happen to prefer black to African-American as Africa is a very diverse place and simply saying “African” is too nebulous for me.

Jan. 11 2010 10:48 AM
Mark Zimmermann from Brooklyn

I completely agree with the guest Mr. McWhorter about the speciousness of the criticiam involved, and I commend Brian's show for highlighting the actual issues. What Struck me about the Sunday talk shows yesterday was the lack of engagement with just these issues, in favor of the faux shock, SHOCK voiced be the likes of faux journalists like Liz Cheney. All the other analysts settled for discussing Sen. Ried's chances to survive for re-election or echoing support for a kind of twisted political correctness where we just don't talk about such things.

Jan. 11 2010 10:47 AM
Jay F. from manhattan

Hmm... I wonder what the fall out would be if Sarah Palin had said what Mr. Reid had said?

Jan. 11 2010 10:46 AM
hjs from 11211

"Gee, who knew the GOP was so sensitive to the needs/feelings/status of minority groups! "

totally!! see how far we've come the GOP is standing up for the little guy at last!

Jan. 11 2010 10:46 AM
gemi from Brooklyn

Harry Reid was just expressing a basic fact about Obama's elctorability. His half-white demeanor, both in appearance and speech made white people comfortable. This was not racist speech. He used a term "Negro" that someone in his generation was told to use to politiely refer to African-Americans. The fact that he used an archaic word does not make him racist. Americans do not like to hear the truth, and harry Reid told the truth.

Jan. 11 2010 10:45 AM
adsf from

35 good point

Jan. 11 2010 10:44 AM

Can your current speaker (is this someone who called in?) please explain to me Black English? I remember about 12 years ago there was a movement for acknowledging Black English as something separate from Standard English. It seems to me that someone like Al Sharpton is as well spoken as Barak Obama, he just has a Black cadence to his speech. He conjugates verbs correctly, but his tone or accent is very definitely Black. In Germany there are several dialects, accents, words that vary from region to region. The difference is, people know that they need to use hoch-Deutsch when in the workplace or in the classroom, yet they use their regional speech while at home.

Jan. 11 2010 10:44 AM
john from office

Obama is sucessful because he was raised by his white grand parents, that is the sad truth. Look at his half brothers and where they are.

Jan. 11 2010 10:44 AM
Katie Kennedy from Huntington, NY

Wally, your comment about people all over the world valuing a lighter skin color is true...that is, unless they want a good tan. Then, the darker the better.

Jan. 11 2010 10:43 AM
David from Brooklyn

Racist speech is not reducible to language, it exists in a context. What Trent Lott said is racist because of his underlying politics.

Taken out of context, Reid's comment is problematic but in context it is thoughtless at worst.

Jan. 11 2010 10:41 AM

Oh, the Republican hypocrisy! What Harry Reid said are observations based on what the reality of American society is. Give me a break, Michael Steele. You do not think this is what many members of your own party think? REALLY??!!!

Jan. 11 2010 10:40 AM
Tonky from Red Hook

Barack Obama is a great man who is half white and half black.

I'm so glad he is president because he is smart and insanely competent. Thanks god.

What dialect did Bush II speak?

Jan. 11 2010 10:40 AM
David Lorenz from NYC

And interesting caveat is that Sarah Palin's folksiness plays well in the country, but city folk think she's an uneducated hick. George W. Bush was great at turning on the folksiness. The terms "negro dialect" make Harry Reid look like a man from the past and its embarrassing. But it does point out an obvious reality of getting elected in the US.

Jan. 11 2010 10:40 AM
danny from woodbridge, NJ

Oh, please! Obama is a master of code and register switching in dialect. I have often discussed this as "preacher tone" with black people and they absolutely agree! The medium is still the message. The problem is when the political right citizens hear this and realize it's coming from a HALF-BLACK (let's not forget this important composite!!!!) they freak out!

Recall that Bill Clinton could do the same time of register switching.

Jan. 11 2010 10:40 AM
Jonathan from Brooklyn

As a light-skinned African American who doesn't speak in a Negro dialect except when he wants to, I took no offense. I found Reid's comments pretty accurate if not eloquent.

