John McWhorter

What’s wrong with ‘Negro,’ anyway?

By John McWhorter
January 13, 2010

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REMEMBER THE scuttlebutt in 2006 that Barack Obama wasn’t “really black?’’ That fell out of fashion after we met his decidedly black wife and got an earful of the preacherly cadence he could summon “when he wanted to have one,’’ as Senate majority leader Harry Reid put it when sizing Obama up as a potential candidate for president, as we have recently learned.

Since then, however, it has been considered the soul of higher awareness to understand that Obama wouldn’t have been elected if he were too black: i.e. darker-hued and not so “well-spoken.’’

Which is exactly what Reid meant when he assessed Obama’s chances for winning the presidency and saw his lightish skin and lack of “Negro dialect’’ as a plus factor.

So what’s the problem?

After all, Reid didn’t say that being cafe-au-lait and able to sound “white’’ made Obama a better person. He was assessing the degree of America’s racial enlightenment, and came to what we regard as the good-thinking conclusion as to how “post-racial’’ we are.

So is Reid’s statement a gaffe because he said it before the election instead of after it? Clearly that makes no sense.

The “light-skinned’’ part, in particular, merits no further comment. One cannot nod sagely when someone says a darker-skinned black man couldn’t be elected and then burn Reid in effigy for having felt the same way. Case closed.

Which leaves just two other words as the source of the controversy. One could, in a mood of recreational antagonism, take “Negro’’ as a slur. However, it is more properly an archaism, not so long ago thoroughly acceptable among blacks and whites. If Reid was wrong to use the word, then I assume he is also supposed to refer to the United African-American College Fund.

After all, what term was he supposed to use? Ebonics? Certainly he would have been pilloried for implying an association between Obama and the ghetto, as was Fox News after referring in jest to Michelle Obama as his “baby mama.’

In any case, go to a university library and you’ll find papers up to about 1970 on what was called “Negro dialect’’ by the white and black intelligentsia.

Upon which - is the “dialect’’ part the problem?

Strange, in that I just attended the annual meeting of the Linguistics Society of America, where quite a few scholars have devoted careers to what they readily identify as a dialect of English spoken by black Americans.

It is considered wise in some circles to pretend that what we call “black’’ English is the same as white Southern English. However, this is pretending indeed. How many of us would hear Morgan Freeman doing a voiceover and imagine a white man - even if we had never heard of Morgan Freeman?

And it’s more than sound. Consider this sentence: Why you don’t let me know people be your friends when you up in there? That isn’t Jeff Foxworthy language, it’s “The Wire’’ language. It’s “Negro dialect.’’

Or, as linguists call it, African-American Vernacular English. Maybe that’s the term Reid should have used - but it hasn’t ever made it far outside of academia.

Still, Reid said nothing wrong, and Republicans’ comparisons with Trent Lott’s gaffe in 2002 are ham-fisted sandbox nonsense. I still get a chill thinking about anyone then, much less a Senator, casually joking about the possibility of a segregationist becoming president. This was a denial of what the Civil Rights movement was all about.

We can assume that Republican Party Chairman Michael Steele understood that - as we can assume that while calling for Reid to step down, he actually does understand that what Reid said is a simple affirmation of the way, well, Michael Steele thinks. The chances that he doesn’t bristle at ghetto blacks’ “bad grammar’’ as an obstacle to success are vanishingly small, especially given that most black people do.

Steele needs to come off it, as do other Republicans performatively calling for Reid’s head - and as do any of us distracted by the peculiar flavor of the single word Negro from facing that Reid, like a good portraitist, captured all of us in a few deft strokes. Where we go from there is up to us.

John McWhorter is senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. His book, “Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story of English’’ recently appeared in paperback.

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