The Year’s First “Non-Racist”: Senator Joe Biden
We went a whole month into 2007 without someone making a notable racist statement in public, claim that it was a mistake, and have others run to his or her defense claiming that it was clearly not the intent of the speaker to offend. Alas, Joe Biden comes to the rescue and gives us something to blog about (apologies to Bonnie Raitt).
As has been widely reported, Biden was quoted in an interview with the New York Observer as saying the following about fellow U.S. Senator and Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama, who is black: “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."
Biden apparently called Obama to apologize, whereupon Obama told him not to worry about it. Obama later told reporters that there are much more important public policy issues to be discussing. But he was clear to point out in a written statement that even if Biden’s remarks did not personally offend him, they are historically inaccurate: “African-American presidential candidates like Jesse Jackson, Shirley Chisholm, Carol Moseley Braun and Al Sharpton gave a voice to many important issues through their campaigns, and no one would call them inarticulate.”
Well, we’re not sure that NOONE would call those candidates inarticulate (in fact, we’re betting someone posts a response on this blog arguing this point), but it was an important clarification. This, along with the assumptions about Africans Americans in general, is what we should be concerned about. Instead, much of the discussion is focused on the suggestion that most black candidates are not “clean.” It is clear to us that Biden was not referring to bodily cleanliness, but rather absence of scandal or character questions. This is not simply a matter of intent, but a misunderstanding of the way he was using a word that has more than one meaning.
But ironically, it is the “intent” factor that has been used to defend Biden. (Obama certainly bought into this, at least publicly.) And on ABC’s talk show The View on Thursday morning, liberal and conservative roles reversed, as Rosie O’Donnell argued that there were not “racist overtones” in Biden’s remarks, and Barbara Walters and Joy Behar reminded the viewers of Biden’s position on civil rights. After all, he clearly didn’t MEAN to offend (see our post on intentional racism). The token conservative host, Elisabeth Hasselbeck, was (uncharacteristically) the only voice of reason during this discussion, though she likely was coming from a partisan angle. But while she chastised Biden for making the comments, she missed the mark, as well, centering discussion on how he should be more careful when he speaks.
When Trent Lott made comments that were racist in nature, he got (appropriately) attacked by Hollywood liberals, but they are bending over backwards to explain away comments made by a Democrat that are equally rooted in racism. The “clean” comment aside, Biden’s remarks are illustrative of institutionalized racism. They rest on the assumption that most African American (presidential) candidates are not articulate, bright, nice looking or without questions about their character. Since there have only been a handful of such candidates, the extrapolation is unwise on its face. The generalization was subconsciously justified because of Biden’s (and all of our) deeply-rooted preconceptions about black Americans in general.
The very characteristics he notes are contrary to widely disseminated and tacitly accepted negative stereotypes about blacks. Storybooks are fantasy. To claim that Obama’s possession of these characteristics is “storybook” is to suggest that it is almost unthinkable that there could be a black candidate like Obama. Why the big surprise? Because we don’t expect black folks to be like this, and we don’t expect that because most of what we’ve been socialized to believe about black Americans undermines their ability to be any, let alone all, of those things.
“Attractive”: Traditional standards of beauty rest primarily on characteristics most common to those of European decent.
“Bright”: The well-noted disadvantages in the educational system in this country are tied tightly to racial segregation in neighborhoods and disproportional poverty in black communities (affirmative action programs notwithstanding).
“Articulate”: Black dialect is considered to be non-standard English – not merely “different” such as a Boston accent or a Minnesota accent, but normatively less desirable.
“Clean”: The myth of Africans American as being untrustworthy has been documented throughout history; it’s connotations are criminal in nature and thus to point it out signifies the standard stereotype of criminality, shadiness, etc.
In short, Biden is racist like the rest of us. His intent is irrelevant to the discussion we should be having. Would it be worse if he intended to offend? That would make him a bigoted jackass, but we do not agree that being a bigoted jackass is “worse” than the pervasive undercurrents of racism that run throughout our culture on a daily basis.
Joe Biden’s statements have very little to do with him as a person and everything to do with how racism still matters in our culture. Whether Biden is a racist or not is irrelevant. He is. Whether he is a bigot or not is also irrelevant. His record suggests that he clearly is not (and here is where these comments are distinct from those made by Trent Lott). What really matters is why this keeps happening (Michael Richards’s comments were only a few months back, remember) and why the two of us keep having to remind the mainstream media that they are ignoring the real issues. Is anyone out there?!