Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Politics of Ebonics

I am placed into the unique position of defending a guy I have more-than-a-few differences with. The one word that consistently comes to mind when I think of Harry Reid is "befuddled". That's not to say that he's a bad guy (certainly he is not) or that he's dumb (obviously he is not). It's just that at times he appears so totally overwhelmed by forces he has no control over that one might expect the poor old bugger to spontaneously combust at any moment. (The good folks at Spell Check are informing me that "combust" is not even a word. God will forgive me, I am almost certain of that).

This latest beltway freak out involves a single paragraph from the new book, "Game Change" by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin. So as to be certain that nothing is taken out of context, here in its entirety is the paragraph that all of Washington is in the process of having a nervous breakdown over:

"Years later, Reid would claim that he was steadfastly neutral in the 2008 race; that he never chose sides between Barack and Hillary; that all he did was tell Obama that 'he could be president', that 'the stars could align for him'. But at the time, in truth, his encouragement of Obama was unequivocal. He was wowed by Obama's oratorical gifts and believed that the country was ready to embrace a 'light-skinned, African-American with no Negro dialect unless he wanted to have one', as he later put it privately."

Well, now! Let's all just take a deep breath and think about this for a minute or two, shall we? By the way - Spell Check is also telling me that "Barack" and "Obama" are not proper words so what the hell do they know? Who wants to make a little wager that that company is owned by a Republican?

What we have here is simply a case of old habits of the tongue. Harry Reid was born in a town with the quaint name, Searchlight, Nevada, on December 2, 1939. This means that he turned seventy last month. That would make him an old man - relatively speaking, that is (Everybody knows that seventy is the new sixty). Back in the day, when Harry was in his prime, the word "Negro" or "Negroes" was not considered bad form, if fact it was a term of respect! Why the heck do you think they called it the United Negro College Fund instead of, The United....Well, you can see where I'm going with this, can't you?

The only objection one could possibly come up with concerning Reid's remarks (which were off the record by the way) is the term, "Negro dialect". This conjures up images (in my mind at least) of black-faced, vaudeville comedians in the days-of-old and the hideous depictions of African Americans during Hollywood's "golden" years. Many a time I have been enjoying a classic film from the thirties when all of the sudden I am jolted from my cinematic reverie by the appearance on the screen of one of those Stephin Fetchit-type, watermelon-eating Uncle Toms - thrown into the scene for no other reason than cheap, comic relief. We all know the dialect: "I is" as opposed to "I am"; "You was" as opposed to "You were". The late Lenny Bruce satirized it brilliantly in his classic bit, "Father's Flotski's Triumph" where he took on the role of a condemned, black prisoner on Death Row:

"Well! Well! Soooon I'm gwine up to Hebbin on dah big Ribbah Boat! Den when I gits up dere, I'mma gwine git me some fried chicken and watee-melon!"

You get the idea. Things would probably have been better off for Harry Reid had he used the term, "Ebonics", which seems to be in vogue in certain quarters these days. But as George Will (of all people) pointed out on Sunday, Reid was speaking (or implying) an unspeakable truth. Let me put it to you as gently as I possibly can:

If Barack Obama spoke like Dick Gregory, he would not be president of these United States today.

QUESTION: Is it possible for a white guy to talk like a half-witted shit kicker and get elected president? Hell, yeah! Not only is it possible, it's almost a certainty! Didn't George W. Bush prove that for all time and eternity? Black people, on the other hand, are at a decided disadvantage in our culture. I don't think I'm giving away any state secrets when I make that statement. For all of Condoleezza Rice's intellect and accomplishments (before she signed up with the Bush Mob, that is) how far do you think she would have gotten had she talked like Flip Wilson's Geraldine Jones character? Not very far, I presume.

Here is a fact that cannot be denied: Barack Obama would have had an easier time being elected to national office with the diction of the guy who played Goober from the Andy Griffith Show than that of, say, Huey Newton or Bobby Seale. In 1984, Jesse Jackson had all the right ideas. He was saying all the right things. He never stood a chance. To the ears of most of White America he sounded "too black".

