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As part of the Coro Fellows Program in Public Affairs, these 12 Southern California fellows are engaged in a full-time, nine-month, graduate-level leadership training program that prepares individuals for public-affairs leadership.

Whispering about race

Our sometimes insightful, sometimes naive, sometimes maddening discussions about race are in no danger of being silenced. Many of these conversations, whispered in private, will never have to traverse the gauntlet of public scrutiny.

Reid's comments, initially made in private, don't have such a luxury. His clumsy attempt at complimenting then-candidate Obama has larger implications than the rehashed debates around political correctness and racial sensitivity. Reid's comments don't just address how we speak about race; they reveal how we think about it.

During Obama's campaign, Reid cited Obama's complexion and lack of a "black" speech pattern as political advantages. In doing so, Reid appeared to suggest that only a singular form of "blackness," embodied by Obama, is publicly acceptable. Furthermore, Reid, a career politician, seemed to imply that these measures of Obama's "blackness" are actually significant to the voting public.

As pundits, politicians, and commentators squabble over just how racist Reid's comments were, the discussion must also include reflective questioning by the public: How comfortable are we in acknowledging that these standards may have been used during Obama's campaign? And what are the consequences of applying these types of standards to minority leaders? We, not Reid, should be at the center of the newest discussion on race.

If nothing else, Reid's comments provide a glimpse into the difficulties of black leaders in the public sphere. Even a figure with the weighty credentials of Barack Obama is judged using standards that are out of his control and irrelevant to his qualifications. He is certainly not alone in facing this challenge. Post-racial America, an optimistic fantasy created amidst the euphoria of Obama's campaign, is nonexistent. Not when we're still whispering about race.--Lanre Akinsiku

What chills kills

The issue is not about zero tolerance. It is about what we expect from our leaders. I expect for leaders to share the source of their views, instead of stating regret in their "poor choice of words." Reid, please answer this for me: What would have been the correct choice of words?

Why are leaders quick to either support or denounce statements like Reid's with their own blast of rhetoric? Let's talk about it. Most of the time Americans are uncomfortable talking about race until there is some sort of racial flare or conflict. How are the words and actions of our leaders affecting the way we choose or choose not to talk about race? I don't want to sweep it under the rug anymore. Yes, Obama has to stimulate the economy and create more jobs, but the reality is that if your name is DeAndre and not Michael, you may not get a call back. My name is "Miracle," and I always cross my fingers.

I encourage others to see this as an opportunity to talk about the ways in which race continues to trump merit in this country. We should talk about it not because Barack Obama is black but because he is the president. If there continues to be this residual attitude of "it's not that important to talk about race" and "let's just get people back to work and fix the economy," then we are conceding that we can't get too far talking about race, which I completely don't buy. What chills, kills. What invigorates debate and promises the genuine possibility of changing attitudes is not empty statements of apology but real discussion about what motivates our leaders to talk and think as they do. --Miracle McClain

Stop apologizing

"Zero tolerance rules" don't change the game. They simply change the way the game is played. Holding leaders to a "zero tolerance" rule regarding racial remarks will not solve the much deeper issue: ignorance. Allowing leaders to publicly verbalize their thoughts about race helps to debunk the common myth that racism no longer exists. Once we move beyond this notion, platforms for open dialogue can take place.

However, those being offended often act as inappropriately as the offenders. Leaders who are offended can take the opportunity to find more productive ways to address the issue. Simply demanding apologies, resignations and written statements does not change the game. Minority leaders have to call for progressive and fundamental mentality changes in ways that reverberate throughout society and history. Two years from now, I will not remember Reid's apology. But I will remember racism still exists in America, and there are a lot of people sorry about it.--Ashley Nesby

Ticking the right box

One of the biggest misconceptions of incendiary public commentary in the political arena is that it must ultimately be filed under one of two categories: acceptable or unacceptable. For leaders with political interests, this indexing is a relatively simple display of the petty "one-upping" that we see playing out daily in American bipartisan politics. Harry Reid's recent comments about President Obama's race incited a predictable response from Republicans, particularly given that his Senate seat is up for re-election this year.

For the public at large, this categorization points to a larger problem. A public clawing to classify Reid's faux pas as acceptable or unacceptable is less a display of political interest and more of a self-serving affirmation of its own political correctness. Placing Reid into one of these two limiting categories allows individuals to feel like they've checked the more morally upstanding box. Unfortunately, it also dilutes perceptions of race politics into simplified notions of "right" and "wrong" and stifles conversation about an issue that quite obviously remains unresolved.

Upholding a "zero-tolerance policy" serves a purpose in issues of a more certain nature, such as workplace discrimination, sexual harassment, domestic violence, and the like. But how can such an attitude authentically deepen our understanding of an issue so complex and emotional as race? Let us not degrade our understanding of such a topic into a "black and white" picture.--Neeta Sonalkar

By Coro Fellows

 |  January 12, 2010; 11:51 AM ET
Category:  Political leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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No, Blagojevich made the comment about being "Blacker than Obama" in an interview with Esquire magazine, which he retracted pretty quickly (not that the apology mitigates the stupidity of the comment or anything).

Posted by: neetaso | January 14, 2010 4:04 PM
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Was Reid the congressman that said he was blacker than Obama?

Posted by: dogbear75 | January 14, 2010 2:34 PM
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That has nothing to do with anything.

Posted by: Thunderkats09 | January 12, 2010 6:40 PM
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Oprah Winfrey is relatively dark-skinned among African Americans and she speaks with an African American accent. She's also enormously popular. It's the attitude that comes out of the mouth on occasion, not the color of the skin, that turns off a lot of white European Americans from someone like a Jeremiah Wright or Harry Gates.

Posted by: ripvanwinkleincollege | January 12, 2010 4:34 PM
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"Reid's comments, initially made in private, don't have such a luxury. His clumsy attempt at complimenting then-candidate Obama has larger implications than the rehashed debates around political correctness and racial sensitivity. Reid's comments don't just address how we speak about race; they reveal how we think about it."

- This is definitely poignant. The "slip-ups" by the Imuses and Reids within our society reflect the institutionalized nature of race and the perceptions around it. However, these are not opportunities to brush the comments under the carpet and think of them as a thing of the past, these opportunities have to be harnessed. We have to create a continuous dialogue around these perceptions, the history that created it, and a concrete discussion on avenues towards breaking them down. If this does not happen then this incident is just a wasted opportunity but fortunately for us - give it a couple years - some other leader in a position of influence will slip up and give us another chance. Unless, of course, we stop whispering and start talking.

Posted by: claytonrosa | January 12, 2010 3:06 PM
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