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I went on CNN last night to talk about the situation where Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was discovered to have said that he was impressed with President Barack Obama because he is “light skinned” and “doesn’t speak with a negro dialect.” Yes, I was as offended by Reid’s remarks as the rest of the country, but I am not very good at seeing things in one dimension.   Instead, I wanted to go a little bit deeper than that.

First, Harry Reid’s remarks don’t necessarily reflect his own thinking.  Instead, it tells us how our country thinks.  Ever since slavery, most of us have known that “light skind-ed” black people get treated better than everyone else.  Also, many of us grew up in some school where there was a white teacher telling us to “speak proper English.”  That is what assimilation is all about: if you don’t do what others tell you to do, they consider you to be inferior.  Period.  Most of us go through this experience every day when we go to work or interact with whites in nearly every facet of American life.  Harry Reid was definitely “keeping it real” with his comments, but he was also dredging up a very painful reality for most African Americans.

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Secondly, America needs to have a conversation on race.  Rather than shooting down any political figure who states the obvious, we should figure out why it is the case that America would not vote for Obama if he were dark or were caught speaking in “negro dialect” (although I have no clue what that means).  White supremacist thinking is everywhere, and if we don’t have an honest conversation on race, we are going to continue running into the same old problems.  So, although President Obama wants to sweep this issue under the rug, I want to lay it all out on the table.

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Dr. Boyce Watkins is the founder of the Your Black World Coalition. To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here.