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Martin Davidson
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Martin Davidson

Dr. Martin Davidson is Associate Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business where he also serves as Associate Dean and Chief Diversity Officer. He blogs at Leveraging Difference.

Worth talking about

Senator Harry Reid sure stepped in it with his comments about then candidate Obama's skin color and dialect. At first glance, his comments seem insensitive and ignorant. At second and third glance, too. And he should be praised for it.

In my research, teaching, and consulting on leadership and diversity over the past two decades, I have seen leaders make many mistakes when in the midst of race talk. And I am particularly intrigued when white leaders make those mistakes. Sometimes it happens because the person is maliciously racist. Sometimes is happens because they are earnestly oblivious. And sometimes it happens because well-meaning people have begun to learn the nuance of race and racial difference, and they are trying to figure out how to talk about it.

I can't say which camp Senator Reid falls in, but my hunch is that he is roaming around somewhere in the second and third camps. His comments were probably wrong and his vocabulary outdated (Negros in the 21st century?!?) His remarks suggest that an African American could only be a viable candidate if he or she has lighter skin tone and possesses the ability to hide or deemphasize an African American dialect in favor of a the so called "standard" American English dialect. Such an assumption underestimates the potential for good, thoughtful people of all races--but especially white people--to choose their leaders based primarily on the person's record and potential to truly be a great leader.

But it's just wrong to pretend that Senator Reid is simply some racist kook from Nevada, and that no one who was good and responsible would agree with him. The two thrusts of his comments--light-skin is better than dark-skin, and most people in the U.S. don't like people who speak Black English--are important insights with research to support their viability. For example, work on implicit associations has produced convincing evidence that in the U.S., we have more positive associations with light-skinned people than with dark-skinned people (the same research also demonstrates more positive associations with whites people than with black people). We don't know for certain if skin color affects voting behavior, but it seems to me it's worth talking about.

And as for speech, we know that people often alter speech patterns and dialects to appeal to their audiences because the audience relates better to someone with that dialect; the audience trusts the speaker and sees that person as more credible. Indeed, there is a whole industry of "accent reduction" resources to help people shed speech patterns that would be stigmatized in the environments in which they work and live. And we also know that African American Vernacular English (Senator Reid's "Negro" English, I'm guessing) has carried the stigma of being associated low levels of education. I don't know for sure the use of African American Vernacular English by a candidate would affect voting behavior, but, again, it seems to me it's worth talking about.

In the midst of serious and sensitive conversations about race, people are going to make mistakes. Harry Reid sure did. But the problem with zero tolerance approaches is that they deprive us all--both the outrageous and the outraged--of the opportunity to learn. Hateful and maliciously ignorant speech is profoundly painful and I'm all for figuring out how to curtail it. Let's do so with more open dialogue and less stifling punishment. Because when it comes to race and racial differences, we all still have a lot to learn.

See 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 Martin Davidson

 |  January 12, 2010; 6:42 AM ET
Category:  Political leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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While I agree with the substance of Dr. Davidson's article, I think that he and some commenters wrongly judge his use of the word negro. Like my father, Reid grew up in a time when I believe the word negro was the accepted respectful reference for black people. Perhaps Reid should know better, but expecting people of his generation to use the contemporary term is like expecting me to use 'hooking up' to refer to the sex act. How many folks of my age continue to use the words 'cool' or 'neat'?

Posted by: poddar | January 13, 2010 9:49 AM
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Where do you get off on calling Old Harry a ni##er. After all that's what the word IGNORANT original meant. LOL Here's another one. IRONIC. How sad is it when the wordsmiths don't have a clue. LOL I agree that the rules need to apply to all equally but this petty BS taking time and attention away from real issues the US faces is getting ridiculous. If they can't get their 5hit together than maybe we need to treat them the way they are acting (Like a 1st. grade class) and make all of them put of a big stup1d hat and sit in the corner facing the wall. Then we'll broadcast the pics around the globe. Get your 5hit together CONGRESS we're sick and tired of looking bad because you id10t's can't do a single thing correctly.

Posted by: askgees | January 12, 2010 3:31 PM
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I don't talk about race with anyone outside my immediate family, because nothing good can happen. If I were to talk to someone who mostly agrees with me, what's the point? If I talk to someone who doesn't agree with me, I'm a TERRIBLE RACIST!

I agree with Dr. Davidson - who uses the word "Negro" anymore, anyway? That's the craziest part of what Reid said.

As has been reported elsewhere, what's surprising about the whole episode is that Reid gets in trouble for what's probably an innocuous observation about a particular person's electability, but Bill Clinton gets a pass for dismissing Obama's chances by saying to Senator Clinton that Obama would have been fetching coffee a few years before.

