Friday, February 02, 2007


The Real Shame of Biden's Blunder

In all the harrumphing about Joe ("Live by the Mouth, Die by the Mouth") Biden's scandalous gaffe this week, it's been striking to see how relatively little has been said about the actual content of his comments -- and what they reveal about racial attitudes in the America of 2007.

The fact is, whatever Biden meant to convey, his actual uncoded words expressed something significant that many white Americans -- including many well-educated, supposedly enlightened folks -- tend to think in the private confines of their own minds but don't dare express out loud. That is, the rule to Barack Obama's exception is the black man who talks/appears/acts as if they came, as the famous rap song suggests, straight outta Compton.

We could spend days debating how pervasive that ghetto stereotype is, why it persists in this multicultural day and age, and what it will take to get past the prejudiced perception that Biden was not so implicitly tapping into. And we should -- that's the only way we ever seem to make social progress in this country, when we are forced to confront our own worst fears about our identity differences.

In that sense, Biden did the country a great service by flushing this buried bias out into the public domain and setting the table for desperately-needed conversation about how whites and blacks converse among themselves, to each other, and too often to no one at all. What is perception and what is reality? And does the emphasis on "keeping it real" in some African-American cultural quarters actually keep things unreal in the minds of white America?

But instead of considering those and other hard questions, we took the easy way out and followed the typical script when a public figure makes racially-indelicate comments. Freak out, speak out, and apologize -- then fervently speculate about the fallout for and rehabilitation of the offending party.

That's the real shame of Joe Biden's blunder -- what didn't get articulated at all, and the opportunity we missed because of it. We are all glad to know that Al Sharpton bathes daily (the Reverend deserves kudos for the most humorous line of the news cycle). But I'd much rather find out why so many smart white people think like Joe Biden spoke -- and how we get them to change their minds.

UPDATE: For a smart take on the larger political implications of the Biden mess for the presidential campaign, check out this article on the Newsweek site, which a friend forwarded me. The key takeaway graphs:
But there is a more important lesson in the Biden foible, a cautionary tale for other Democrats running in 2008: Every mistake counts triple this time. Why? Well, all the obvious changes that geeky political reporters love to write about-24-hour media cycles, the vigilance of the blogosphere and this nifty new contraption called YouTube, for starters. But each gaffe will count extra this time for a more simple, old-fashioned reason—the Democrats running this time know how it’s done. It’s hard to remember the last time the Democratic primary field had so many contenders who’ve been there before. Love her or hate her, Hillary Clinton knows how to run for president. So does John Edwards. So do some of the second-tier candidates. As a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Chris Dodd knows more about the Democratic primary calendar than most people who end up being the party’s nominee. Ditto for Bill Richardson. These are professionals, candidates who aren’t going to squander years of preening practice for some rookie’s mistake.

That might be a good thing for the party. The most amazing thing about Howard Dean’s infamous “scream speech” in 2004 wasn’t that it destroyed his candidacy—it was that he had risen so far so fast before the yelp heard round the world brought him tumbling down. A first-timer, Dean was an unpolished, at times reckless, candidate who most likely wouldn’t have even made it to Iowa had he been facing a more seasoned foe. When Dean showed his true colors, the most disciplined, experienced candidate for Democrats to glom on to was John Kerry—who went on to show his own rookie weaknesses time and time again.

The gaffe was far more scandalous in its transcription than in actuality, as the distinct pause before the word "who" made it pretty clear Biden meant the second half of the thought as a positive for Obama, not a negative for others (like Biden really believes Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and Carol Mosely Braun were inarticulate -- oh, please).
As for the bias shown by whites against those who sound like they came from the ghetto -- do you really think we would take seriously as a Presidential candidate someone with a thick Long Island or Brooklyn accent, or who sounded like the South Philly guys in the Burger King ads? Recalling the campaigns of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, they sounded different when south of the Mason-Dixon line than when speaking in the North or nationally, as Clinton dug up his old Arkansas twang and W didn't have to hide his Texas one. Part of W's awkward speaking style may lie in his discomfort with not sounding "southern" (or it may just be that he's an inarticulate doofus, but I digress).
This isn't the racial bias you think it is but more of a class/regional bias or prefererence, to put it less pejoratively. There's enough racial bias out there without finding it where it doesn't exist.

(for more on Biden see my blog at
i live in Sweden.

can you explain what is meant by the comment "out of Compton?"

what or where is Compton, and how is that significant in discussing bloviating Biden?

it has been known for a long time that Biden is a fool; last time he ran for Prez, he was foolish enough to get caught plagiarizing a speech from Kinnock, the UK labor candidate, also a loser.
Compton is a suburb of Los Angeles, featuring a predoiminantly African-American population. It is not, as one might expect, a tenement-filled ghetto, but a suburban community with tree-lined streets and single-family homes. It has been noted as dangerous place to be -- let me quote Wikipedia:

Compton is notorious throughout the U.S.A. for having one of the highest violent crime rates in California. In 2006, the Morgan Quitno Corporation rated Compton as the most dangerous city with a population of 75,000 to 99,999, and fourth most dangerous overall. [3] Compton also has a homicide rate about eight times higher than the national average, most of which are gang killings. Economic conditions and Compton's location as the center of the South Los Angeles "ghettos" make crime prevention more difficult. Crime has not been as severe as it was in the 1980s and early 1990s, during the crack epidemic.[citation needed]

The city has, at times, been notorious for gang violence. Compton's violent reputation was popularized in the late 1980s by the rise to prominence of local gangsta rap groups Compton's Most Wanted and N.W.A., who released the famous album Straight Outta Compton in 1988. The most recent rapper from Compton to popularize the city's gang culture is The Game, with his albums The Documentary (2005) and Doctor's Advocate (2006).

Compton had 72 murders in 2005, which is a per capita rate significantly higher than the national average for small cities. Recently in an effort to combat this gun violence the Compton citizens were given the option to hand over their guns to the police, and receive a $100 check for various goods. During 2006, Compton has deployed twice as many sheriff deputies and the murder rate has decreased from 22 in four months, to just five.

As with all Wikipedia entries, the specific facts may not be 100% accurate, but the general impression is.
Great post. As an African-American, my general word to the wise (and non-Black) is never to compliment an adult Black person on being "articulate." It's kind of akin to calling a dwarf "adorable" on the eye-rolling scale. If we're native english speakers and over ... say... age eight, we're supposed to be articulate. You don't see people of other ethnicities being similarly "complimented", because their ability to speak standard english is taken for granted.

That he finds Obama's ability to express himself coherently to be some sort of neat parlor trick isn't unique to Mr. Biden, unfortunately. And just as unfortunately, it isn't unique to Whites...
It is wrong and insulting for people to be surprised by Obama's abilities, BUT HASN'T THE COUNTRY INVITED THIS through its acceptance of affirmative action??

Obama is incredibly gifted, but almost certainly received preference at Harvard, Columbia and elsewhere. It wasn't his choice, but now he has to live with the subtle racism of low expectations. It's a blessing and a curse for now, but I imagine this attitude will fade in a national election [in which he'll suffer from outright racism and pragmatic concerns of electability and experience].
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