Reid and Black English.

I think rikyrah over at JJP is off-base in her criticism of Reid:



Do you honestly believe that Black people walk around talking Ebonics? That you aren’t talking about a SUBSET of people?

That the overwhelming majority of BLACK people with BLACK parents IN AMERICA were raised speaking the ‘ King’s English’, and that we were liable to get hurt if we didn’t.

Is she seriously arguing that there’s no such thing as a ‘black dialect’? Because most mainstream linguists would disagree with her. And, obviously, countless black people code-switch in their professional and personal lives all the time.

Here’s Jamelle:

Admittedly, “negro dialect” is an incredibly poor choice of words.  But again, it’s worth considering the context: a powerful, 70-year old white man  was talking about his support for the African-American presidential candidate. What’s more, he’s making a completely banal point.  Everyone knows that Barack Obama wouldn’t be president if he sounded like Al Sharpton. White Americans are — on the main — uncomfortable with African-American vernacular, and the fact that Obama could easily and readily code-switch was unquestionably a political asset.  Moreover, I think it might be a little inaccurate to say that an “overwhelming” majority of black people use the “King’s English” in everyday conversation amongst themselves.  Certainly, most black people are capable code switchers, but black vernacular is pretty widely used (see: Barack Obama).

Adam Serwer agrees, and goes a little further:

Reid’s use of the term “Negro dialect” is uncomfortable because the term is archaic and recalls a time when black people were legally denied equal treatment under law, but the sentiment that being black and light-skinned confers its own kind of privilege is so uncontroversial among black people that it’s banal. Code-switching — changing one’s speech based on racial or class context — is an equally mundane phenomenon.

At the same time, there are some important questions here: At what point does awareness of other people’s racism based on skin tone alter people’s actions to the point where they’re making decisions based on skin tone in anticipation of the decisions others will make? Would Reid have been justified in not supporting Obama if Obama were dark-skinned or not biracial because he thought whites might reject him? How would that have been different than simply declining to support Obama out of racism or colorism? How often does this ostensibly non-political calculation cause someone to be denied a job or opportunity just because they happen to be black or dark skinned?

The raw political calculation Reid made here was also one Americans of all races were making. I always knew that someday it would be embarrassing that the press spent 2007 and 2008 hosting panels of white people discussing the political implications of Obama’s racial authenticity — or lack thereof — but I never imagined that we’d all decide to pretend it never happened.

Ta-Nehisi has more.

If there’s any comment from Game Change that invites outrage, it’s from Bill Clinton.

In lobbying the late Sen. Edward Kennedy to endorse his wife, former President Clinton angered the liberal icon by belittling Obama. Telling a friend about the conversation, Kennedy recalled Clinton had said “a few years ago, this guy would have been getting us coffee,” the authors paraphrase. A spokesman for the former president declined to comment on the claim.



Gene "G.D." Demby is the founder and editor of PostBourgie. In his day job, he blogs and reports on race and ethnicity for NPR's Code Switch team.
  • I mentioned on another blog something I remembered regarding Obama. He was in a diner paying his tab when the black employee tried to give him change. He replied, “Nah, you straight.”

    Would he have said that if he was sitting in a five-star restaurant? In my opinion no. I think people are taking the “Negro dialect,” and yes I agree its a poor choice of words, to mean some type of uneducated speak. For me, “Negro dialect” is more than word choice and pronunciation. Its cadence and other defining characteristics. I don’t know if there is a different way to explain that or its something completely different.

    The second paragraph in your Serwer quotation is more intriguing. Thanks for the heads up.

  • Stella

    The negro dialect (different from Ebonics) is alive and well. See Oprah, Debbie Allen, Phylicia Rashad.

    Anybody whose conversation with white people is peppered with words like folks, honey, girl, chile and the sardonic sister primp of the mouth are utilizing the “negro dialect”.

    Unfortunately, moving in and out of this dialect can open doors where they may otherwise be closed.

    This dialect in women (to me) indicate we are comfortable being in a secondary, i.e., best girlfriend, confidant, or mammy (if you will) role.

