- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 14, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Twenty years ago this week, I placed my hand on the Bible and swore to uphold the constitutions of both the Commonwealth of Virginia and the United States of America. The people of Virginia had just gone to the polls and shown that a majority of voters were ready to judge candidates for the highest offices by the content of their character, not by the color of their skin. Twenty years ago, that happened not just in any state - but in a state that once led the Confederate South and later led the fight to block black children from entering the same schoolhouses as their white neighbors.

The results of that election in November 1989 made me Virginia’s governor, but the great importance of what happened wasn’t what it did for me - the importance of that day was what it said about Virginians and, by proxy, the American people. Voters said, “Look to a candidate’s qualifications and vision, not the color affixed to their skin at birth.”

So it saddened me to read the words of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid when he ostensibly was trying to bolster the bid of Barack Obama for the White House. Mr. Reid suggested that as a “light-skinned” black man, Mr. Obama would be more palatable to the electorate as a potential president. The Nevada senator “praised” Mr. Obama’s ability to turn off what Mr. Reid must perceive as a widespread “Negro dialect” when speaking to audiences who are not amenable to such a speaking style.

Voters certainly deserve more credit than some of the people they elect to high office give them.

Whether those words and the sentiment they represent were spoken in the U.S. Senate to praise Mr. Obama or used to sanitize deep-seated hatred at a White Citizens’ Council meeting in the 1950s, they are reprehensible and indefensible. No ifs ands or buts about it. Our leaders need to acknowledge that fact.

Mr. Reid, indeed, has apologized to President Obama for what has to be one of the most dreadful compliments in American political history. But I have to ask why he stopped there. His words were, as a matter of fact, an offense against the president, but they also were a slap in the face of the American people - especially the millions of younger Americans who have worked diligently to extend the American dream to every person in every corner of this nation. And they didn’t do it just at the ballot box - they did it on school buses, in classrooms, in cafeterias and in basement rec rooms around the country. They did it by just refusing to hate and by merely living with their neighbors as friends and people of common good cheer. Where was Mr. Reid’s apology to those everyday Americans he underestimated and dismissed as yesteryear’s market-variety haters?

The people of this country have earned more respect from Mr. Reid than that, and he should not let too much time go by before he tells them he regrets what he assumed about America.

Words such as “light-skinned” and comments about the lack of a “Negro dialect” also cut at other wounds that I saw healing as I traveled around the country when Mr. Reid made his comments in 2008.

For years, such sentiments were used to divide the black community. Once, if a black person could pass a so-called paper-bag test (meaning his or her skin was lighter than a grocery bag) he or she was thought to have greater social value. The word “articulate” has been used like a verbal cleaver to divide certain members of the black community from the majority of those brought to America from Africa as slaves. “Articulate” blacks were considered “the good ones,” who at least could catch a glimpse of the people enjoying equality. This became so pernicious that there was a backlash in the black community about speaking too properly, achieving too much - i.e. “acting too white.”

Let’s not relegate another generation of black children, or any American child for that matter, to such archaic thinking about the value of lighter skin tones or division by dialect. We can do better.

Some have compared Mr. Reid’s comments to former Sen. Trent Lott’s 2002 comment that the country would have been better off if a racist segregationist had been elected president of the United States in the 1940s. These situations don’t compare in the least, and Mr. Reid was not suggesting that the country’s progress in fighting discrimination should stop or implying that he might use his position so to do. Hence, I do not call for his resignation.

But that doesn’t mean that we as a nation don’t need to have a discussion about how far we have come and how far we have left to go. Let’s talk rationally about race in this country - and catch up with the nation’s young people, who are light-years ahead of certain folks with big offices on Capitol Hill.

Douglas Wilder was the first black elected governor of a U.S. state.

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