Sunday, February 04, 2007

A few last words on the Biden kerfuffle

By Heraclitus

If you're like me, you're somewhat disappointed or irritated by Joe Biden's decision to beging his run for the Democratic nomination by pointing at Barak Obama and saying, "He ain't like them other colored boys, is he?" Most people seem convinced that Biden didn't have much a chance in any case, but he's the only candidate who's declared so far who isn't a slickster product of the media/fundraising culture, and he has more experience in the Senate than all the other candidates combined. And then the fact that Biden capped his statement off with a "man" just makes him sound like some coked-out '70s hipster.

I don't think that Biden himself is a "racist," however one determines the exact meaning of that word. More than that, someone like HRC, who would of course never make such a gaffe, will no doubt sell blacks down the river the first chance she gets as president (if indeed she gets any). I don't know that Biden would be any better, but I do think it's a mistake to think we can predict what his policies regarding African-Americans would look like based on this comment.

Then why exactly was the comment a problem? Kai Chang explains:

I have no desire to talk about Joe Biden and his doomed presidential run; but I wouldn't mind taking Biden's words and using them to explore and explode some of the false narratives that dominate the national discourse on race. I wouldn't mind talking about how certain stylized ideas and images — not mere slurs or epithets — rather, entire psychic complexes of associative ideas and images, conspire to inform a normative racist worldview, which perpetuates itself through the repetitive mass-hypnotic invocation and reinforcement of those very ideas and images.

So here's what Biden said: "I mean, you've got the first sort of mainstream African American, who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that's a story-book, man."

As far as I could tell, here's the subtext he was invoking: Blacks aren't mainstream like you and me, man. I mean, most Blacks have trouble speaking proper English and seem kind of yucky and not very bright, and you just can't trust a lot of those inner city types. But I mean, this Obama guy seems So Safe To White America that he possibly even has a shot at winning, though I doubt it, man.

It's not any one word, but taken as a whole, the overall effect of Biden's words is to indirectly trigger a set of widespread racist narrative frames, to which the speaker in fact appears to be responding in his train of thought. And if you don't believe in the power of narrative suggestion, go talk to the folks on Madison Avenue. This isn't about Biden or DC politics; for me, it's about examining how various facets of racism work and what can be done to undermine those workings.

So it's not a coincidence that when Biden was casting about for something a little less pointed than "Boy, he's a helluvan improvement over Al Sharpton, ain't he?" he came up with something that so many have found less than inspiring. It's not that Biden himself is a bad man or hates blacks, but that he quickly, quite possibly unconsciously, lit upon some fairly racist language that calls forth a very racist narrative or set of background beliefs. And in so doing, he reinforces or further animates that narrative.

(The brilliant image used in this post is the creation of Nezua, aka
The Unapologetic Mexican.)

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