Rev. Al Sharpton's Weekly Blog

Rev. Sharpton on Harry Reid

Jan 12, 2010

It’s literally been decades since I first embarked on the sometimes unpredictable, sometimes demanding and always rewarding path of civil rights work, and you can pretty much surmise that I’ve seen it all. I’ve been stabbed, arrested, ridiculed in the court of public opinion, marched with greats, lost friends and witnessed both progress and digression all throughout. Symbolically, we all experienced the pinnacle of achievement last year when the nation elected the first Black President to the White House. And though Barack Obama won thanks to support from voters in every race, creed and religion, an unspoken question lurked in the African American community. One that until now, largely escaped mainstream attention. But thanks to Senator Harry Reid, we can all ponder: would Obama have made it to the top if he weren’t light-skinned and didn’t speak with a certain vernacular and nuance? These are no doubt offensive questions, but ones that we finally must start dealing with.

Last week, President Obama issued the following statement after Senator Reid’s remarks were broadcast everywhere: “Harry Reid called me today and apologized for an unfortunate comment reported today. I accepted Harry’s apology without question because I’ve known him for years, I’ve seen the passionate leadership he’s shown on issues of social justice and I know what’s in his heart. As far as I am concerned, the book is closed.” The President may have closed this book, but when it comes to the question of the negro dialect, and one’s skin tone, it’s beyond time to start penning a brand new book.

Although Senator Reid’s comments were offensive, they are also a harsh reality in America, where complexion and diction often determine how successful one can be and which circles he or she may venture in. Terms like ‘ebonics’ allow for the open ridicule of a group of people who may not always receive the equal access to education and prosperity that privileged folks do. This concept of dialect and complexion has plagued the African American community for years as they have witnessed the disparity in the level of treatment from others depending on where they land on the color/verbal spectrum. Just ask yourself, how many White voters would have supported Obama if he was a few shades darker, and if wasn’t so impeccable in his delivery? It’s pretty amazing that we can live for eight years under a man who many mocked for his lack of verbal communication skills, and yet in order to have an African American President, he must be above and beyond in education, articulation and overall character.

During Obama’s campaign last year, I myself, heard individuals state things like ‘oh well he’s not Al Sharpton’, as if to suggest that there was a stark difference between policies, our backgrounds and our outlooks on the future. Harry Reid undoubtedly made a disparaging remark, but this moment should instead allow everyone to take a real good look at how we internalize race on a multitude of levels. And just as importantly, it serves as a stark example of how the work of civil rights must continue, and why we mustn’t waiver even when all appears just in the world