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Thursday, February 01, 2007

How Should We Interpret Biden's Comments About Obama?

From Susan Pizarro-Eckert,
Your Guide to Race Relations.
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How Should We Interpret Biden's Comments About Obama?

"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.” This quote comes from Senator Joe Biden, who recently announced he too was throwing his hat into the already crowded ring for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Since he made this statement, blogs have been buzzing. And key media personalities have requested that the Senator and Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee clarify what he meant. (watch his response on YouTube.)

This scenario reminds me of that Geico commercial, the one in which the caveman sits across from the therapist who asks him why the company slogan "So easy a caveman can do it" is so offensive to him. Rather than answer the question, the caveman responds with a question of his own: "How would you feel if it said 'So easy a therapist can do it?' To this, the therapist cocks her head and confidently responds, "Well that wouldn't make sense." "Why," asks the caveman, "because therapists are smart?" In the Geico slogan "so easy a caveman can do it" the offensive subtext is obviously "...and as you know, cavemen aren't smart."

It seems to me that Biden's comment plays on the prevailing stereotypes about African-American males: that they are unintelligent, inarticulate, dirty/corrupt/criminal, and unattractive. The subtext of his comment becomes "...and you know those people are unintelligent, inarticulate, dirty/corrupt/criminal, unattractive." If we understand this, then we understand the context for his next comment, which is "It's a storybook, man."

When it comes to race, and comments about race, people are either so quick to defend, or attack, that we end up blind to what lies before our very eyes. But, what if we took Biden's comment out of a racial context? What if we pretended just for one moment that he had instead said, "I mean, you got the first mainstream woman who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking gal?” How would this comment have come across then? My guess would be major controversy about whether or not Senator Joe Biden is a chauvinist woman-hater and therefore, whether or not he is fit for the presidential role.

But Biden was referring to Obama's race. That's not my opinion; here's a direct quote: "...you got the first mainstream African-American..."

And because he targeted race in such a derisive manner (Are we really to believe that never before Obama has there been an "articulate," "bright," "clean," and "nice-looking" African-American in the mainstream eye?), I believe he invited the resulting controversy.

Still, some bloggers have written that they see no harm in his comments, explaining either that this says more about "Biden's tendency to run his mouth off, I think, than it is some indication of latent racism (written by Greg Tinti on The Political Pit Bull)," or, enlightening us all by clarifying that what the Senator really meant to say can only be understood if you add the context words he left out: specifically “presidential candidate....And I presume by “clean” he means “clean-cut” rather than “bathes regularly.” (written by James Joyner on Outside the Beltway)."

And still other bloggers, while acknowledging the arrogance and ignorance of Biden's comments, are taking this opportunity to slam Democrats for making a faux pas on a subject they usually attack Republicans for: "Maybe Biden has been hanging around Robert Byrd for a little too long...Anyway, it’s nice to see the Democrats come out and show you what they really think of minorities in this country. They always bring up race as an issue, and now you know why (See "And the Left Say WE'RE Racists?")."

But let's not forget: Biden is no stranger to controversy. He was a candidate for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination, but according to USA Today, withdrew from the race in 1987 amid accusations that he had plagiarized passages in his speeches. In addition, his earlier comments about not being able to go into a 7-eleven or Dunkin Donuts without an Indian Accent (CBS News) also managed to ruffle more than a few feathers.

What's your opinion? Were Biden's comments about Obama appropriate?...Participate in our forum poll.

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