Jenice Armstrong: Harry Reid's comments

President Obama with Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., at a fundraising event in Las Vegas last May.
President Obama with Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., at a fundraising event in Las Vegas last May.
Posted: January 12, 2010

CAN WE BE honest?

The sad truth is that President Obama's relatively light skin color helped him win over certain voters during his presidential campaign.

Had his complexion been substantially darker, it's debatable how things would have turned out on Election Day.

Color bias unfortunately is alive and well. Look no farther than Sammy Sosa's apparent efforts to lighten his skin as a recent, high-profile example of how lighter complexions are valued not just in America but around the world.

This stuff runs deep. Studies from years back have shown that the preference for lighter-colored skin exists in even young children who typically favor white dolls over black ones.

"In the psyche of a lot of white people, dark-skinned males are viewed as imposing, intimidating and overall threatening," acknowledges Chad Dion Lassiter, president of Black Men at Penn School of Social Work.

So, is it any wonder that Sen. Harry Reid viewed Obama's comparatively fair complexion as being a political asset and said as much when he referred to him as being "light skinned" and not having a "Negro dialect?"

In doing so, the Senate majority leader gave voice to a political reality in America that isn't usually expressed publicly.

Was Reid on the mark?

To some extent.

He erred in referring to a Negro dialect since African Americans speak differently depending upon what region they're from or their cultural backgrounds and educational level. Also, someone should tell Reid that the term "Negro" fell out of favor decades ago. The quotes attributed to Reid in the new book, "Game Change" by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, remind me of the absent-minded musings of someone well past his prime. But I can't come down too hard on Reid since the U.S. Census Bureau did the same thing by including "Negro" as an option on its forms.

Was I offended by Reid's assertion?

Not at all.

Superficialities such as skin color do count with certain voters. Politics aside, others may have been swayed by how much more telegenic Obama was than Sen. John McCain as well as Obama's strong public speaking skills. Many a female voter was influenced by the arresting figure Obama cut on the campaign trail. Or the sight of him with his young daughters. Americans fell hard for the Kennedy-esque image the Obamas put out there.

Silly reasons to vote for a president?

Of course.

But studies show that voters' unconscious biases play into not only who they vote for but also the proposals they support once a politician is in office. A professor at the University of California at Irvine recently conducted a study that found that voters with antiblack biases not only were less likely to vote for Obama but they were less likely to support his health- care proposals, too. When respondents were shown the exact same health-care proposals and told they were from the Clinton era, they got higher approval ratings than they did when those proposals were attributed to Obama.

"What it suggests to us is that they are judging the message based on their attitudes about the messenger," Eric Knowles, assistant professor of psychology and social behavior, and lead author of the study, told me yesterday.

All this really is beside the point as is the current Republican effort to capitalize on Reid's clumsy choice of words.

Reid has issued an apology. That really should be the end of it.

Send e-mail to heyjen@phillynews.com. My blog: http://go.philly.com/heyjen.

|
|
|
|
|