The silliest thing of all in this entire debacle is watching the Republicans shed their crocodile tears over Harry Reid's "racial insensitivity". They're comparing it to the Democrat's reaction to Trent Lott's unfortunate comments back in 2002 at Strom Thurmond's one-hundredth birthday party. Lott, referring to old Strom's run for the White House in 1948 as a "Dixiecrat" candidate, said that America would today be a better place had the country elected him over Harry S Truman. Trent seemed to forget that the only position Thurmon ran on in '48 was as a staunch segregationist. Lott was forced to step down as Majority Leader - not because of his moronic statement - but because he had already lost favor with the Bush White House.

For the Republicans to now claim a newly-found racial sensitivity is quite amusing to say the least. If that is the case, why the hell did they choose the dumbest black guy they could possibly find to chair the RNC? Racial sensitivity? Please.

Harry Reid will survive this little snafu he's gotten into - but just barely. As the numbers stand, he is not likely to be reelected this November. He should step aside with dignity and allow his party to nominate someone with a better chance of winning on Election Day. Maybe he will do the right thing - who knows?. In spite of everything he strikes me as essentially a decent guy. He should just go back to Nevada to a dignified retirement and bask in the glow of his career as a public servant - or go to work as a lobbyist for the gambling industry - anything. He just needs to realize that his number is up.

Reid's comments, while inarticulate, hardly constitute the fuss that is currently being made. All it really amounts to is the GOP's Bitch Du Jour. They have so little credibility left that it really is quite touching watching them stoop to these non-issues. It is total desperation on their part. Today it is Harry Reid's harmless gaffe; tomorrow it will be something equally stupid and irrelevant. Just you wait and see.

Tom Degan


The photograph at the top of this piece is an advertisement for Dick Gregory's 1968 campaign for the presidency. I would have voted for you, Greg!

Attention fans of the Fabulous Foursome: Ringo Starr will be performing on the Daily Show tomorrow. Just thought you'd want to know! He is going to be seventy on July 7. How the hell is that possible? There ought to be a law, I tell you!


At 10:57 AM, Blogger charles moore said...

Tom, in this day of "gotcha" news and journalism, one can not say anything that does not offend someone. I find it interesting that the GOP is all over this while never going after the tea baggers and other protestors who compared Obama to Hitler.

At 11:41 AM, Blogger Chris said...

Right on as usual, and always a fun read......can't wait to see what they dig up next to get everyone riled up and off track!!!

At 12:22 PM, Blogger Hawkeye said...

As the song says, "When we we ever learn...?"

I am deadly tired of PC, trying to figure out what won't offend. It distorts dialogue and makes a mockery out of real issues.

Identity has to do with who you are, not where you came from. That's what being an American has always been about. Sure, ethnic pride has value but to what end?

I'm a first generation Slovak and so I'm a Slovak-American, right? Why is this important? Do we see our country any differently that a French-American?

Look, I drove food and clothing from Wisconsin into Alabama and Mississippi on weekends during the boycotts, campaigned for open housing and equal opportunity in the 60s, marched for human rights and Black equality, worked with the Black community of Mlwaukee (with Father Groppi and his Commandos), was a para-legal for Wisconsin's only Black Assemblyman and my closest personal friend from high school days and for the past 62 years is Black. I was called a "nigger lover" in the community in which I grew up and was called out by the dean of my college for dating the campus queen who happened to be Black.

That's the track record. Harry Reed has a track record as well. I ask the critics and liud-mouths, what's yours?

This damned nonsense about what words are appropriate trivialize what is at heart good, old fashioned, not so subliminal racism. It's there America, waiting for resurgeance.

Trent Lott is a racist, not simply because he thought "Strum"(sic) Thurmond was a man of foresight but because he was and is associated with organizations that would subvert Black equality and even Black rights.