Jan. 11 2010 10:40 AM

Until it's ok for white people to talk about black people and vice versa, these things will always result in this completely ridiculous reactionary media blitz. True, what Harry Reid said came out sounding funny because of the phrasing but if it's something he's never allowed to talk about publicly, it's not going to sound right.

Jan. 11 2010 10:40 AM
Lori from Montclair, NJ

Gee, who knew the GOP was so sensitive to the needs/feelings/status of minority groups!

Steele is full of beeswax -- maybe if the party's policies reflected his "concerns" it would be more believable.

I cringed when Reid said it but let's judge him on his career, not his clumsy words.

Jan. 11 2010 10:39 AM
Gabriel from NYC

This is a bit off topic and probably offensive to somebody but I'm gonna say it. Politically correct speech has created some ridiculous problems within our speech. African American as a term to classify black people in the U.S. is kind of ridiculous. Not all black people in America are of American descent. They may be of African descent but not necessarily American. I guess if you are a naturalized immigrant of African heritage you may become African American but if you are just visiting are you African American or Black? I've never heard the term African Canadian. Isn't this sort of exclusionary?

Jan. 11 2010 10:39 AM
kai from NJ-NYC

Comparing Trent Lott with Harry Reid is faulty when one considers that Lott ACTIVELY worked to suppress civil rights and, for instance, voted against the Civil Rights Act. Lott is a straight up racist.

Jan. 11 2010 10:39 AM
karen from brooklyn

I agree with the guest. I think whenever someone in the public eye (who is white) makes a comment that just calls it like it is, everyone all gets up in a snit. It just shows to go how uncomfortable we are STILL talking about race. I see it that he's giving Obama props, that he can talk to almost all people and they hear him. Isn't that a good thing? If a person can't say something honestly/candidly then how do we talk about race in America? And This whole ruckus about what Reid said, says to me that people STILL don't understand racial issues in America. P.S. I am asian.

Jan. 11 2010 10:39 AM
john from office

Jesse Jackson speaks like a clown.

Jan. 11 2010 10:39 AM
john from office

Remember Senator Bird, a democrat who was in the KKK.

Jan. 11 2010 10:39 AM
John Howard Griffin

Your conservative guest just made all of my points.

Jan. 11 2010 10:39 AM
Robert from NYC

To be honest, I just think Sen Reid is stupid and I just don't like the man anyway. I wish he would go away so I can use this as a point to help my case but again, I have to say truthfully, just go away Harry Reid. I understand his re-election is in question so let's hope it goes that way.

Jan. 11 2010 10:38 AM
Jill from Westchester

"Light-skinned??? Please. Obama's mother was white. Can't there be some other language to acknowledged a mixed-race person aside from "light-skinned?" It's as if we're still in Civil War era America during which one drop of "negro blood" made you negro..... Geesh. Grow up America

Jan. 11 2010 10:38 AM
Carl from East Village

I agree with the guest. I'm a mixed African American and I'm not at all offended. As a matter of fact if I heard a white person say that Obama could have been elected if he were dark skinned and spoke with a strong dialect, I would say that person is out of touch with reality.

Jan. 11 2010 10:38 AM
john from office

Black english is a weight on the black community, holding them down. White liberals will defend black english, as their children head to Columbia University and the black kid pushes a broom.

Jan. 11 2010 10:38 AM
Voter from Brooklyn

I don’t think anyone can seriously say many Americans weren’t more comfortable with voting for Barak Obama because he had a white mother and was educated in the ivy league.

Jan. 11 2010 10:38 AM
Marco from New York

Reid is a Mormon. The Mormon church has a long history of institutionalized racism (until 1978, at least)

Jan. 11 2010 10:38 AM
Karen from Manhattan

I'm offended that anyone would compare what Trent Lott said to Thurman to what Harry Reid said about President Obama. Trent Lott said things would be different if Thurman had been president - Black people would still be lynched and segregation would still exist. As McWhorter says, it's absurd.

Harry Reid's huge mistake was using the word Negro. Who uses that word today? But is is really a non issue. Hopefully Black people will not allow conservatives to rile them about this.

Jan. 11 2010 10:37 AM

African Americans use comments about the lightness or darkness of skin to create status within the community. This has held us back for years and I hoped that the black power movement would have changed perceptions over skin tone.

