Thursday, February 01, 2007

Joseph Biden and Barack Obama

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Barack Obama's reported response to Sen. Joseph Biden's racist-sounding comment about his competitor for the White House is intriguingly ambiguous [my emphasis]:

Joe Biden called Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) to clarify his "clean" comment to the New York Observer, Biden told reporters in a conference call this afternoon. Biden said Obama told him: "You don't have to explain anything to me. I know exactly what you meant." Asked to clarify his comments, where he said Obama was "articulate and bright and clean," Biden said he "really" regretted the word "clean" was taken out of context. Biden: "My mother has an expression clean as a whistle sharp as a tack, that was the context." As to the effect it might have on the African-American vote, Biden: "I have no doubt that Jesse Jackson and other black leaders ... knew exactly what I meant. We have a very, very long relationship. ... There will be no misunderstanding."

Via Think Progress, The Chicago Trib tells Biden:

... Well-spoken black people hate it when white people call them "articulate." It's the modern-day version of what white people used to say back in the day when they thought that by saying "He's a credit to his race" they were saying something that a black person would welcome hearing.

Those dated words, like Biden's comments, were patronizing at the very least. And they also appeared to carry some pretty negative assumptions about the majority of the race.

Yes. And that last sentence, in my view, contains the point: Biden did not simply say that Obama is "articulate" -- he said:

“I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy,” he said. “I mean, that’s a storybook, man.”

That is obviously, unarguably, an insult to Barack Obama as a black man -- regardless of how Biden "meant" it.

So I have to disagree with Think Progress's criticism of Bush's response to Neil Cavuto's question about how American troops would feel about an Obama presidency:

CAVUTO: How do you think the troops would feel about a President Obama?

BUSH: Oh, I don’t know. He, let’s — he hasn’t gotten elected yet. He hasn’t even gotten the party’s nomination either. He’s an attractive guy. He’s articulate. I’ve been impressed with him when I’ve seen him in person. But he’s got a long way to go to be president.

When you actually hear Bush make this comment (the video is also on the Think Progress post), it doesn't come across to me as having any hidden racial meaning. I think the racism is more in Cavuto's question -- "How do you think the troops would like a President Obama" -- than in Bush's response. Clearly, the implication is that the troops might not like or want a president with Obama's skin color.

In this instance, Bush is right: Obama is far too inexperienced to be president. One could legitimately criticize Bush's astounding hypocrisy and lack of self-awareness in calling Obama "inexperienced" when he -- George W. Bush -- had even less national political experience when he took office than Obama does now. But I do not think Bush's response was racist.

1 comment:

Chief said...

I don't know what African-Americans 'hear' when someone uses the word "articulate" or the word "clean" but I did not view Biden's comments as racially charged.

I have used the word articulate a few times when speaking of a person who is able to communicate effectively and succinctly using, in our case, the English language.

But then again I've never been real good at splitting hairs go, vis-a-vis my brief stay in law school.