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So who even uses the word “Negro” anymore, much less the phrase “Negro dialect”? Apparently Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, in a conversation with reporters before Barack Obama became president.

To be sure, one has to wonder whether a guy who uses that kind of outmoded language has other anachronistic notions about us Negroes. But let’s look at the substance of what Reid actually said—then apologized for:

First, that Obama is lighter skinned, and therefore likely more acceptable to the broader public, than darker skinned African Americans. Obama’s skin color is a fact. And, sadly, lots of social science research and practical experience supports Reid’s conclusion about how the public receives and perceives African Americans of different hues.

And second, that Obama does not have the accent or dialect of many southern or low-income black folks, but can draw on aspects of those speech patterns to connect with those audiences. Also true. Consider Obama’s stump speeches in Iowa and New Hampshire, then in South Carolina, during the primary season. Consider also how southern George W. Bush and Bill Clinton could get when they felt they needed to.

Don’t get me wrong. Reid’s comments were racially insensitive. That’s because the term “Negro” hails from a period in which African Americans were segregated, marginalized, and considered inferior. We moved to the terms “black” and then “African American” because “Negro” had become stigmatized through its association with that context, and because new terms were needed to express what we had become through much struggle and sacrifice.

Harry Reid lived through those times, and he should have both known and cared enough to use terms that reflect our current reality. It’s true, as some Reid defenders have pointed out, that a few older African Americans still use the term “Negro.” It’s also true that some younger African Americans still use the N-word. Those sad facts don’t make the former term less insensitive or inappropriate coming from a national political leader.

So an apology was in order. In fact, it would have been nice to hear Reid explain precisely what he was apologizing for—what, in his mind, he had said or done wrong. In other words, what does he get now that he didn’t get then?

But let’s not get carried away. Embattled RNC Chair Michael Steele is calling for Reid’s resignation, and Fox News is screaming double standard, somehow comparing Reid’s statement to former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott’s words in support of Strom Thurmond’s 1948 segregationist run for the White House: “When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we 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 the years, either.”

The substance of Lott’s comment: if Strom Thurmond had become president and his explicit ideology of white supremacy—the sole reason behind his candidacy—had become the law of the land, America would be a better place today. Those “problems” we had, like the civil rights movement, would never have happened.

Yikes. This was not an insensitive or outmoded comment. It was a declaration that Apartheid was right for the United States of America. Anyone who claims that Harry Reid’s statement compares in any way with Lott’s is either stunningly ignorant or deeply disingenuous, or both.

We ought to be at a point in our country at which we can have a grown up and clear-eyed conversation about race. Not all comments about race are racially insensitive—far from it—and not all racially insensitive comments reflect a racist ideology. It’s not a double standard to treat anachronistic insensitivity differently than support for American Apartheid—though each warrants greater scrutiny, and contrition, when it comes from someone in a position of power.

The media attention to Reid’s statement is not an inherently bad thing—at least if you’re not Harry Reid. But it ought to take us to a higher level of understanding about who we are as a nation, the values that we hold, and their implications for the 21st century. So far, the political conversation is stuck in the 20th century.

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