Blacks weigh in on Harry Reid's racial comments

In one corner of Atlanta, at least, Senate majority leader Harry Reid's racially insensitive comments about Barack Obama don't seem to be worthy of much concern.

The furor over Senate majority leader Harry Reid’s racially insensitive comments apparently has yet to arrive among African-Americans, at least in one corner of Atlanta.

Washington is obsessed by Senator Reid’s observation in 2008 – and made public Saturday – that Barack Obama was electable because he is “light-skinned” and has “no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one."

Republicans have called on Reid to step down. Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele (who is black) called the statement a return to Jim Crow ideas.

So the Monitor did a curbside survey of what black Atlantans think of Reid’s statement – random and unscientific, yes, but also somewhat instructive.

Six of the 10 people asked had never heard of the comments. Yet even when they were read the quote, umbrage was scarce.

Not hopping mad anymore

Willie Blair, a 60-something Atlantan, would have been hopping mad upon hearing those kinds of words from the mouth of an older white man years ago.

But today, Mr. Blair says, it’s just a case of a throwaway comment being magnified beyond its importance.

“Sometimes people mean what they say, and sometimes they let a word just slip out,” he says, referring to Reid’s anachronistic use of the word “Negro.”

Republicans say Reid is benefiting from a double standard. Republican Senate majority leader Trent Lott was ousted in 2002 for lauding the career of former South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond, who once led a segregationist party challenge in the South.

Why shouldn’t Reid be ousted, too? they ask.

It is a double-standard, Blair says. But “it’s just the way things are,” he adds.

What controversy?

Graphic artist Clarence Jones, walking to work on a chilly afternoon, said he’d never heard of the Reid imbroglio.

Still, what does he think?

Amused more than anything, he says. He suggests that Mr. Obama – though he was only a candidate in 2008 – may simply have created a different, slightly less constrained atmosphere for talking about race in America, even then. Obama has referred to himself as a “mutt,” and, as Jones puts it, a half-breed, setting a new tone.

“It’s Obama himself who has made it possible to make a comment like that,” he says.

One voice of anger

But if Jones says it’s good for America to relax a bit when talking about race, Robert Wade, found huddling in his buddy’s pickup truck on Atlanta’s Hosea Williams Avenue, pipes up with the lone voice of condemnation in this nonscientific survey

“I was offended,” says Mr. Wade. “He should step down.”

His friend, Arvin Freeman, says Reid and Obama have much bigger fish to fry for an awkward, two-year-old utterance to get in the way of Obama’s legislative agenda, healthcare reform chief among them.

Besides, Mr. Freeman says, “It’s in our nature to talk, and you can’t stop people from talking.”

In the same neighborhood, Michelle Veerasawmy agrees that Reid “made the wrong statement at the wrong time,” but that “he’s of the people” and shouldn’t step down.

Besides, she says, Reid seemed to have gotten his cadence and meaning from former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who in 1995 conceded that, “I speak reasonably well, like a white person,” and, visually, “I ain’t that black.”


Follow us on Twitter.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of 5 free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.