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Back to the drawing boards on race?

By D. G. Martin
Posted Monday, January 18, 2010

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Chapel Hill, NC - This time last year, most Americans, whatever their political persuasions, celebrated the Martin Luther King Holiday with a special good feeling that King would share the nation’s pride at inauguration of a Negro President of the United States.

Of course, even though “Negro” is the word King used to describe an American with African ancestry, it is no longer accepted as a positive term.

Senator Harry Reid found this out when a new book, "Game Change," by journalists John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, disclosed his remarks about Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential candidacy.

The selective quotes in news stories about Reid’s references to Obama’s being a “light-skinned…with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one” implied that Reid’s intention was to demean Obama or African Americans in general.

Reid quickly apologized. The President was gracious, but a firestorm of criticism of Reid’s supposed racism exploded like a fire in a forest covered with dry underbrush. I think Reid got a raw deal.

Before you disagree, read a more detailed excerpt from the book, which asserts that with respect to Obama’s candidacy, Reid’s “encouragement of Obama was unequivocal. He was wowed by Obama's oratorical gifts and believed that the country was ready to embrace a black presidential candidate, especially one such as Obama -- a ‘light-skinned’ African American ‘with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one,’ as he said privately. Reid was convinced, in fact, that Obama's race would help him more than hurt him in a bid for the Democratic nomination.”

I took note of several things.

First, when many, maybe most, people still thought that no black man or woman, whatever his or her qualifications, could win a presidential election, Reid believed and actively tried to persuade others that Obama had a real chance.

Second, Reid’s political assessment was correct. Every successful black political candidate running in white majority districts pays attention to the facts as Reid laid them out. Speaking “the white dialect.” dressing conservatively, and close-cut grooming is a must to overcome the race-based resistance that still affects some white voters. Paying attention to the things that are important to white voters is part of the drill to open the door for the black candidate to run on his or her merits. It might not be right or fair. But it is a fact.

Third, Reid’s indication that Obama’s “light-skin” would make it easier for him was not an assertion that “light-skin” made him better. Nor was it a statement that whites or blacks should rate people by their colors or shades. Sadly, some whites and blacks still do.

Thankfully, things have been changing on that front.

A few days ago, the Daily Tar Heel ran a story about freshman Shaun Scott, a member of Carolina’s JV basketball team and the son of basketball legend Charlie Scott.

Here is a part of that story, written by Anna Kim:

“In 1995, the Scott family attended a basketball team reunion. At every turn, photographs depicted Charlie Scott, the sole black player, surrounded by his white teammates. Shaun, 4, stood with his 6-year-old sister Simone, staring at a team photo. He had one burning question.

“‘Which one’s Daddy?’

“‘Shaun,’ Simone answered. ‘You know Daddy wears number 33.’

“Their mother let out a laugh and took note. The Scott children didn’t see color. They saw numbers.”

Someday, hopefully, all of us will, like the Scott family, see numbers and not colors.

Until then, we are going to have to keep working to make things better, and keep talking to each other—and listening more.

But, until then, political candidates who want to win should take account of the facts as they are, not just as they should be.


D.G. Martin is hosting his final season of UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch, which airs Sundays at 5 p.m. For more information or to view prior programs visit the webpage at

This Sunday’s (January 17) guests are John Shelton and Dale Volberg Reed , authors of “Holy Smoke The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue.”

About “Holy Smoke” from UNC Press:

North Carolina is home to the longest continuous barbecue tradition on the North American mainland. Authoritative, spirited, and opinionated (in the best way), Holy Smoke is a passionate exploration of the lore, recipes, traditions, and people who have helped shape North Carolina's signature slow-food dish.

Three barbecue devotees, John Shelton Reed, Dale Volberg Reed, and William McKinney, trace the origins of North Carolina 'cue and the emergence of the heated rivalry between Eastern and Piedmont styles. They provide detailed instructions for cooking barbecue at home, along with recipes for the traditional array of side dishes that should accompany it. The final section of the book presents some of the people who cook barbecue for a living, recording firsthand what experts say about the past and future of North Carolina barbecue.

Filled with historic and contemporary photographs showing centuries of North Carolina's "barbeculture," as the authors call it, Holy Smoke is one of a kind, offering a comprehensive exploration of the Tar Heel barbecue tradition.

About the Authors

John Shelton Reed and Dale Volberg Reed live in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Both are members of the Southern Foodways Alliance and the North Carolina Barbecue Society. They have collaborated on other books, including 1001 Things Everyone Should Know about the South and Cornbread Nation 4: The Best of Southern Food Writing. William McKinney founded the Carolina BBQ Society while a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He now lives in Virginia.

Upcoming programs on Sundays at 5pm.

January 24 (encore)
Justin Catanoso
My Cousin the Saint

January 31 (encore)
Todd Johnson
The Sweet By and By

February 7(encore)
Michael Walden
North Carolina in the Connected Age

February 14 (encore)
Barbara Fredrickson

February 21 (encore)
Michael Davis
Street Gang

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Back to the drawing boards on race?

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