Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The Racial Politics of Articulate Speaking

I never thought Joe Biden would run for president again, after his 1988 White House bid that floundered amid allegations of plagiarism. So I was caught off guard a little by Biden's muddled entry in the 2008 contest, and especially his controversial musings on Barack Obama. In comments made to the New York Observer, Biden remarked: "I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that's a storybook, man" (the quote is from this report by Jake Tapper at ABC News).

Sunday's Week in Review at the New York Times had
a big article about the reaction among African-Americans. What is it about Obama being called articulate that's so upsetting?

It is amazing that this still requires clarification, but here it is. Black people get a little testy when white people call them “articulate....”

A series of conversations about the word with a number of black public figures last week elicited the kind of frustrated responses often uttered between blacks, but seldom shared with whites.

“You hear it and you just think, ‘Damn, this again?’ ” said Michael Eric Dyson, a professor of humanities at the University of Pennsylvania.

Anna Perez, the former communications counselor for Ms. Rice when she was national security adviser, said, “You just stand and wonder, ‘When will this foolishness end....?’ ”
So what is the problem with the word? Whites do not normally object when it is used to describe them. And it is not as if articulate black people do not wish to be thought of as that. The characterization is most often meant as a form of praise....

What faint praise, indeed. Being articulate must surely be a baseline requirement for a former president of The Harvard Law Review. After all, Webster’s definitions of the word include “able to speak” and “expressing oneself easily and clearly.” It would be more incredible, more of a phenomenon, to borrow two more of the senator’s puzzling words, if Mr. Obama were inarticulate.

That is the core of the issue. When whites use the word in reference to blacks, it often carries a subtext of amazement, even bewilderment. It is similar to praising a female executive or politician by calling her “tough” or “a rational decision-maker....”

Such a subtext is inherently offensive because it suggests that the recipient of the “compliment” is notably different from other black people.

However, another version of events, from Russ Smith's commentary in the Baltimore City Paper, sees the reaction to Biden's words as "hysterical":

The hysterical reaction to Joe Biden's alleged racist comment captured by a New York Observer reporter last week might have left Democrats vexed and Republicans chortling, but the longtime Delaware senator was unfairly maligned....

Biden was denounced immediately after the Observer story was posted online in large part because of the implication that previous black presidential candidates like Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and Carol Moseley Braun were lacking hygiene. Anyone with a lick of sense understood that Biden, however clumsily, meant that Obama was untainted by past scandals or intemperate remarks.

Here's a snippet of Smith's comments regarding Al Sharpton:

Sharpton, receiving the inevitable apology from Biden, assured the senator that he takes a bath every day. Funny guy. Biden's correct, however, that Obama is the first black (or half-black) candidate who could occupy the White House....

Sharpton, the reverend/huckster, has a vile history of anti-Semitism, best exemplified by his conduct in Brooklyn in 1991. After a Hasidic driver accidentally killed a young black boy, Sharpton incited an understandably upset community at the child's funeral, and organized a march against the "diamond merchants" carrying the "blood of innocent babies." In an ensuing melee, Yankel Rosenbaum, a rabbinical student, was stabbed to death as the protesters shouted, "Kill the Jews." As for the 1987 Sharpton-fueled Tawana Brawley hoax--in which it was alleged that she was gang-raped by a group of white men--that's an ugly chapter (or two) in the political/cultural story of modern New York.
Smith notes that Obama at first took the comments in stride, but later said that Biden's remarks were "historically inacurrate." Evidence, once again, Smith says, of Obama's "on the one hand" approach to politics, which means in practice never alienating anyone.

As for Obama being articulate, Biden probably should have known better than speak that way, given the state of racial politics in America. I hope he's able to stay in the race, in any case. His ideas on Iraq are especially interesting, and would spark needed debate among the Democratic hopefuls on America's foreign policy.

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