Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Some of My Best Friends Are Negroes

Halfway through the 90s, in a rare fit of altruism, I went through training to become a CASA, a court-appointed special advocate, as which I would try to keep abused and neglected children from slipping between the cracks of the legal and social service systems, or being consigned to unsuitable foster homes. Part of our training, inevitably, was to learn Racial Sensitivity. The person who came in to enlighten us on the subject was a goateed black guy in a lurid dashiki and an Afro in which all five of the original Jackson 5 could have hidden. He cited as evidence of lingering American racism that when he walked down the street in white suburban neighborhoods, old ladies reflexively crossed to the other side. I bit my lip until it nearly bled, and then, while my rigorously PC classmates gasped in horror, asserted that this was in fact evidence of a natural human response to outlandishness. If he’d walked down the same street clean-shaven, I said, in Dockers and a polo shirt, and with a coiffure of more conventional proportions, it was entirely possible that no one would give him a second glance.

This observation, of course, was clear evidence of my own insensitivity and racism.

I’m reminded of all this by the current Harry Reid shitstorm. For having apparently uttered the word Negro and speculated that Barack Obama might be electable because he’s light-skinned and well-spoken, in the conventional, educated sense, Reid is being denounced as racist. Forgive me, but WTF?

Reid’s remarks sound nothing but pragmatic to me. I am no more offended than I would be to hear that the unspeakable Palin was chosen to run with McCain over other women prospects because she was prettier, or that some Republicans regarded the unspeakable Mitt Romney as more electable than the unspeakable Rudy Giuliani because he was prettier. It would have been one thing if Reid’s comments suggested an endorsement of white antipathy toward black culture, but they simply acknowledge that American voters like their candidates bland and unthreatening. (Yes, yes: Palin as unthreatening is indeed a strenuous stretch, but that's for another essay.)

That great national embarrassment Michael Steele, among many others, has been trying to equate Reid’s remarks with those for which Trent Lott had to resign his leadership of Senate Republicans in 2002; you may recall that Lott's downfall was lamenting the vile segregationist Strom Thurmond’s not having been elected president in 1948. I think we can all agree that Joan Walsh summed this whole thing up best: One guy is talking, perhaps inelegantly, about why he's wholeheartedly supporting our first black president; the other is wishing the country had elected a racist. That's exactly the same thing!

I might be a lot more outraged about Negro if I weren't old enough to remember when that was the favored term of respect for black people, having replaced “colored” decades before at the urging of that shameless Uncle Tom (he said sarcastically) W. E. B. DuBois, the most venerated black intellectual leader and civil rights activist of the first half of the last century. It was only after Stokley Carmichael of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee managed to rebrand the word as one invented by white racists (unlike the Swahili word black) that it began to lose favor. It was roughly akin to teenagers condemning as corny and antiquated the excellent music their parents loved just for the brattish joy of it, and the parents capitulating.

Dr. King referred to himself as a Negro. I find disgraceful that the sensibility of Stokley Carmichael -- who, soon after rebranding that word, renamed himself in honor of Guinea dictator Sekou Toure, a notorious torturer -- should have come to be accorded more respect than that of the greatest of all American heroes.

[Hear my life-changing new album Sorry We're Open here! Facebookers: Read more All In Tents and Porpoises essays and subscribe here.]

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