Stupid me. It turns out to be the word Negro that got everyone upset. Now that we have a black president, the word Negro in all its uses is especially taboo, or so I gather. The problem is, Sen. Reid used the word Negro quite correctly in describing a speech pattern known as Negro dialect. For the average black in this country the chances are quite good that his parents, grandparents or great-grandparents used or continue to use Negro dialect in their everyday speech. It's possible, after all, with varying degrees of accuracy, to identify people as black over the telephone, just as it's possible to tell the difference between a New Yorker and a Canadian living in New York. In the Army, I came to the conclusion that black drill sergeants were superior, generally, at calling cadence because of their speech patterns. White drill sergeants went to great lengths, I thought, to avoid sounding black, and were less effective as a result. It's not because black drill sergeants spoke black dialect, but because they had within them a heritage of Negro dialect that allowed them to linger naturally on certain vowels and to emphasize particular rhythms in their speech. Under a thick veneer of political correctness, we all know these things. Pragmatically speaking, Sen. Obama had the opportunity to incorporate aspects of Negro dialect (quite foreign to him) in his political persona. He chose not to do so. For a white person — is Caucasian still permissible? — to do so would be un­thinkable.

The day I was inducted, a cocky sergeant strutted his stuff up and down the classroom aisles where we were filling out paperwork. He snatched a paper from the hands of an enormous, and enormously dangerous looking man in an Afro with cutoff sleeves and a length of chain used as a belt. "What race is  this?" he demanded. He held the paper up for us all to see. "The question is, What race are you?, not What color are you? Black is not a race." It was here that he made what I would call a tactical error. He demanded to know, expecting, I suppose, to continue with a canned lecture on the subject, "If I was filling out this form, what would I answer?" The potential felon looked him over defiantly from head to toe and said, "Pink."

Of course the Army is one thing and politics another. The sergeant wisely retreated. Sen. Reid wisely apologized. The sergeant lived to be arrogant another day while Sen. Reid now finds it difficult to conduct business at all. Can't we just get along?