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Harry Reid wrong on many levels

By Melissa Harris-Lacewell, Special to CNN
  • Senate majority leader's remarks on Obama wrong but not racist, says Melissa Harris-Lacewell
  • She says lighter complexion is less significant in voting than Reid says
  • She says Obama's appeal to African-Americans was helped by ability to speak in familiar way
  • Harris-Lacewell: Using the term "Negro" in 21st century is a bad idea

Editor's note: Melissa Harris-Lacewell is associate professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University. She is the author of the award-winning book "Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought."

(CNN) -- Sen. Harry Reid's comments during the 2008 Democratic primary show that he is socially awkward, but they certainly don't prove he is a secret racist. If anything, these comments show that Reid may know about white voters, but he doesn't understand black voters at all.

Reid's assessment that President Obama's light skin was beneficial to his electability among white voters may be accurate, but it's certainly not decisive. Think of it this way: We can divide white voters into three categories relative to black candidates. One group believes that blacks, as a group, are unqualified to hold public office. They will refuse to vote for a black candidate regardless of his politics or his skin tone. Surveys indicate that this is a dwindling part of the white electorate.

Another group of white voters is deeply committed to interracial political coalitions and are enthusiastic about voting for black candidates when they have the opportunity. This group is also largely unaffected by characteristics like skin color.

Finally, there is a group of white voters who are willing to vote for a black candidate, but who need to feel comfortable that the candidate will represent their interests. These white voters are looking for cues, signals and signs.

Your take: iReporters sound off on Reid's comments

Some social science research finds that white voters demonstrate an unconscious preference for black faces with lighter skin and narrower facial features. It is likely that physical characteristics, like skin tone, may influence voters in this third group to view light-skin candidates as more "like them" and therefore "safer" to choose in an election.

These effects are negligible in determining election outcomes. Issue positions, partisan identification, assessment of electoral viability and previous elected office have far greater effects on vote choice.

In other words, race influences election outcomes because black candidates are usually Democrats, are fairly liberal on policy positions, are considered less viable because of financial constraints and often don't have as much previous experiences as their white counterparts. It is not as simple as preferring lighter over darker candidates. If light skin were enough, Harold Ford would be the honorable senator from Tennessee.

Obama's rise to the American presidency is a complicated and unlikely story full of smart strategy, extraordinary execution and inspiring coalition building. It feels tacky and false to reduce these accomplishments to a mere assessment of skin color. It degrades the strength of sacrifice and commitment that so many white voters, volunteers and donors made to the Obama candidacy.

Still, the primaries were hard-fought, and every little factor mattered. Reid was awkward but not wholly inaccurate that complexion may have helped Obama with white voters.

Whatever the accuracy of Reid's assessment of white voters' racial bias, he is surely misguided in his analysis of Obama's relationship to "Negro dialect." Reid said, "America is ready for a black president." He then suggested "Negro dialect" is an obstacle to getting the support of Americans.

Let's set aside "Negro" phrasing. It is appalling, and Reid's age cannot excuse or explain his use of the antiquated term. Although not all black Americans find the term offensive, Reid has lived in majority-black Washington, D.C., for more than a decade; surely he's noticed that black and African-American are the preferred monikers.

Reid's assessment of Obama's speech patterns is bizarre precisely because Obama became electable only when he mastered black discursive forms.

Not all American voters are white. Obama triumphed over Hillary Clinton because he was enthusiastically embraced by large and unified African-American voting blocs in throughout the South and Midwest. These same voters handed Obama surprising wins in the general election in Virginia and North Carolina.

iReporter: Reid should be "held accountable"

As a congressional candidate in Illinois, Obama was soundly defeated by Rep. Bobby Rush, in part because he had not mastered African-American traditions of public speaking. Conformity to standards of whiteness may help with white voters, but they don't do much for energizing African-American voters. Consider Sharpe James' initial defeat of Cory Booker in Newark, New Jersey, another example of this phenomenon.

Obama was not a viable contender until he learned to execute the cadences, rhythms, word choice and cultural references shared in many black communities. His stiff, wonkish approach in the 2000 congressional race led many African-Americans to be suspicious of his rootedness in black communities and his understanding of black community issues.

Just as some working-class white voters were reassured by George W. Bush's Texas colloquialisms and Sarah Palin's hockey mom references, many African-American voters respond positively to candidates who demonstrate ease and familiarity with black linguistic practices and cultural references.

Former President Bill Clinton had exceptional mastery of African-American discursive forms. His linguistic comfort in black churches and neighborhoods was critical to his own electoral success in 1992 and 1996.

iReporter: Let's talk about race, not point fingers

Once the furor dies down, there will be a few lessons that future politicos can learn from Reid. First, it offends white voters when you suggest their support of a black candidate was determined by his complexion. Second, referring to African-Americans as "Negroes" in the 21st century is an exceedingly bad idea. Finally, for a candidate of any race to be viable in our complicated, diverse nation, that candidate better be multilingual.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Melissa Harris-Lacewell.