There's no comparison between Lott and Reed. Stop the noise machine!

And you know what, light skinned Black folk have always been more acceptable than dark-skinned Blacks. What's more, light skinned Blacks have been discriminated against by dark-skinned Blacks more readily than whites. Go figure.

This latest tempest in a teapot is designed to separate us, to pull down people who have exemplary track records because they use a word or two that some might object to. Mostly a stretch.

What Reed said was that he thought a light skinned person who had a sparkling intellect had a chance at become our President. I must have said it thousands of times while I was campaigning for Obama ... it was a fact.

Call it Ebonics or southern drawl, Black talk is a fact ... and the rappers promote it and the tough guys adopt it as part of their swagger act.

In my lifetime, I've heard the dynamic change from "jigaboo" and "nigger" (with a small n and a capital N) to Afro-American and all the stops in between. I would remind that identity is who you are, not what you look like or whatever might be your national ancestry.

And isn't that what we all want to be in the end? To be who we are, not who we look like.

Just call me Jan, or if your prefer, John. I answer to either.

At 6:43 PM, Blogger Rain Trueax said...

The media picks up on everything and anything to get a story. This whole thing just shows how little the GOP get it what racism is. What Reid was really saying was something about white America and it's not flattering.

At 8:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


At 8:08 PM, Blogger P M Prescott said...

Smoke and mirrors to cover up the real crimes.

At 10:52 PM, Anonymous Bruce Samet said...

It's another Manufactured Issue. Let me offer an alternative for comparison. Clicking through The Ed Show tonight, I caught a clip of Rush Limbaugh commenting on Ted Kennedy's ostensible tick-off at Bill Clinton for a remark about Obama that "A few years ago he would have been bringing us coffee." Depending, N.B., on the tone in which it was pronounced, this may well be as "innocent" as Senator Reid's "gaffe" -- not to mention that of course, and unfortunately, it's very likely true.

Herewith, to within close approximation, Mr. Limbaugh: "I know why Teddy got angry at Clinton! I know why he got angry! Teddy's coffee was brought to him by WOMEN. Negros brought him his BOOZE!"

I'm waiting to see how much, if any, outrage is generated over this.

The concept of freedom of speech protects the right to be offensive. But if a distinguished Senator can be called upon to resign over some long-ago remarks subjected to trumped-up misapprehension, what does it take to get a radio "pundit" who's made his riches from the broadcasting of calculated hatred, cussed out and canned?

At 12:41 AM, Anonymous Mike said...

Tom.... An FYI, The company that published this book is owned by... News corp.

Rupert Murdoch. Great article BTW.

I'd have called the article "The Politics of Distraction" but that's just me.

At 8:42 AM, Blogger W.D. Shirley said...

As a drafting technician for some 30 years I have had to work with some really dumb engineers half my age. I made the mistake once of asking "Why can't you people learn how to write a simply, clear sentence? Why can't you people practice penmanship so I can read these notes?" Suddenly a female engineer got red in the face and began accusing me of being a closet racist for saying "you people". It seems that phrase now is only meant to refer to dark skinned Americans, something I was never told. Funny thing, the lady in question was quite light skinned, had freckles galore, but it seems she also had "negro blood" or something. Anyway she considered herself to be black, whereas I had always thought she was a latina. Wow was that a mistake saying that! Seems the lady in question considered latinas and latinos to be inferior species! Go figure, I was the racist for criticizing their penmanship and she was not for being offended that someone thought she was Puerto Rican.

At 5:23 PM, Blogger Dave Dubya said...

This is still America. A black man speaking ebonics will never be elected in a country where an ignorant white guy who sounds like Jethro Bodine gets two terms in the White House.

Yeee, Haaww!! Lookie there, Granny! That there's what ya call a Dubya Em Dee, Uncle Jed! Fetch the shootin' irons, Uncle Dick, we's gonna have us some fun!Bring 'em on! Yeee Haaww!