Maybe it's just me, but I don't care about anyone's complexion other than as a distinguishing characteristic. If Reid had said Hillary was more electable with dirty blonde hair instead of platinum blonde, people would be taking him to the hospital for observation. What's saddest about all this is that there's actually evidence that a lot of people still care way too much about skin color.

Posted by: dmarshall3 | January 12, 2010 3:08 PM
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What we should be concerned about is whether Mr. Reid's mindset is that he as a powerful kingmaster uses gradiations of skin tone in deciding who he thinks is more acceptable as a leader. If Mr. Reid's comments reflect his own reality about who is a more acceptable leader, then we have a problem. I can't imagine anyone in corporate America getting away with stating that as a matter of reality the light skinned job candidate should be given the nod because studies or his interpretation of reality has shown that people are more inclined to follow and respect someone lightskinned. It seems Mr. Reid is being given an out because the assumption(and it is a big one) is that he was only talking about the electorate. I am not sure what in the recounting of the conversation leads anyone to that conclusion. Need I say more?

Posted by: godiva1 | January 12, 2010 3:03 PM
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I agree with much if not most of what Dr. Davidson and the other commentors have said. And let's also put this in another context. The Senator was making comment on electability, which is partly about race...no I'm not so naive as to think we are past that...but also about "marketability". He could have made the same types of comments about a white guy, from the hills somewhere with a heavy moutain accent and grammar and a penchant for tatoos....someone not marketable to the general American population. Yes, we need to use this as an opportunity to have more dialog and hopefully without bashing one another.

Posted by: Merlin5 | January 12, 2010 2:51 PM
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Fact of the matter.......racist people ....they just weren't raised very good by their parents mostly....thats any color racist..white,black, brown or mixed.....whatever.......children learm most of what they know or do from parents

Posted by: lucygirl1 | January 12, 2010 2:47 PM
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On the metro this morning, I was standing next to a black man reading a book called "Race Matters!", and I thought that a white man reading a book with this title would risk being percieved as racist. And I wondered why? I'm not making a judgment about the book or its reader, only pondering why that title held by men of different races would have a different affect on those around him. I come from a very racially diverse family. My nephew, like Obama, has a white mother (my sister) and a black father -- and his appearance is that of a young, black man. It's important to me, VERY important to me because I love him quite dearly, that race -- or at least intelligent discussions on race -- DOES continue to matter in this country. I don't think there are any quick answers or bumper sticker solutions. And (for the Obama bashers who feel the need to turn every forum into a hate fest) I don't think Obama has failed in his duties as a role model or president in his first year -- especially considering that he has had to put his own agenda after the unfortunate priority of cleaning up the mess left behind by the Bush administration. But Obama's presidency seems to have brought out some ugliness that had been swept under the carpet for a number of years. I'm shocked at just how much. Maybe it's a good idea to face it, deal with it, and rid ourselves of it once and for all. No matter how painful or awkward. For the good of our children and grandchildren.

Posted by: CAC2 | January 12, 2010 2:04 PM
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Reid stated a political reality, albeit one that many people, both black and white, seem uncomfortable acknowledging. Admitting that racist reality, and discussing it openly and honestly, is not only NOT racist, it is the only way that we can start to address our problems. Unfortunately, that seems increasingly impossible when thoughtfulness and knowledge are not as valued as manufactured righteousness on both sides of the political fence.

As to the offensiveness of "negro", we need to stop playing these name games. Different individuals prefer different terms. People need to stop pretending that their preferences should be considered standard for an entire race and any conversation involving that race.

Posted by: janeraines | January 12, 2010 1:29 PM
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Meh, who really cares anymore. This whole "race" discussion has played itself out.

Posted by: luca_20009 | January 12, 2010 12:51 PM
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Well, who wants to talk about race at all when it is so easy to be called racist?
I did not know until the Reid kerfuffle that
the word negro is now offensive and racist.
I had thought it in the same category as caucasian.

Posted by: confused1 | January 12, 2010 12:20 PM
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Well, who wants to talk about race at all when it is so easy to be called racist?
I did not know until the Reid kerfuffle that

Posted by: confused1 | January 12, 2010 12:19 PM
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The problem with this discussion is the definition of the word "offensive." What is offensive to some is not to others. Senator Reid gave his honest opinion, however tactless and oblivious to prejudice implications. There are white people and even black people who agree, whether they admit it or not, with what he said. Just because someone agrees with a statement doesn't make it non-offensive but its harder to define because of its subjectiveness. As far as African American dialect is concerned, it seems to be much more appreciated in the entertainment realm than the corporate and political one.