No one can in all honestly deny that blacks and whites all over the world value a lighter skin color. It's an uncomfortable truth, but it sounds horrible coming from Harry Reid.

Jan. 11 2010 10:37 AM
antonio from the republic of park slope..

"I mean like totally, for sure, like I think that was, ummm totally racist..."

Jan. 11 2010 10:37 AM
Bennett from Brooklyn

The bigger issue is why do so many whites, especially white Republicans, find Reid's comments about Obama's "light-skin" and "dialect" troubling. Is it possible whites find it troubling because it concedes the point that racism still exists. Because his statements resonate as having a grain of truth? In other words, the insult isn't to Obama, but to whites in general.

Jan. 11 2010 10:37 AM
Yosif from NYC

It's not what he said but how he said it. Spic-dialect, or Chink-dialect would be equally as bad. PS - don't listen to black republicans when it comes to topics concerning the black community.

Jan. 11 2010 10:37 AM
hjs from 11211

negro is still a category on the census.

trent lott said we'd be better off with segregation. how can the reid and lott comments be compared?

Jan. 11 2010 10:37 AM
Marc Naroshkhyn from Brooklyn

Whether Harry Reid's statements, or sentiments, were racist or not I guess lies in the mind of the beholder. What Reid's statement proves beyond reasonble doubt, however, is that the Democratic Party views its candidates as mere commoditites to be marketed, and its various voting demographics -- including African-Americans -- as essentially pigeons to be plucked. "Let's gift-wrap this talking head so that the greatest number of people will buy him." Thanks to Harry Reid , we now know that a presidential candidate has been sold with all the acumen of a Big Mac.

Jan. 11 2010 10:36 AM
Katie Kennedy from Huntington, NY

I would like to see the context in which Harry Reid was speaking. I'm sure he was with a group discussing candidates. I think he was making more of a comment of the American people and what they would accept from a person of color. As far as the Trent Lott comment, Lott went far beyond wishing a happy birthday Strom Thurmund--he stated that if Thurmund had been elected we wouldn't have had the "problems" we had in the years since. What problems? Civil rights?

Jan. 11 2010 10:36 AM
SuzanneNYC from Upper West Side

Why is anyone paying any attention to Michael Steele??? His idiotic statements are repeated over and over. The man has absolutely no credibility. He doesn't even represent the Republican party. This is the sort of thing the media loves to pick up on and run with ad nauseum. It's so much more fun than any of the real issues currently before us.

Jan. 11 2010 10:36 AM
adsf from

this sounds more like the left being baited by FOX. careful guys, don't give them the free time!!

Jan. 11 2010 10:36 AM
donna from nyc

@ antonio from Park slope..
You said it perfectly.

Jan. 11 2010 10:36 AM
antonio from the republic of park slope..

the above is what he truly meant!

Jan. 11 2010 10:35 AM
Voter from Brooklyn

The Reid comment was an extremely poor choice of extremely true facts.
I am black and I will say non-black Americans do treat lighter skinned black Americans differently than darker skinned ones. The same with speaking something more akin to the Queen’s English. And as the guest said, the same goes for how some black Americans look at other Black Americans.
I do not agree with your guest that “black English” is not lesser… foshizzle.

Jan. 11 2010 10:35 AM
jen from Brooklyn

I think Reid's comment says more of our electorate than anything else. The fact that Obama is lighter skinned and knows how to "code switch" did make him more electable.

Jan. 11 2010 10:34 AM
antonio from the republic of park slope..

I think the problem is what came out, vs. what he said..
translation: "Gee, White america won't be too startled by this light skinned brother, I mean he is no bernie mac, AND doesn't he talk like carlton from the fresh prince of bel-air?" "we all remember that right?"

Jan. 11 2010 10:32 AM
Hugh Sansom from Brooklyn NY

Absurd for Michael Steele to be lecturing. This is the Michael Steele who was saying "honest injun" just a week ago. Fox sanitized his comment to "honest engine", if you can believe that.

Jan. 11 2010 10:31 AM
adsf from

huh? what did harry reid said that was racist? sounds like just a political statement.

Jan. 11 2010 10:31 AM

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