At 7:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This was a great post, great Topic great perspective. Tom you is a Genuis. My only complaint is why this isn't in the record or at least Cronical or Indy. That would bring out the best of the hate mongers. Obama has done the right thing, you address it brief and steady the course on what's important, and move on. Its funny i'am watching the call to action for Haiti, which is 10 fold more than Katrina, go figure, not that these folks don't warrant it. Elsie Tom.

At 5:26 AM, Blogger Prairie Waif said...

The GOP are imploding and with the likes of Rick Perry, while they implode, they'd like to take a few states with them.

With the Republicans calling everyone who is not "them" a raft of non-related terms, I find it odd that people buy into the idea the "Republicans are the party of Christians." Oh, really? What would Jesus think of that?

These days, I can only watch Olbermann and Maddow every now and again because, living as an American abroad, it is disheartening to see your country slowly dying due to arrogance, greed and avarice.

With Liz and Dick Cheny? Who needs the Taliban or Al-Queda? Their "special" Obama hates America tour is really a sublime (for those who think) racism that emboldens the enemy. "Ah! The people hate their black President! Just what we wanted!" I'm sick of the lies, misrepresentations and lack of governance in the USA due to a minority in both the House and Senate.

We need to take action to stop this stupidity; it is merely dividing the country so as to make the separation of states run by meglomaniacs such as Perry and the innumerable idiots of "modern" South Carolina have "operating" the state, and looking to gentrify Fort Sumter for their odd choice of lifestyles, in such a manner that the cry for "freedom for stupidity" can be accomplished.

As I said to someone today, "You cannot rush toward mediocrity when you are already there."

At 8:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lets get real people. If Harry Reid was a Republican, the media firestorm would have forced him to step down.

Typical liberal double standards.

Archie Bunker NYC

At 5:07 AM, Blogger Tgoette said...

With all the name calling and hatespeak being bandied back and forth, I really can't fathom why an old man that misspoke and expressed himself in a way that he now finds regrettable has to take up so much of the political consciousness when serious issues and personal suffering are rampant in this country. If only politicians worked as ardently in trying to improve the country as they do in trying to smear the other party.

At 6:36 PM, Blogger Rosina Lippi Green said...

"Call it Ebonics or southern drawl, Black talk is a fact ... and the rappers promote it and the tough guys adopt it as part of their swagger act." (Jano)

The post itself and the comments seem to lack a common definition of "Nego dialect." From the viewpoint of the Linguistic Society of America and linguists more generally, Ebonics (more often referred to in our circles as AAVE, African American Vernacular English) is not a kind of slang adopted only by thugs and rappers.

AAVE is a fully functioning variety of English, with its own rule-governed grammar and lexicon. About ninety percent of the African-American population speak AAVE at least some of the time. Obama uses it himself in context, when he is speaking directly to other AAVE speakers - especially when he is speaking face to face. You can be sure that Michelle and her family, sitting around the table after a big meal, use more AAVE than the idealized variety of English we call *standard.*

It's certainly true that any African-American who chose to speak AAVE in all circumstances, regardless of his or her audience, would be criticized and disrespected for that reason. No matter how clear the arguments, the presentation, the logic, most people would hear AAVE and automatically turn away. Most other AAVE speakers would wonder why the candidate was so self-destructive.

And here's the bottom line: We recognize that this is a prejudice. Most people don't hesitate to admit that they 'hate the sound' of AAVE or are 'disgusted by those who abuse English.' And we then expect the person being discriminated against to change to accommodate the expectations of the dominant class.

That's the great flaw of the civil rights movement. It's not that we all learn to appreciate difference; what we (the dominant class) really want is to eliminate difference -- in our favor. If you insist on sounding not like us, then we won't recognize you.

I could be much clearer here -- I have written about this at length in other formats and have been very clear, and I teach courses on language and discrimination. I hope in this little space I have made some sense.

Rosina Lippi Green


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