Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Wild about Harry

One take on the brouhaha by a Times blogger.And another by "The University of California regent who got that institution to dump affirmative action and then spearheaded successful California and Washington ballot initiatives overturning those states' affirmative action policies" who wrote Creating equal: my fight against race preferences.

The comment – made to the authors of a new book on the presidential campaign – is not so different from remarks Mr. Obama has made himself while navigating the complicated intersection of race and politics in America during his rapid rise to the White House.

It was only two years ago, after all, that Mr. Obama was struggling to persuade some African-American voters that he was black enough. His electoral prospects did not rise among many Democrats in the South Carolina primary, where black voters are critical, until winning the Iowa caucuses, where the vast share of voters are white. As Mr. Obama moved from state to state in the long Democratic primary fight, his policy proposals sounded mainly the same. But it was not unusual for his inflection and mannerisms to be a bit different.

When he spoke to some black audiences, Mr. Obama’s consonants tended to linger a bit. He would speak with a certain staccato and rhythm – particularly in churches – that he had not used when addressing white audiences in Iowa or New Hampshire. This, of course, is hardly unique to Mr. Obama.

Bubba's and Al Gore's southern twang always seemed to get heavier south of the Line.

Other black politicians have followed a similar pattern. And the same is true for many white politicians – Bill and Hillary Clinton, for example – when a Southern accent suddenly is more pronounced during a campaign speech below the Mason-Dixon Line.

For Mr. Obama, the pattern began well before he started running for president. It was noticeable as he gave speeches across the country as a freshman senator. One day in 2005, after he delivered an address in Detroit at an anniversary celebration of the N.A.A.C.P., I asked Mr. Obama about the differences. “I know if I’m in an all-black audience that there’s going to be a certain rhythm coming back at me from the audience. They’re not just going to be sitting there,” Mr. Obama told me. “That creates a different rhythm in your speaking.”

Throughout his presidential campaign, and during his time in the White House, many observers have suggested that Mr. Obama is uncomfortable talking about race. A more nuanced view, however, finds that he does not want race to be a distraction.

Ward Connerly: I'm still trying to figure out what was offensive about the Senate majority leader's comment.  Me too.

WC is a bit more biting in his comments about people: As if Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid didn't have enough on his plate—trying to find sufficient cash to buy the 60 votes necessary for his health-care reform package—he's now found himself at the center of a race controversy.

Votes are always bought; that is what political compromise is about.

Leader Reid apologized to as many people as he could. Mr. Connerly has trhis to say: As I have observed coverage of this incident by the media and captains of the African-American community, I cannot help but be reminded of former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, who made remarks praising Strom Thurmond in 2002. Mr. Lott said of the segregationist: "When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we [Mississippians] voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years either."

When Mr. Lott's controversy erupted, he apologized repeatedly and sincerely to one and all—even groveling on Black Entertainment Network—all to no avail. Black leaders were unforgiving and persisted in demanding that he either resign from his position or be removed. In the end, they got what they wanted.

All well and good, but the Republicans dumped him. The Bush White House dumped him. It wasn't just political correctness, but political calculation. Still, he does make good points.

For my part, I am having a difficult time determining what it was that Mr. Reid said that was so offensive. Was it because he suggested that lighter-skinned blacks fare better in American life than their darker brothers and sisters? If so, ask blacks whether they find this to be true. Even the lighter-skinned ones, if they are honest with themselves, will agree that there is a different level of acceptance.

Or, finally, could it be viewed as offensive that Mr. Reid suggested that blacks often have a distinctive way of speaking? If that is, indeed, the offense, then I will offend a lot of individuals when I assert that I can tell in probably 90% of the cases whether an individual is black merely by talking to him on the telephone.

No one else has had the nerve to say that openly, except, perhaps, Stanley Crouch.

“We have a certain script in our politics, and one of the scripts for black politicians is that for them to be authentically black they have to somehow offend white people,” Mr. Obama said. “And then if he puts a multiracial coalition together, he must somehow be compromising the efforts of the African-American community.”

“To use a street term,” Mr. Obama added, “we flipped the script.”

Few would dispute that Mr. Obama is a far smoother speaker than Mr. Reid. But were they saying essentially the same thing?

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