Not Using 'Negro Dialect' Does Not Make Obama an Exception Among Black Politicians

One thing that has been lost in all the political bickering over Sen. Harry Reid's comments about President Obama's skin tone and dialect is the question of whether his comments were out of date in terms of their substance, not just their language. Reasonable people can agree that the term "Negro" is no longer widely used in public and disagree as to whether the term is offensive.

But, what of Reid saying Obama does not speak in "Negro dialect" unless he chooses to as a factual matter? Of course, it's true. And 20 years ago, when Jesse Jackson and other veterans of the civil-rights struggle in the South such as John Lewis were the country's leading African-American political voices, it would have been a relevant point in noting Obama's unique ability to appeal to whites. Nowadays, however, code-switching from white to black cultures is simply the norm for successful African-Americans. Obama is a part of a whole generation cohort of politicians, such as Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, Rep. Kendrick Meek of Florida, and even Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. of Illinois, who do not generally speak in any sort of African-American vernacular in front of white audiences.

Nor is this trend unique to African-Americans. In an increasingly multicultural yet integrated America, politicians, including non-Latinos, speak to Latinos in Spanish, and President George W. Bush was famous for playing up his Texas twang in front of certain audiences. The fact that a 70-year-old white man from Nevada's awareness of these trends isn't completely up to date is not, as I wrote earlier, racist, at least not in the way that endorsing segregation is racist. But the development of a whole generation of politicians who are comfortable speaking to different audiences in different, culturally appropriate, ways is healthy, and it's something we should all be happy to take for granted.