On "Sounding Black"

John McWhorter, a linguist by trade, gives Reid the benefit of the doubt:

First of all, we need not pretend that by “Negro dialect” Reid meant the cartoon minstrel talk of Amos n Andy. After all, why would Reid, a rational human being under any analysis, be under the impression that any black person talks like Uncle Remus, much less be surprised that one of them does not? My guess is that he said “negro” in a passing attempt to name Black English in a detached, professional way, randomly choosing a slightly arcane and outdated term. Or, consider that Negro English was what scholars called “Ebonics” until the early seventies. Reid likely caught wind of that terminology -- he's been around a while, after all.

Second, yes there is a such thing as Black English.

Sometimes one hears a claim that Black English is the same as white Southern English. We must always beware of stereotyping and be open to the counterintuitive, but here is an instance where we can trust our senses: there is a “black sound.” It’s not just youth slang: it’s sentence patterns – Why you ain’t call me? (not a white Southernism, notice) – and a “sound,” such that you’d know Morgan Freeman was black even if he were reading the phone book. The combination is what we all feel – with uncanny accuracy even without seeing faces, as linguists have found – as “sounding black.” Of course not all blacks speak Black English or have The Sound, and those that do (which is most) do to varying extents. But they do. That’s what Reid meant, we all know it, and it’s okay to know it.

I think Reid's unfortunately worded statement was mainly an empirical description of the effects of racism on Obama's candidacy, but of course laced with something that rubbed me the wrong way. And his gaffe was empirically true. Minorities grapple with this all the time. Gay men in the public eye tend to be slightly less effeminate than others, as if people can only tolerate gayness if it is robbed of all its cultural diversity. Ditto lesbians. Most of the out ones are pretty fem. I think this is sad and prejudiced myself, but it remains a fact in majority-minority relations, and even within minorities. One of my own joke titles for an autobiography is "Butch Enough." And you will rarely see a personal ad touting a gay man's effeminacy. Au contraire.