Thursday, February 08, 2007

It's What You Don't Say That Counts

First Joseph Biden, then George Bush; both victims of using the wrong words. It wasn’t the “N” word, nor was it the “F” word (either of them). For Biden it was “clean,” and for Bush it was “articulate.” Even though Biden also used the word “articulate” in describing Senator Barack Obama, the black senator from Illinois who is a popular Democrat hopeful, it was “clean” that got him in trouble, while “articulate” is what landed Bush in the language pokey. In both cases it wasn’t so much the words that were said, it was the words that weren’t said.

"I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy," Biden said. "I mean, that's a storybook, man." Some blacks immediately took offense, and, of course, the media, were quick to jump.

Later, Bush said: “He’s an attractive guy. He’s articulate. I’ve been impressed with him when I’ve seen him in person.” More offense taken, more jumping.

The assessment: their comments were “insensitive,” they were “racist.”

It’s not a surprise that blacks and the media imply, or even outright accuse George Bush of racism, but a lot of us wonder about blacks and the media calling a liberal Democrat like Biden a racist. Why would they do that? The answer is that both blacks and the media like Obama better than they like Biden. So Biden is fair game when Obama is the subject.

Be that as it may, the essence of this tempest in a teapot is that it was the words that weren’t said that were—are—the problem. Underlying the words of both Biden and Bush is the thought that Obama is articulate and clean for a black man. Yes, that’s right, both Biden and Bush made comments about Obama that they would not have made about a white male candidate, and they did it unconsciously, with no malice aforethought. They intended to compliment Obama, but in this poisoned political atmosphere, they insulted him.

Their comments were insensitive, and they concealed a subconscious attitude that blacks generally aren’t presidential material. It’s a small point to some, perhaps, but you can understand why black people don’t like it.

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