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  • BCTW

    This is a double-edged sword, so let’s proceed carefully. If we are indeed acknowledging that a so-called Negro dialect not only exists but thrives, then why do we get so upset when the only black person cast on a TV show is directed to speak in such a dialect? Why do we view it as cooning or selling out instead of “keeping it real”? We can’t have it both ways.

    Harry Reid is just one of many old, white men who still remember the day when it was acceptable to call Black folks Negro (and worse). He, like my elderly [Black] father, is guilty of using archaic terminology, but nothing else. It’s obvious through context what Reid’s intent was, so what’s the big fuss about?

    • shani-o

      If we are indeed acknowledging that a so-called Negro dialect not only exists but thrives, then why do we get so upset when the only black person cast on a TV show is directed to speak in such a dialect? Why do we view it as cooning or selling out instead of “keeping it real”? We can’t have it both ways.

      Well, we don’t tolerate references to ‘cooning’ or any sort of policing/essentializing blackness here. See:

      But I think what you’re referring to is the frustration with pop culture tokenism, which is a valid complaint, and rather different than complaining about an individual like Steele or whomever ‘cooning’ or ‘selling out.’

  • McWhorter has an ok read on the situation over at TNR. He makes the linguist case:

    But, there was a CRAZY error on that they have since fixed. I caught, and wrote about it here, in “Monday Foolishness”:

  • thewayoftheid

    Thanks for this. I think the part of Reid’s quote that stuck out to me when he said it was a choice. If anything, it’s a necessity.

  • thewayoftheid

    Meh. Meant to say “codeswitching” is a necessity.

  • first lady

    So is 2010 going to be the “year of Negro”?

    I’ve heard the word more in the past 10 days (at least in a serious context) than I have in probably 10 years.

    What concerns me is that people will get hung up on the word negro and not on what was behind Reid’s statement — that the American public is uncomfortable with or even scared of darker-skinned people … in 2010.

    Reid’s comments are dunderheaded, but let’s be real, a lot of us thought or said as much during the election.

    Clinton’s statements, on the other hand, are just screwed up and I’m sure he knows that.

  • DChead

    To add onto Symphony’s comment: it was documented when Obama came to Ben’s Chili Bowl with Mayor Adrian Fenty last winter, he went to the counter and promptly said “Where the food at?” Just wanted to support that comment, don’t know if it has any value. :)

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  • joeyhepatitis

    I just finished up Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind and she has a nice essay praising Obama for his adoption of several authorial voices in his books and in his speeches. It’s a much more intelligent take on what I assume Harry Reid was getting at. It is online here.

    • I just knew I could stop by here for some enlightening discourse on this quirky little issue. Thanks…

      After treading through the absurdity of this story I thought about how at times we all adjust our methods of communicating–be they verbal, written, physical or other. For example, when I play basketball competitively my style of play is drastically different than when I play with my six-year-old nephew. Neither style of play is disingenuous because when playing organized ball it would be inappropriate to ‘let’ someone block me and when playing with my nephew it would be equally inappropriate to aggressively back him down under the basket. I enjoy both dynamics because I am able to adjust, and this adjustment doesn’t require me to turn anything on or off, much in the same way when you fall into a pool you immediately begin to swim (if you can, some flail, but the point remains the same).

      A person’s dialect is influenced by their surroundings. If you spend time with many people of different cultures you may find yourself adjusting your conversation style. Certain colloquialisms may be misunderstood by one group, but easily understood by another. The ability to adjust does not make you some superficial dilettante, but actually a compassionate conversationalist. The irony is that Americans should already get this. The way we speak is a crazy mash-up of influences and it evolves at lightening fast speeds. With all that said I am certain many of us know people who try way too hard to ‘fit in’ so to speak, but that may be due to the fact that they have not yet developed a nuanced understanding of the group in which they are attempting to communicate with. Just like with basketball, practice makes perfect.

  • young_

    Did anyone catch Michael Eric Dyson’s take on Morning Joe? His outrage seemed misplaced and either surprisingly dense or extremely disingenuous (especially his “what is a black dialect???” bit and his attempt to stretch the implications of Harry Reid’s comments).

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