Senator said mouthful with his reference to 'Negro dialect'

What's in a word?

Apparently a whole lot, judging by the firestorm that erupted in recent days over the racially outdated language Sen. Harry Reid is reported to have used during a private conversation to describe Barack Obama's presidential chances.

Reid's comments about the president, revealed in a new book about the 2008 campaign, included describing Obama as "light-skinned" and saying he has no "Negro dialect" unless he chooses to have one.

Geneva Smitherman, a sociolinguist and professor at Michigan State University who has written extensively about black language and its evolution, almost couldn't believe it.

"Being a linguist, it really threw me off," Smitherman said. "I couldn't figure out, in the 21st century, where that came from. It's such an anachronism, a throwback to a much earlier age."

Obama accepted Reid's apology for the gaffe, as did black leaders at the local, state and national level.

Many said they weren't particularly offended by Reid's remarks because of the context in which they were given. But the incident spurred a lot of talk. And it raised a question: Just how offensive, in 2010, is the word "Negro"?

It depends, said the linguists, educators and black leaders interviewed by the Review-Journal.

"You can't talk about the offense of a word in isolation," said Keith Woods, who teaches reporting on race relations for the Poynter Institute.

"It's a word spoken by a person with a past that falls into a context. Its meaning ultimately derives from that, not from a dictionary."

Over time, political and social forces have influenced the language blacks use to describe themselves.

"Black people have never really figured out what to call ourselves," Smitherman said.

Portuguese slave-traders used "negro" to describe blacks centuries ago. The term was embraced and capitalized by black leaders, including W.E.B. DuBois, during the late 1920s as a way to elevate the term to a symbolic level of dignity and respect, Smitherman said.

The term fell out of favor during the "Black Power" movement of the 1960s, when activists called on blacks to abandon what they saw as a slavery-imposed name.

In recent years, some younger blacks have embraced the term "Negro" in hip-hop music, Smitherman said.

It's safe to say that Reid, the 70-year-old Senate majority leader, isn't hip enough to pull that off.

Many older blacks still identify themselves with the term "Negro" and see nothing wrong with it.

The 2010 Census will offer "Negro" as an option for designating race, along with "black" and "African-American," though some black leaders have criticized that decision.

The Census Bureau decided to keep the term "Negro" on census forms because more than 55,000 blacks wrote the word in during the 2000 census, even though it was already included as one of the selections. This suggested some blacks still prefer the term and had overlooked it as a choice on the form.

"It's a flexible, changing word," said Walter Mason, who directs theater productions at the West Las Vegas Arts Center.

"As my long-ago buddy Sammy Davis Jr., said, 'First I was colored, then I was a Negro and then I became black.' Black people began to feel it was better to name themselves than have a name put upon them by someone else."

Mason, 84, worked with Davis for eight years and became entertainment director of the Las Vegas Hilton.

Though the term "Negro" is now largely considered outdated, Mason insists the word is not offensive.

"Many intellectual people, like W.E.B. DuBois, used it as an empowering term," Mason said. "People were using it in a positive way, and continue to use it in a positive way."

But some older organizations that include the word "Negro" in their titles have moved to distance themselves from the word.

The United Negro College Fund, founded in 1944, has in recent years moved to play down its full name in favor of its initials, UNCF.

Explaining the decision to the New York Times in 2008, Michael L. Lomax, UNCF's president and chief executive, said the organization wanted to hold on to its heritage but also "find a way to say who we are that speaks directly and positively to a younger generation."

The Rev. Jesse Scott, one of the Las Vegas Valley's best-known civil rights leaders, said opinions about the word are as diverse as the community itself.

"Black people are no different from white people; all of us don't have to agree about anything," Scott, 89, said.

Smitherman said Reid's words, while outdated, weren't necessarily offensive because the senator was referring to a dialect, not to a person.

"It would have been offensive if he had called Obama a 'light-skinned Negro,'" she said.

But Reid refers to blacks as "African-Americans," which is the preferred term these days, Smitherman said. (The Associated Press Stylebook for journalists says "black" and "African-American" are both acceptable terms.)

Reid's reference to "Negro dialect" especially puzzled Smitherman, as it is a term that hasn't been used among language scholars in decades. Nowadays, it's called "African-American language" or "African-American vernacular," she said.

The terms refer to syntactical patterns of grammar and pronunciation typical in the black community, some of which may have carried over from African languages and survived from generation to generation, Smitherman said.

An example is use of the verb "to be," she said.

"Like, 'He be working every day,'" she said. "Or, in Michigan, 'He don't be working every day.'"

Smitherman, who has taught and written about language for decades, said she looks at the entire Reid brouhaha as a way to get people to start thinking and talking about language.

The incident is a perfect example of the power of a single word, she said.

"It's not just a word. It's a concept which has embedded in it all sorts of social, emotional, historical and cultural implications. Words have all these nuances beyond their dictionary meanings. That is where their power lies."

Contact reporter Lynnette Curtis at or 702-383-0285.