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Katherine Tyler Scott
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Katherine Tyler Scott

Katherine Tyler Scott is Managing Partner of Ki ThoughtBridge, a leadership consultancy, and is author, most recently, of Transforming Leadership: The Episcopal Church of the 21st Century. She is a board member of the International Leadership Association.

Underground bigotry

Leaders need to have an open, honest conversation about the fallacy of race and the disabling constructs around it that we've developed to justify feelings of superiority over other human beings.

Reverting to the parental admonition "if you can't say anything nice about someone, then don't say anything at all" is inviting serious regression in the effort to liberate ourselves from the crippling effects of racism. Forcing people to act nice but still retain their illogical thoughts is not progress. How can we counter bigotry if we drive honest, open communication underground?

Harry Reid said publicly what far too many Americans--black and white--think or have said. I prefer more enlightened leadership, but we won't get there if we expect leaders to pretend they think and believe what they don't. Attitudes and beliefs have the possibility of changing when they are expressed honestly. When they must be hidden, they cannot be scrutinized, challenged, or ultimately transformed.

The indignation being expressed over Harry Reid's comments by politicians and members of the media is hypocrisy at its worst. This is not new or unfamiliar information to them. The existence of colorism is a fact in this country. The "first" of any so-called minority group must be extraordinary to be considered acceptable. Barack Obama is extraordinary, independent of ethnicity or speech. All Harry Reid acknowledged was that for those Americans still blinded by bigotry, his language and skin color made it easier for them to see him as "acceptable." Many African Americans are not only targets -- they are perpetrators of persistent elitist notions of acceptability based on skin color and speech.

We can use Senator Reid's honest apology and the president's acceptance of it as a teaching moment for the whole country. Reid learned these beliefs and attitudes from his sphere of family, friends, and colleagues, and unfortunately they continue to be taught to the next generation. We can use this experience as an opportunity to examine our own values and beliefs about differences, about who we are as individuals and how we can become a country that values the gifts that others bring regardless of the container in which they come.

Read all responses to this week's On Leadership question>: Like Trent Lott before him, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is in political hot water over his comments about Barack Obama's race. Should leaders, in particular, be held to a "zero tolerance" policy on potentially offensive racial comments, or does that have a chilling effect, silencing all discussion of racial issues?

By Katherine Tyler Scott

 |  January 12, 2010; 11:52 AM ET
Category:  Political leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Whispering about race | Next: Our nation's success


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Maybe I'm missing something here, but what exactly did Reid say that was racist? His comment about Obama's skin color and speech making him more palatable to some voters is true. The whole "negro talk" thing though, who actually calls it that? I don't know if that's derogatory or just completely out of touch. My black friends couldn't help but laugh about it.

Posted by: duhneese | January 14, 2010 3:56 PM
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Atleast for me, Reid is both wrong and correct about how I judge a presidential candidate. I do care how well a political candidate speaks but only because he or she has to express him or her self quickly and precisely. I do not like slang. I am DEEPLY OFFENDED by ethnic slurs. When I was much younger I was told that the best political candidates are white skinned european-descent males, but after seeing so many fail so miserably in office - I know for a fact that this is not true. Racism and sexism is one pile of rubbish. So it is true that when I was much younger I too was taught and held bias - but it is also true I no longer hold those biases - Obama is the proof. I will vote for someone who is not white. While Reid is correct in bemoaning that I no longer see his skin color OR his gender as making him, Reid, superior --Reid is dead wrong in that skin color is a political factor for me. I want a candidate who is honest, open, ethical, smart, progressive, and capable. A political candidate's skin color, gender, or ethnicity is meaningless. I don't want a dog-and-pony show. I am tired of the three ring political circus of old. I want something more substantial. Reid is correct in that Obama's speaking ability was important but Reid fail to recognized that even more important than how something is said is what is being said. As a voter I am looking for a candidate of substance. One year into his term, I still think Obama has been a move for the better for our nation and for the world at large. I STILL BELIEVE OBAMA IS THE RIGHT MAN FOR OUR NATION'S FUTURE. So not only should Reid be listening and following OBAMA but so should the Republicans in Congress!

Posted by: Walter_Lee | January 13, 2010 7:57 AM
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As is usually the case the double standard is the real story, az story that goes unreported in the ComPost and the other usual suspects. What Reid said was just not PC. It wasn't necessarily inaccurate. Incomplete but fairly accurate. It's the ease with which the left forgive and rationalize when it's one of their own and the hyperbole and hysteria when they percieve a slight from a conservative. You can't claim you want an honest dialog until you are even handed and not using PCness as a weapon.

