By James Ragland
January 13, 2010
Long ago, when I was mopping the floor of a major utility company in my native East Texas, a senior manager struck up a conversation with me.
The two of us stood there chatting for several minutes.
Now don't ask me what all we talked about. This was back in the '70s, when I was still wearing bell-bottoms and worshipping Stevie Wonder and The Jackson Five in high school.
But there's one thing he said that I shall never forget – a "compliment" that virtually every light-skinned, well-spoken black person in America has heard at least once, if not a thousand times: You don't sound or look black.
Yet this gentleman made his point so artfully that I wore it like a badge of honor.
"What's your nationality?" he asked me.
"I'm American," I responded before delivering the goods. "And I'm black."
"Really," he said. "You have an excellent command of the King's language."
Translation: I didn't fit his stereotypical "black" image.
By now, I'm sure you've figured out why I'm dredging up this verbal vestige of my adolescence. If not, let me clue you in:
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is being tarred left and right, mostly from the political right, for speaking an uncomfortable truth about racial typecasting in America.
In a new book, Game Change, Reid is quoted as saying in 2008 that America was ready to embrace a black presidential candidate, particularly one such as Obama – "a light-skinned black man with no Negro dialect unless he wanted to have one."
And for this Reid is being pilloried? For this, there are bloodthirsty calls for his head?
This was not a Trent Lott moment. Not even close.
Don't get me wrong. Negro is an old-fashioned term that makes Reid sound more like a master of plantation politics than a 21st-century egalitarian.
Even the United Negro College Fund has devised a way to avoid mentioning what the "N" stands for in its nearly 65-year-old name: The group is marketing only its call letters – UNCF – and not the full historic name.
Still, one need only be a casual student of history, a cursory reader of societal attitudes to know just how spot-on Reid was in his abrasive analysis.
On Monday, for example, while Reid was busy apologizing to the president and anyone who took offense, ABCNews.com reported that several prominent black personalities agreed that Americans tend to find lighter-skinned blacks more socially acceptable than darker-skinned ones.
"As an African-American who is light skinned with so-called curly hair, that represents my proximity to white culture," said Michael Eric Dyson, a well-known author and professor of sociology at Georgetown University. "I am treated far differently than African-American people with natural hair, and darker skin."
The article also recalled that retired Gen. Colin Powell has attributed his success, in part, to the fact that "I speak reasonably well, like a white person" and "I aren't that black."
The ABCNews.com story cited three studies that back up Powell and Dyson.
One study, "The Skin Color Paradox and the American Racial Order," looked at all the black politicians elected to the House, Senate or a governor's seat since 1865.
Researched by Harvard's Jennifer Hochschild and the University of Virginia's Vesla Weaver, it found that "light-skinned blacks have always been considerably overrepresented and dark-skinned blacks dramatically underrepresented as elected officials."
A second study – "Colorism in the Job Selection Process: Are There Preferential Differences Within the Black Race?" – was done by Matthew Harrison, a University of Georgia professor. He found that darker-skinned black males with an MBA were often shunned in favor of lighter-skinned males with just a bachelor's degree.
Finally, a Tufts University study found that whites and blacks alike equate darker skin with "poverty, aggressiveness, lack of intelligence, lack of education and unattractiveness."
Reid, you see, fell into an old trap, one that devalues black life and black culture. But let's not pretend we don't know what he's talking about or that he's coming from left field.
We don't need to run Reid out of Washington. We need to get rid of the deeply rooted notion that the highest compliment you can pay a black person is to tell him that he doesn't "talk black" or "look black."
These days, if someone tells me that, I politely ask one question: "Just how many black folks do you know?"
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