To some, Barack Obama is light skin and some people are more comfortable electing a person of a lighter complexion. Is this prejudice? Of course. How can we change this thinking? We have to want to change it. And some people prefer to be ignorant. So prejudice will always exist and as such, prejudicial comments. Politicians cannot stop prejudice or racism but they can and should use their platforms to progress the conversation of race in an honest, ethical and inclusive way. Senator Reid's comments are a teachable moment, which aren't always the most tactful ones. Let the discussion continue politically and socially.

Posted by: Journalegal | January 12, 2010 12:05 PM
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The conversation will end when you people know you are HUMAN.

But, we seem to think their is some prestige in not being of the same race as someone you despise...Oh well.

Posted by: OneFreeMan | January 12, 2010 11:52 AM
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Mr. Davidson is proposing a valuable course of action. Racism is still engrained in a significant part of American life. Over time, this will diminish, regarding race, as people with that narrow worldview die off.
When President Obama was named the recipient of the Nobel Prize, many chose to criticize him for the actions of the committee that took the action he had not sought. This was, for probably the majority of those complaining, a way of displaying their racism without it being identified as such.
Senator Reid should not be expected to apologize to African Americans in particular and no one in general. His comments were not critical of dark skinned people, but an honest recognition of preferences displayed by voters.
A spiritual leader of the Republican Party, Rush Limbaugh, had made a practice of mocking “Negro dialect.“ ”So let’s get real about this brouhaha. This is just typical “gotcha politics” promoted by a desperate out of power political party eager to grasp at anything that might accrue to their benefit. This is just more of the “same old same old” posturing from Hollywood on the Potomac that will only get worse in this mid-term election circus. Yes, don’t address issues, just exploit them.

Posted by: Perspective1 | January 12, 2010 10:52 AM
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It's great that this conversation is taking place on WashPost. There are many organizations dedicated to continuing the conversation on race, including Sustained Dialogue, which has become popular around the country, especially on college campuses (including Professor Davidson's UVA). Check it out: http://www.sustaineddialogue.org/

Posted by: SBrid | January 12, 2010 10:49 AM
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Harry Reid committed a 'gaffe' which is defined as speaking the plain truth in a tactless way. Reid is still a loyal and hardworking member of Obama's team.

Posted by: chuck8 | January 12, 2010 10:37 AM
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Foul! Foul! Foul! That's the only way to describe the mischaracterization of Sen. Reid by comparing his comments to Trent Lott. More importantly though, like Jimmy the Greek in the '70s, Sen. Reid wasn't wrong he just voiced it in public.

The real issue is that we as Americans still have this inability to have honest dialect regarding our most sensitive issues; e.g., porn thrives in this country for a reason, this country benefitted unfairly with the usage of free slave labor.

I agree with Eugene Robinson in that Sen. Reid was on point in one area and out of pocket in another. The republican party has more serious issues than we suspect if this is the issue they want to drive for the reminder of this week's news cycle. I'm at a loss for words when I consider that they expect any reasonably intelligent person to believe that this rises to the level of Trent Lott's offensive remarks.

Posted by: Jigsaw | January 12, 2010 10:32 AM
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The thing is, "racism" is like a disease in the mind of the beholder. Its also based in economical prosperity or disparity. It preys on our weaknesses and easily moves from person to person unless you inoculate yourself with obvious reasoning.

I'm a Black male from DC (live in MD), and everytime..yes..EVERYTIME I go to Northern MD (Sykesville, Glen Burnie, Randallstown, etc) I see "Whites Only" scrawled on the walls, and hear idiots call me a Nig*** as they drive pass. Every.Single.Time. Yet I haven't turned into a bigot like DwightCollins.

I haven't, because I know that stupid people come in every race imaginable. Also, I know that if I were to act like those few idiots represented ALL of White people, it would show in everything I do, so other unrelated White people would see the anger in me and I'd just pass on the racism to them, like Dwight just showed us...

But I'm not that stupid.

White people suck, Black people suck, Asian people suck, Latinos suck, Europeans suck, Australians suck (Inuits are cool, though)..we're all human beings with the same internal problems. The thing is, we can only see these 'problems' from our own perspective, making us victims forever..

There ARE, of course, real cases of racism out there, and I've been victimized before, but now we're using racism as a political tool, and not a learning experience. So, the DwightCollinses of each race continue to feel like they're the victims, not realizing that they're just spreading racism around even more with the things they say/do.

All that said, I don't think Reid's comments were 'racist', but they were very very very very very very very very very stupid. Fire him? No...Make an example out of him? Yes!