Posted by: theduck6 | January 13, 2010 7:16 AM
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There's plenty of honest talk, but I suspect that's not the writer of this editorial is looking for.

She is probably looking for apologizes, self-recrimination, compensation, and laws that make it illegal for people to speak their mind.

That's what is generally meant by "honest conversation".

Posted by: Ombudsman1 | January 13, 2010 5:38 AM
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Want to talk race openly? OK. President Obama is a white man. President Obama is a black man. Both statements are equally true. The one thing he is not is a descendant of Africans brought to America as slaves. In a sense his election does not address historical injustice of racism to ward slaves and their descendants. Nor is he a negro as that term is used in America. The fact that Harry Reid supported Obama, or that Obama forgave him is irrelevant. Reid fell below the MLK standard of judging by character not color of skin. What Reid said was racist, and the fact that it was not said to damage or oppose Obama, but to support him, does not make it less racist. If Obama accepts and forgives and allows people to make racists comments, as long as he gets what he wanted and there is something in it for him, does that make him the Uncle Tom of liberal racists who support him?

Posted by: Broadford | January 13, 2010 4:26 AM
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In college, The Army, The Air Force
and later in Federal Law Enforcement,
I experienced very little bigotry.
What little I did see, didn't come
from Whites.

Posted by: iamredwolf | January 13, 2010 3:47 AM
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Funny reading a lot of these comments makes me wonder about a lot of things! Like President Obama is scared to even tackle this issue on fear he might anger his White Supporters! Then you have those that go by the way a person speaks, in the past we have had many People who can speak well become some of the biggest crooks! See, America needs a even bigger "WAKE UP CALL" and no matter whether its skin color or articulation in speaking neither one defines who a Man or Woman truly are inside their hearts! Many of us need to move away from this one word "ROLE MODELS" because that is the OMEN to us all! We all need to practice looking within a person character and that will be the only thing to defines where this person can take you!

"A Man (or Woman) must humble themselves to something more powerful than Man itself, because Human Beings are merely prompt to failure!"

So, instead of looking and searching around for role models I honestly think its time we all LOOK UPWARD!

Posted by: ifordc | January 13, 2010 3:01 AM
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I'm a white cynic who believes that in this imperfect world there will always be some form of bigotry, varying in its nature with the country and its culture. But I am optimistic because I regard color bigotry as ineffective over the long term. This is the Jackie Robinson Story all over again. He successfully survived many indignities, and professional sports today, baseball, basketball and football especially, has a different color today because of the ground broken by Jackie Robinson. I am pleased to predict that we will see something similar in politics, and life in general, some undetermined years from now and because of the ground that has been broken by President Barack Obama. Just wait and see!

Posted by: Hourman | January 13, 2010 2:19 AM
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Language is constantly changing and so is the definition of what is offensive. Every new decade some words slip into the offensive category.

Black Americans have been fighting for equality for generations, however there are other minority groups like Asians and Mexicans who have to put up with offensive language and gestures all the time.

If you are going to advocate political correctness over language, make it uniform for all minorities. Each nation has a different way of dealing with skin color.

I find Harry Reid's comment about visitors to the Capitol being too smelly more offensive than what he said about Obama.

Posted by: alance | January 13, 2010 12:31 AM
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It is unfortunate for Americans that Ried, who I consider a flim flam man, is also the same person orchestrating universal health care. His assessment of Obama's ability to use Negro dialect only when he wants to, is not really what I consider a racism. I believe he is saying that Obama is so good at the dialect he can even deceive and manipulate the black community. I do not see where he is helping blacks or anyone for that matter, with respect to jobs or finances. It seems like he is only interested in taking care of the wacko-crazy-tree-hugging liberals, most of whom are spoiled white rich kids.

Posted by: hoosierlatina | January 12, 2010 10:21 PM
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You assume Harry Reid's apology was honest. There is nothing honest about Harry Reid.

Posted by: bandmom22 | January 12, 2010 10:20 PM
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The only mistake the Reid made when making this comment was that he was white at the time that he spoke it.

If an African-American made these comments, nobody would have noticed. Does anyone go back and refer to Malcolm X as a bigot when he speaks about "house" (African-Americans) and "field" (African-Americans)? It's Reid's job to understand these issues that divide the African-American community, to discuss them and address them in order to mend them. But you call him a bigot for trying to address them, and so those divisions remain.

