Something most white people would never pick up on without help is that it's sometimes insulting to compliment black people. In particular, it's insulting to say something nice about someone who is black that you wouldn't say about someone who is white. Such a compliment assumes that it's surprising that this would be true of someone who is black. A good example is the common practice among media types to speak of certain black people as articulate (see Mixed Media Watch for an example). How often do you hear white people being called articulate? I don't think it's all that common. Pay attention, and you'll discover that it's a good deal more common with black people, especially young black men. I've never heard a young white politician being called articulate, except I think in the case of one who happened to be a teenager, where there might be less expectation for such a thing. But Barack Obama, J.C. Watts, and Harold Ford, Jr. get it all the time. You don't generally hear it of professors of linguistics, unless it's John McWhorter. You won't hear about economics professors being articulate, except when it's Thomas Sowell.
Now I'm loath to call this racism without explaining more carefully how I'm using that word. Such a statement would be received as nonsense by most white people, because most white people (indeed, most English speakers) use the word 'racism' to refer to a deliberately negative attitude, and that's not what's going on here. This is why academics who specialize in race matters have come up with terms to describe this sort of thing to distinguish it from the more standard and obvious cases of racists. This is unintentional racism. It involves racist structures in society. It involves residual effects on the attitudes and actions of well-meaning non-blacks. But I think this is a case of that sort of racism, at least generally. See MW's comment in the Mixed Media Watch post for good reasons to think this is often a kind of racism even when you don't think it is.
This is something I've been aware of since reading John McWhorter's Losing the Race. As I said, it's not the sort of thing that most white people would notice otherwise, even ones who are more sensitized to these general sorts of issues. I paid attention to when I heard the word after I read McWhorter's discussion of the issue. What few occurrences I encountered did seem to fit the mold. But then a few weeks ago I heard someone call Ann Coulter articulate. Does this refute the claim that calling young black men articulate stems from some kind of racism?
My immediate thought was to think that it was a good counterexample. If Ann Coulter could be called articulate, then calling someone articulate doesn't always mean you were assuming they weren't going to be articulate for racial reasons and then were surprised to discover otherwise. After all, she's as white as you get. Whatever is going on in this case is not anti-black racism. (It isn't anti-white either. The people talking about her were white, and race really was the furthest thing from their minds.)
But it occurred to me that this could after all be part of the same general phenomenon. Many people consider Ann Coulter to be a hot blonde. Do people expect hot blondes to be articulate? It may well be that such a hot blonde constructing such rhetorically clever sentences with such a quick wit surprised them. If so, then it's not racism, but it is what might be called Hot Blondeism, and it follows a parallel structure to the kind of racism that's relevant to this.
But I'm not entirely sure that was what was going on in this context. I don't think the people speaking were thinking of her as articulate in a way that was contrasting her with other hot blondes. I remember the context making it clear that she was being compared with other political commentators, many of whom are most certainly not hot blondes. I'm thinking of people who have a following but aren't quite as good rhetorically as she is. In terms of this contrast, Ann Coulter and Al Franken might be articulate, but Michael Moore, Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly, and Rush Limbaugh are merely fan favorites who wouldn't be as seriously complimented on their linguistic craftsmanship. (I put Michael Moore in this category merely for style, not to indicate that I think any of the other three could come close to being as insane as he is, which would require something on the magnitude of holocaust denial and defending Southern slavery.)
All of the people I've just listed (including Franken and Coulter) stand in contrast to commentators like George Will or Mort Kondracke, whom you should expect to represent the issues fairly, with views that are more intricate and nuanced, not always in line with some party line and usually for careful and creative reasons. I don't think Coulter and Franken are of that caliber in terms of intellectual rigor. But they're articulate in a sense that Sean Hannity isn't. They represent the position they hold in a rhetorically effective way, well beyond how a Limbaugh type might do so. So it may not have been Hot Blondeism in her case. It may have been Political Commentatorism, the assumption that political commentators would be more like Michael Moore than Al Franken.
Even so, it does suggest some sort of surprise that she would be articulate, which fits with the sense that most instances of calling young black men articulate involves a similar assumption. The parallel still stands, and this is thus not a counterexample to the claim that no one gets called articulate unless there's some reason (usually not a good one) for expecting the person not to be articulate. This really is an empirical matter. It's not something you can just come up with in your thought processes, with an assumption that no one could possibly call a young black man articulate without it being from some sort of racism. I was prepared to count this as evidence against the claim. I think it turns out, however, that it's not evidence against the claim, because the one case I know of could be explained by similar reasons.