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It’s not Harry Reid who should be apologizing

Harry Reid doesn’t owe me an apology.

Sure, it was a little odd to see the term “Negro” used outside of a history class or documentary. Sounds like Reid is stuck in the last century.

But the Senate majority leader didn’t say anything many Americans -- especially us Negroes -- don’t already know.

If you’re black, it is easier in this country to be light-skinned.

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That’s borne out not just by anecdote and experience, but by research documenting favorable treatment for fair-skinned blacks in criminal cases, employment prospects, even social and romantic liaisons.

Studies have shown that darker-skinned blacks are more likely to be unemployed, earn less and hold lower-prestige jobs. In the criminal justice system, convicted murderers with “stereotypically black” features are more than twice as likely as light-skinned defendants to receive death sentences from juries.

Don’t blame Reid for the preference. Blame bigotry. Blame history.

The legacy of fair-skinned favoritism in this country has its roots in slavery. Light-skinned blacks tended to be slave owners’ progeny, and to be offered education, land and access to broader society.

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Those advantages persisted for generations, spawning a light-skinned elite that still has more crossover appeal.

Obama came by his light skin and dialectical flexibility differently -- as a biracial, bicultural son. But he’s a political beneficiary of our color-conscious society; to pretend otherwise is disingenuous.

Reid was stating a fact, however indelicate and impolitic.

Obama’s appearance and avoidance of “Negro dialect” -- except when reaching out to blacks -- allowed white voters to feel comfortable with his politics and his intellect. He seemed more like them than like Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson; less threatening, more like a guy you’d have over for dinner.

Reid expressed regret this weekend “for offending any and all Americans, especially African Americans,” with comments he made in 2008 that only now have come to light.

But I don’t know why I should be offended.

If anyone is insulted, it should be whites -- whom Reid accused implicitly of being willing to vote for a black man only if he talks like them and is not too black.

I think the next apology ought to come from Michael Steele -- the light-skinned, dialectically flexible African American head of the Republican National Committee.

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Steele has called for Reid to step down as majority leader, likening him to Trent Lott, the former Mississippi senator rebuked in 2002 for saying he was “proud” that his state had supported a segregationist candidate in the 1948 presidential election.

That candidate was Strom Thurmond, who famously declared during his White House campaign: “All the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes, our schools, our churches.”

Either Steele is playing politics with a combustible case, or he thinks Americans are so incapable of thinking intelligently about race that we can’t tell the difference between Lott and Reid.

Now that offends me.

sandy.banks@latimes.com


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