Posted by: reston75 | January 12, 2010 9:21 PM
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Actually, I think "forcing" people to act nice is a good idea -- it's called civilization. Maybe if you act nice on the outside, being nice on the inside might follow kind of like if you smile more even if you don't feel like it you become happier -- it's a fact. Even if you don't get nicer on the inside, the world is nicer around you and that counts for something.

Posted by: SarahBB | January 12, 2010 8:35 PM
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The irony of American life is that we brag about freedom of expression but ignore the most important subject for free expression-race. This is because whites fear the subject on account of history and blacks on account of shame. Most black people I know will never talk about racial issues with a white person present. Most whites won't even come close to it; they think they have no credibility on the subject. Both these attitudes have fear in common. Both however owe it to the conscience of our common morality; to the creeds of our constitution that "all men are created equal." If we can both accept this fundermental proposition, maybe we can take steps toward it. Unless such time, we will continue dancing around the edges of our past never facing the thing that threatens us. That is our problem. Harry Reid's words are nothing but an incubating moment for what's hidden within us. I saw Christ Matthews interviewing Michelle Bernard and Mayor Willie Brown yesterday on Hardball. He was clearly afraid to say the wrong thing, something that might inflame an audience constantly seeking a microphone of blame but never taking that microphone themselves in the decisions they make toward their neignbors, co-workers and strangers. Christ Matthews is someone I respect greatly, even admire him for his eloquence, intellegence and form. So when even he is afraid of the subject we understand how touchy a subject we have on our hands. Yet, the place where this fear is overcomed is not on tv but in our hears. When I begin to see the black or white man beside me as my equal, then I have permission to treat him as I would myself. Unless I believe that I will go on thinking myself superior, and that is the core of our racial problem. That must change. Sadly, we see racial identiy not moral actions as the supreme example for our racial idealism. When black is seen as accidental and moral actions (the content of a man's character) is celebrated in this citezenly, then we can talk of post-racial society. Until then, lets listen to our hearts before we say another word.

Posted by: jcuffb31 | January 12, 2010 8:27 PM
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Although Sen Reids comment is politically unsavory, unfortunately it has the ring of truth. I am a Black American of a darker hue and it is evident that darker Americans are still looked upon with less than equal eyes. A clear example is Obamas White House. Look at Eric Holder, Valerie Jarrett and others whose names I can't think of at the moment. All of them are light skinned and in some cases bordering on white in features. Not that there is anything wrong with them, but where is the diversity of color that is so available to the President. I would guess he too is aware of the non-acceptance of his much darker brothers and sisters in the political arena.Yes there are dark skinned folks in politics, but not in the BIG HOUSE. Perhap Sen Reid should have not been so blunt, but he is right. We as a society can pretend he is wrong and castigate him at evry turn, but we need to be brave enough to admit the truth and my President needs to stop ducking issues of race, with a quick acceptance, because they are uncomfortable for him.

Posted by: wilhouse49 | January 12, 2010 7:51 PM
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What is sad is American's don't care about race .. we care about character, vision and credibility. We need leaders who send this message not Senator Reid who seems locked in a time warp. Despite the media focus on the small minority, we are not a racist society.

Posted by: sarno | January 12, 2010 6:54 PM
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In utopia, everything is warm, fuzzy, and orgasmic. In THIS world, people have biases, prejudices, preferences, and make choices based on their relative view of reality.

What else can be said about race in America that has not already been said? To what end do we need another "open, honest conservation?" And what difference would it really make?

You can induce someone to act a certain way by either a "carrot or a stick." But can you really change someone's mind? Rarely! One has to change their mind on their own. And that is well beyond the realm of a "conversation." That lies in the realm of personal experience, and everyone's is different.

How about we stop trying to tweak everyone else's existence to suit our own petty ideas of political bliss...and simply tweak our own existence to be a more just person to everyone around you.

Posted by: cash-less | January 12, 2010 6:24 PM
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Until the philosophy which hold one race
Superior and another inferior
Is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned
Everywhere is war, me say war

That until there are no longer first class
And second class citizens of any nation
Until the color of a man's skin
Is of no more significance than the color of his eyes there is war.
That until the basic human rights are equally
Guaranteed to all, without regard to race
a war
That until that day
The dream of lasting peace, world citizenship
Rule of international morality
Will remain in but a fleeting illusion
To be pursued, but never attained.

seems to about cover it, Obama knows what he is, it seems silly to me, just more bread and circus for the masses while the Romans loot. shhhhh don't speak about race and maybe they won't notice they are not all white.....too late they figured it out.

