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This MLK day I wonder: Why hasn't electing a black president stopped conflicts over race?



Barack It seems hopelessly naive now, but could it be that many Americans thought electing a black president would spell an end to conflicts over race?

If so, they were sorely mistaken. Instead, having a black chief executive has raised considerations about race more often -- as everything from caricatures transmitted online to political opposition to domestic issues must be considered in a racial context.

It's a small taste of how people of color relate to race issues; we can never fully ignore such stuff. And when the President is black, neither can the country.

The most recent example is the controversy Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid found himself stuck in, after his comments about a "light-skinned" Barack Obama having a good chance of election because he doesn't "speak with a Negro dialect, unless he wants one" were revealed.

In the end, after several days of debate over whether his words were racist -- conducted by mostly white groups of pundits and journalists -- Reid slid off the newspages when the crisis in Haiti and approaching elections took precedence.

But it turns out, one of the core ideas from all the controversy -- why we are made so uncomfortable by the term "negro dialect" -- was barely considered.

Reddickandsimmons  And I just happened to find two lovely ladies who ran afoul of this controversy 41 years ago, when they tried to distribute a handbook on black dialect they had written throughout the Hillsborough schools system.

Doris Ross Reddick (on the right) is well known throughout Hillsborough County as a longtime, tireless advocate for kids, with status as the first black woman elected to the school board, more than 30 years' time as a teacher and administrator and an elementary school in Wimauma named after her.

Her good friend Altamese Simmons spent 25 years as a teacher and administrator, often serving as Reddick's right hand.

Dialecthandbook Both women, now 82, still good friends and full of passion, developed a guide to black dialect in 1969, hoping to help white teachers understand black students and get everyone talking about the clash of cultures underway. But black teachers feared it would just spark hurtful jokes and white teachers balked at the idea of respecting the dialect of black children.

My story in Sunday's Floridian talked about the brick wall they ran into -- mostly formed by our inability to discuss or respect difference.

And 41 years later, we're still having the same food fights, unaided by the distinction of electing the first black president more than a year earlier.

On this day especially, I wonder what Martin Luther King Jr. would have thought about that?

[Last modified: Wednesday, July 21, 2010 3:04pm]


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