UNLV professor: Reid flap obscures real racial problems

A Nevada expert on African-American and ethnic studies says fallout from Sen. Harry Reid’s "Negro dialect" comment is as nonsensical as the so-called beer summit President Barack Obama held in July at the White House.

"It doesn’t address real racism or real racial inequality," Rainier Spencer, a UNLV professor of African-American studies, said about the reaction to the remark. "It is a political slip-up that has been jumped on by the other side."

Spencer said Reid, D-Nev., was right to apologize for his use of the outdated word "Negro" but added the Senate majority leader’s assessment of Obama’s skin tone and speech pattern was accurate.

"It is like pitchforks and torches here over nothing," Spencer said. "Harry Reid explained one of the reasons Obama got elected. I don’t see why he had to apologize, other than using the archaic word Negro.

"This reminds me of the beer summit; it is as nonsensical as the beer summit," he said.

The beer summit was an attempt by Obama to soothe racial tensions that flared after Cambridge, Mass., police Sgt. Joseph Crowley arrested Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, who upon returning to his home from a trip was mistaken for a burglary suspect. The incident escalated to shouting and Gates’ arrest for disorderly conduct.

Obama, a friend of Gates, said police "acted stupidly" during the incident, a word choice he later said he regretted.

The beer summit arose from Obama’s offer to bring the parties together to speak about the matter over beers in the White House garden.

After the summit, Gate’s daughter, Elizabeth Gates, wrote in The Daily Beast that the event "seemed to make little sense at all."

Spencer said the Reid incident followed a familiar pattern for politics: A politician makes a racial gaffe, political opponents go on the attack, the politician issues a predictable apology and seeks to smooth it over with damage control.

The cycle doesn’t leave much room to talk about why the incident in question raised uncomfortable issues in the first place, he said.

"I think that the really bad thing about this is that we have now made it much more difficult for any politician to say anything honest about race," Spencer said. "The moment when we can talk honestly about race is now pushed forward because of this for months, if not years.

"And it was about nothing."

Contact reporter Benjamin Spillman at or 702-477-3861.

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