Posted by: jpenergy | January 12, 2010 6:20 PM
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I watched Soledad O'Brien last night on CNN talking with three African Americans and one white man. What struck me was they used the words "teachable moment" but they all were unable to use race and television as a "teachable moment". Everyone on the show could not get past indignation.
White people cannot teach America about race.
Do African Americans, Mexican Americans, Indian Americans, Asian Americans think all white people enjoy George Will popping up in our lives at least once a week. Do you think we don't thirst to see views other than the White Washington chattering class?.
White people cannot teach America about race. We have no experience.

Posted by: JillCalifornia | January 12, 2010 6:16 PM
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It's a good idea, but it would mean political suicide. Politicians are expected to pretend that "race" is not an issue. There is no position a politician can have on race that will benefit his run for office.

America is the loser, because we are force to elect people that cannot discuss the underlying issue in every aspect of American life.

Oh what tangled web "race" have woven.

Posted by: OneFreeMan | January 12, 2010 6:06 PM
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And yet it's the horrible white mans fault. Sorry but you seem to be slightly delusional. The sad fact is racism has increased as the younger black crowd has turned nearly every inner city into a battle field and drug market. But it's the whites fault. LOL Sorry but it's a failure of the blacks. The successful blacks once they make it out of these ghettos they for the most part move on forgetting all about them and doing very little for their own people. Even the NAACP said they didn't feel the president was doing enough to help his fellow blacks. Is this not a racist comment? People like Scott don't see blacks as capable of being racist. Racism only exists against blacks. This is where the problems really are. Here's an idea. Hold your fellow blacks accountable. Slap them in the back of the head when they act like fools embarrassing the rest of the blacks. Quit glorifying prison, drug dealing, bit$h slapping and so one. Maybe once the blacks respect others they'll start to get the respect you seek.

Posted by: askgees | January 12, 2010 5:24 PM
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"All Harry Reid acknowledged was that for those Americans still blinded by bigotry, his language and skin color made it easier for them to see him as "acceptable." /"Reid learned these beliefs and attitudes from his sphere of family, friends, and colleagues, and unfortunately they continue to be taught to the next generation."

The discontinuity of these two statements--the first acknowledging that Sen. Reid's remarks were analytically acute; the second chastising him for "beliefs" that earlier are taken as the object of his analysis--implicates Ms. Scott in the very incoherence pervading public discussion of race that she otherwise rightly laments. Though intrinsically speculative, Sen. Reid's calculation of President Obama's natural and strategic advantages as an emergent 'candidate of color' accord with any sensible person's survey of American politics. That our politics, like our society, are so deplorably and transparently shallow, backward, and degrading renders Sen. Reid's commentary an error of political, not necessarily moral, judgment.

And so, what's teachable in this moment? First, the history, methodology, and logic of code-switching. Second, the blindspots of multiculturalism, which hasn't found a way of celebrating difference without allowing it to effect real differences. Third, the inability of even our most seasoned public commentators to think critically, discriminating one kind of "offensive" remark on race (e.g., Trent Lott's celebration of hard-line segregationist and unreconstructed racist Strom Thurmond) from another (Harry Reid's remarks). Fourth, the continuing entrapment of Pres. Obama in the framework of racialized politics to which his predecessors were relatively immune. And, finally, the continued debasement of political discourse, primarily by right-wing politicians and their media fellow travelers, but also inadvertently by those who respond to these moments from the left without rising to their deepest social and intellectual challenges.

Posted by: kbenston | January 12, 2010 5:09 PM
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I'll just comment on the notion of good, spoken English. I don't care if someone is from West Virginia, Harlem, Albuquerque, or wherever. If they can't speak decent standard English, I wouldn't hire him or her, nor would I vote for anyone with that shortcoming either.

Posted by: Curmudgeon10 | January 12, 2010 5:01 PM
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I was watching CNN last night, subject as above, where a Georgetown Prof mentioned that kudos were to go to President Obama for marrying a darker-skin African-American (than himself). It wasn't until that moment that I realized Mrs. Obama, in fact, has a darker complexion than her husband. Prior to that I saw a well-bred,well educated, accomplished woman who is a wonderful role model and superb First Lady. Oh, and she happens to be Black. I guess race will be the issue du jour as long as we want it to be. I'm all for embracing diversity. But, the world's imperfect. I think that we do more harm than good by giving unartful language more attention than it deserves. Make it a teachable moment and move on. Americans are better than that. Let's set the bar higher, not lower, or soon we'll be tripping over it.

Posted by: kmldc1 | January 12, 2010 4:49 PM
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