As part of Joan Walsh's "colorful" Twitter stream, I agree with 90 percent of her post. I am glad that Harry Reid has apologized for his off the record comments about President Obama. I agree that it is disingenuous for the Republican Party to suddenly jump in the fray protecting African Americans from racist assaults.
But politics aside—if that is allowed—I was most concerned about the flip way that many commentators dismissed the Reid statement as unimportant. There is a reason why so many people were put off by his statements. I think that his words tap into a very old history shaped around questions of color and respectability and its meaning in American politics.
As historian, this debate makes me think of older arguments about African American citizenship. During Reconstruction there were well-meaning people who debated whether or not the freed slaves were ready for citizenship. Perhaps they needed more time, more education. By the turn of the twentieth century, black citizenship was being systematically destroyed by disfranchisement, lynching, and racial segregation. African Americans had made dramatic gains in education, and yet their opportunities were eroding. Many had banked on respectability as a political tool and were left disappointed.
I know that politics is an ugly game, that we make quick judgments about candidates based on their height, their looks, and their families. I know that black candidates that look and sound more like a racially neutral “norm” are more easily accepted by white voters. But I am concerned that accepting this as a matter of course degrades the quality of our democracy.
When we privilege a certain set of behaviors and let them serve as springboards for some, they are barriers for others. As an educator, I know that polished language opens doors, but I cringe at the idea that they close doors for others. As an African American historian, I find it horrifying that fair-skinned blacks are seen as more acceptable candidates in the 21st century, and it's considered just savvy politics to say so.
I do want us to move on from Reid’s comments. It is crucial to get moving on an important political agenda this year. But I also hope that we as Americans move away from narrow, racialized notions about whose voice is valuable and deserves to be heard.
Blair LM Kelley is an associate professor of History at North Carolina State University. Her book "Right to Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy v. Ferguson" will be published by UNC Press this spring.