Senator Joseph Biden (D-DE) has gotten into trouble over the following statement he made about Senator Barack Obama's (D-IL) run for the presidency:
I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy
There have been all sorts of reactions to this. I agree that it's racially insensitive, for most of the reasons people have given. It's a typical example of Senator Biden shooting his mouth off without thinking how it would be heard, and he may be right that people are taking it in ways he didn't intend. Whether that excuses him depends on if their way of taking it is more reasonable than his expectation of how they'd take it.
There is the problem with 'articulate', which hasn't received as much of the focus from what I've heard. I think there might be a way for him to say what he meant without using that word, but it would be difficult to be very widely-read on race issues in this country without knowing that many black people find that word offensive, for the reasons I discussed here. That puts him in the same category as Trent Lott. While he almost certainly did not intend anything negative by it, he is way out of step with the black community and their perceptions of how people describe them.
I also don't think his explanation of what he meant by 'clean' is very plausible. You don't refer someone's being fresh in terms of a clean start by saying that person is clean. I'm not sure what he was thinking, but that's almost certainly not it. It may not necessarily reflect any negative views about black people, but I have to hear a more plausible account of what he was thinking to be satisfied. James Joyner suggests that Biden had intended to say "clean-cut" or something similar. If so, I want to hear it from him. It's not what he said he meant. I do think Biden is excited about Obama's campaign and thinks he'd be an excellent president, and I don't think he intended to suggest that Al Sharpton doesn't take regular showers. But I'm not sure what he said he meant is very likely to be what he meant. His response thus sounds a little strange.
But there's one point that hardly anyone is noticing that I thought was obvious once I saw the entire quote (which I hadn't heard in the partial NPR reports I've caught, and I haven't been home much to see anything on TV or online). Joyner noticed it too, but I didn't see his response until this morning. Biden used one key term. It doesn't change the issues about 'clean' and 'articulate', but it does make Biden's statement technically true.
The first qualification in his list was 'mainstream'. Given that he's talking about actual presidential candidates, and not suggested ones, we can rule out current and former secretaries of state Condoleeza Rice and Colin Powell. That limits it to Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and Carol Moseley-Braun, at least from the major parties (and third party candidates aren't mainstream, either, just in case any of them have been black, which I'm not sure about). Of those, Jackson might have the most chance of being considered mainstream, but I think even he wasn't attracting enough support from voters to be considered mainstream. Sharpton and Moseley-Braun did so poorly in the 2004 primary, even among black voters in many locations, that I don't consider them very mainstream. Early polling suggests that Obama is in fact very mainstream. Many people think he will get the nomination.
There are reasons for this, and I don't think they all reflect well on the voters who have indicated support for him. He has very little record to go on, and most people who support him think he's moderate, when he's really toward the left wing of the mainstream Democratic party (the closest comparison I've found is Dick Gephardt). That suggests that they don't even know what little record he has and are going on something else. What might it be? It's not just that he speaks very, has moving rhetoric, and looks good on camera, because lots of candidates have that.
The best explanation I have is that he is black, speaks very, has moving rhetoric, and looks good on camera together with the fact that white people can identify with him more easily than they could with someone who has a more ingrained connection with African-Americans. Maybe it's partly that his ancestry is from Africa directly and not via descent from slaves. Maybe it's partly that he speaks in a way that white Americans identify with, since he wouldn't be identified as black if you just heard him over the phone. Maybe it's that he's black but doesn't raise race issues in a way that threatens white people due to his positive rhetoric in ways that sounds similar to black conservatives (although his actual views belie that impression).
The reason I don't think that reflects well on the voters who support him is that it basically amounts to a treatment of black candidates as ok if they sound white and act white, while those who sound black and act black are not mainstream. (To be clear, my argument here does not rely on their being something that it is to sound black and act black, just that most white people think there is such a thing, and I think most do, and I think Sharpton, Jackson, and Moseley-Braun fall under the description while Obama does not.) It's clear that it's not about his views being more moderate than Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, and Carol Moseley-Braun, because he's not more moderate than they are given his voting record. So it's got to be something else.
In some cases, maybe people don't want someone as out of the mainstream as those three (in terms of views) and think they've got it with Obama because of his more moderate-sounding rhetoric. If so, they haven't investigated very far. But among those who know his views, I don't think that explains the support for Obama and not for the others. Another suggestion is that people think he has more chance to succeed, but that just takes the question back a step. Why does he have the chance to succeed? Not because of his views. If it's because he sounds more white and acts more white, the same issue comes up. If it's because people are going with moderate-sounding rhetoric than his views, it doesn't reflect well on their willingness to explore what he's really like.
[I should note as an aside that I think the popularity of Condoleeza Rice and Colin Powell may raise similar issues. This is not a Democratic thing or a Republican thing. I think many white people want to demonstrate to themselves that they aren't racists by supporting a black candidate for president. But their motivations for doing so and their reasons for supporting that candidate rather than other ones may very well reveal some kind of residual racism. The issues with them are more complex than with Obama, I think, but the same issues might just as easily be present in the mix, particularly among (1) those who wanted to one-up the Democrats by putting Condi up against Hillary merely because she is both black and a woman, even though much reporting has speculated, and it really is just speculation as far as I can tell, that she is not your typical Republican on any issue other than foreign policy and (2) those who wanted Colin Powell back when he would have been a serious contender in 1996, even though no one knew a thing about his views. The latter case is slightly more complicated, because people said the same about General Norman Schwartzkopf, so it need not be about race, but those who specifically had race in mind may, depending on the details, have been displaying similar tendencies to what I think may be going on with Senator Obama.]
But the fact remains, whatever the explanation for his being mainstream, that Senator Obama is in fact the first mainstream black candidate for president. Unless he's not articulate, clean, bright, and nice-looking, Biden turns out to have said something true. This doesn't lessen any offensiveness in tacking on those other things at the end. But it does make his statement true, and I think his critics at least ought to give him that.