When Joe Biden characterized Barack Obama to the New York Observeras “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate,” he revealed the kind of linguistic prejudice that too often passes for acceptable in white America.
Biden made this remark about his Senate colleague in an interview in which he disparaged his other rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination as having a position on Iraq that is “nothing but disaster” (Hillary Clinton) and not knowing “what the heck he’s talking about” (John Edwards). Calling Obama well-spoken as well as “bright and clean and a nice-looking guy” didn’t seem so bad in comparison.
But it was the Obama moment, not the other insults, that threatened to derail Biden’s candidacy, because it revealed an insensitivity both subtler and in some ways more pernicious than Virginia Senator George Allen’s use of macaca, an overt slur which contributed to Allen’s defeat in the last election.
Jesse Jackson was quick to remind Biden that Obama is hardly the first mainstream African American politician to be intelligent and rhetorically-accomplished, and Al Sharpton added that Obama is not even the first to bathe daily.
But Biden wasn’t just alluding to Obama’s rhetorical skill in his remarks. What he also meant was, Obama has become a media darling because he sounds white. The subtext of Biden’s message is this: “Talk white, like me, and maybe, just maybe, I’ll listen, but not till after I get over my initial shock that you can actually look black but sound white.” That’s just not a politically astute way to talk about a colleague, and it’s also not linguistically accurate.
A popular radio commercial used to warn, “People judge you by the words you use.” The product it was advertising, a vocabulary-building tape designed to help people use more impressive words, assumed that there’s a right way and a wrong way to talk. Most people would agree, but Sen. Biden and many other mainstream Americans all too frequently assume as well that the right way is the white way.
Biden’s assumption is wrong. Not all whites sound alike. White southerners talk one way, white hillbillies, another. White senators from Massachusetts may be easy to spot by their pronunciation; those from the Midwest are hard to spot because we think they have no accent. And Yale-educated white Texans are in a class by themselves.
Not all African Americans sound alike either. Some sound like Barack Obama. Others don’t. But like all the other groups in American society, whether African Americans are successful or ordinary, highly-educated or school drop outs, they speak varieties of English that follow orderly grammatical rules and patterns, that are rich with history, humor, and creativity, and that readily adapt to new circumstances in order to express everything that the people using them need to express.
But Joe Biden didn’t just underestimate the varieties of African American speech. He was wrong as well to think that language is either black or white, by which I mean it’s not primarily a racial, phenomenon, but a social one. That’s why there are blacks who sound white and whites who sound black, Asians who sound Hispanic and Africans who sound like Old Etonians.
And language isn’t simply black or white in the sense of being right or wrong, either. Whatever variety of English you speak won’t guarantee that you’ll be well-spoken or a mumbler, rhetorically skilled or monotonous, correct in your facts and assumptions or incorrect, quick-witted or prone, like Joe Biden, to hasty speech that reveals a little too much about what you really think. Because as voters know but politicians too often forget, people judge you by the words you use.