John McWhorter on the Word 'Negro'

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When news broke that Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid had praised then-candidate Barack Obama for having "no Negro dialect," pundits immediately snapped to partisan positions either condemning or forgiving Reid. Debate quickly swirled around whether it was a career-ending disaster or merely a gaffe, while the word itself went virtually unexamined. Enter The New Republic's John McWhorter, a linguistics scholar and black conservative commentator who takes a more serious approach to this most gossipy of stories.

McWhorter, instead of taking the controversy for granted, rigorously explores the history of the word, its desired meaning, its perceived meaning, and what that may reveal about Harry Reid and America. Rather than simply entrenching in the political debate, McWhorter looks past Reid to the greater cultural forces at work: Language, race and unease in American politics.


Pretty much all of America black and white feels exactly the way Harry Reid does about the way black people talk - and aren't even worried about saying it out loud.

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in a passing attempt to name Black English in a detached, professional way, randomly choosing a slightly arcane and outdated term.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. [Reid was born in 1939.]

He goes on to explain that the real controversy isn't that Reid used the word--which McWhorter sees as relatively innocent short-hand--but that "Harry Reid hears black speech as lowly." McWhorter explains how this is a hold-over from the 1996 culture wars over "ebonics" as a dialect and the lingering cultural divide over its usage, especially in politics. He argues that most Americans, black or white, agree that "Black English" is perceived as lowly, and that we shouldn't rush to blame Reid simply for his understanding this truism. That broader public perception, after all, is the real issue.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.