Posted by: OneGovt_Worker | January 12, 2010 10:27 AM
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I wonder if racist White Americans ever stop to consider how crazy they must seem to the rest of the world they are trying to influence. There are so many brilliant Black people in the world that I cannot believe White Americans persist in portraying Blacks as some sort of retarded, inferior race from another planet. Granted, the very racism is holding many Blacks back.

In predominantly Black countries, Black people do not usually obsess over the color of their skin, and it is a real shock to come to America and hear that somehow you are automatically incompetent.

One guy posting here thinks Black people can't lead, other people think White people can't jump, and growing up, I had the impression White people couldn't write --- well. False!

Posted by: MStJohn | January 12, 2010 10:20 AM
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Let's be real here, if Barack Obama was a dark skined black man and did not speak proper english, we would not have a Black President today.

These Republicans talking heads, most of them bigots, are calling for Reid to resign. The can care less about the plight of Blacks, the just want the numbers to shift in the Senate.

Moreover, this comment was make nearly two years ago, and it's in the news today. We should be dealing with issues like the bailed out bank employees bonuses, health care, the war on terror, etc., etc....

The American public are mere sheeps who are easily distracted by bulls***t, and now we have SARA PAILIN as a news commentator. Pailin is a job that these rednecks embrace.

Posted by: Special_One40 | January 12, 2010 10:10 AM
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Look, black Americans have known this for decades. It's not just a national phenomenon, it is global. Fair skinned people have always been more appealing, even within their own ethinicity. Black American men and women find their lighter skinned counterparts more appealing, so imagine how white Americans feel. From my experience, when a black American male or female is in charge of a large organization or a large part of an organization, most of the time, I would say 80%, they are of lighter complexion. Colin Powell, Condy Rice, the President. Why do you think Michelle Obama was getting the rap of "looking mean" on the campaign trail last year. Compared to her husband, she was darker.

The world has made dark objects and people evil for quite sometime, what makes Senator Reids comments a week long conversation, unbelieveable, is the Negro dialect part. Obama doesn't sound like a brother so that will help and did help him reach white Americans.

Posted by: ajackson3 | January 12, 2010 10:07 AM
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Quit picking on Old Harry. Heck, Harry is just proving that Eric Holder had it wrong when he said that whites were cowards when it came to talking about race. Old Harry isn't a coward!! He got right up there and talked about it!! Now, leave the Old Boy alone you too might become senile one of these days!

Posted by: wheeljc | January 12, 2010 10:04 AM
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We need to help each other understand some terms: older people, both black and white, feel comfortable using the word, Negro. I listened to Dr. Ralph Bunche give a lecture in l954. He was a Negro. He was a well known accomplished person. On CNN yesterday, Ms. Obrien had fits about how awful and dumb to use that word. She is too young to know better. The Census still uses "Negro." We also need to help each other understand the word, racist. As to some of the comments above... If the people who say they know and hear black people who are "racist" are they saying that the black people they know are denying them jobs? We still need to have all folk "get out more," as Bill Cosby once said. Get out, get educated and be mindful and thoughtful- also read more!

Posted by: judithclaire1939 | January 12, 2010 10:02 AM
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Like Eugene Robinson, I would characterize what Harry Reid said as rude and insensitive. He's hardly ignorant. The fact is that the color of one's skin and their diction are still important issues in politics as well as business today in America.
I agree that the fact that skin color makes a difference makes us all look ignorant. Your skin color is nothing that you can control and has no bearing on your character otherwise. Now diction is another matter. You can control how you speak and I expect any candidate that I vote for to have a command of the english language.

Posted by: devers1012 | January 12, 2010 8:39 AM
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There seems to be two sets of rules. If black voters say they vote for black candidates because they want black people representing them and feel a black person would serve them better, nobody has a problem. If a white person said the same thing about white candidates, he would be a horrible racist.

Posted by: potaboc | January 12, 2010 8:31 AM
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Dwight's comment that a black man can't lead is of course hogwash.

But he does have a point about black racism. In DC, I've run across FAR more black racists than white. Of course, blacks are the majority in DC, but there does seem to be an attitude that racism toward whites is acceptable because of past wrongs. The things I've heard blacks say in DC would result in firings or even protests in the streets if whites had said them.

What's funny is we often forget that it's not just black and white. There are latinos, Asians, etc.

Posted by: Hillman1 | January 12, 2010 8:17 AM
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if you ever listened to black radio or seen the state of the black union on cnn you would see blacks are far more racist far more often in their speech about white people...
obama is showing America, a black man can't lead...
why make it worse...

Posted by: DwightCollins | January 12, 2010 7:28 AM
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