Sunday, February 04, 2007

A Clean Black Man

Democratic candidate Joe Biden, whose nice head of hair is due to hair plugs and whose dazzlingly white teeth have been made that way by some dentist, can reasonably be said to have done all this in an effort to be President some day. Unfortunately, Biden cannot do for his brain what he has done for the rest of his head. He said of a rival candidate, Sen. Barack Obama
"I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy," he was quoted as saying in the New York Observer. "I mean, that's a storybook, man."
a statement that can be found in every newspaper and web site in America I suspect.

Black Americans have no trouble recognizing the multiple racial insults implicit in what Biden said though most have, not surprisingly, gotten hung up on "articulate" since that predicate or equivalents to it ("well-spoken," for instance) are White code words that communicate that one would not expect a person like him (a Black man) to be articulate. I run into this on sports message boards occasionally in connection with Black athletes. Being an athlete and Black is a double whammy since athletes are presumed by many not to be very bright.

What Biden seems not to understand is that many adjectives come with an explicit or implicit reference class. If one says of a five year old boy that he is tall, the speaker doesn't mean to suggest that the boy is size-wise ready for the NBA. The speaker means only to say that the boy is tall in so far as five year old boys (or children) are concerned. "Five year old boys" or "five year old children" are the most likely reference classes in a case like this. A second thing that Biden seems not to understand is that when one predicates a property of someone or something one implicates that one might not have expected that this person or thing might have that property. One occasionally hears references to women doctors when the fact that the doctor is a woman is totally irrelevant to what the person is saying. The speaker suggests, perhaps unintentionally, that one would not expect a doctor to be a woman.

With this in mind, we need to look at all of the adjectives Sen. Biden used, namely "mainstream," "articulate," "bright," "clean," and "nice-looking." In fairness to Biden it should be noted that he meant to complement Obama. I think he meant to say that Obama has the sorts of qualities that make for a viable candidate for the Democratic nomination. But in doing so, he reveals a few of his prejudices.

In two cases, we know what the reference classes of the adjectives are. For "mainstream" it is African-Americans. Actually, we should probably cut him a little slack and say that he meant 'African-American candidates' or 'African-American Democratic candidates' as the reference classes. There have been some non-mainstream Black candidates. Eldridge Cleaver, a member of the Black Panthers, ran for President of the Peace and Freedom Party. Since I was myself a non-mainstream person at the time I contemplated voting for him but decided that I disliked Richard Nixon too much to waste my vote and switched to Hubert Humphrey at the last minute.

I suppose that Biden might have thought of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton as being non-mainstream since they weren't conventional politicians holding or having held a political office. Since Biden has since apologized to Sharpton, we can be sure that while he may think that Al Sharpton is non-mainstream, he doesn't want to be known as thinking that. Al Sharpton is funny and is far from being non-articulate. I feel a personal disdain for Jesse Jackson for I see him as having hurt the Democratic Party by running for the nomination. I was very pleased when my boy, Bill Clinton, not so gently shoved him aside when he ran for office. He didn't want Jesse Jackson anywhere near his campaign. Shirley Chisholm, another Democratic candidate, was clearly a mainstream politician.

In the case of "good-looking," Biden gives us "guys" as his reference class. The problem here is that it implicates that Blacks, perhaps just Black men, are not generally good-looking. Did he mean to suggest that? Who knows? But, as I noted, when you predicate a property of someone, there is often an implicature that this property is in some way out of the ordinary for that person or kind of person. When you say, "That white kid can jump!" you suggest that white kids do not normally jump well, a fact that the movie title "White Guys Can't Jump" exploited. We are also not so hot at running fast or for long distances.

Both "articulate" and "bright" can be heard as "articulate for a Black person" or "bright for a Black person" in the way that "She's a tough/bright cookie" implicates that she is tough/bright for a female and that one doesn't normally expect females to be tough/bright. Not everyone will hear Biden as suggesting that Obama is bright/articulate for a Black person or draw the inference that Biden thinks that Blacks ordinarily are not bright/articulate. The problem for Biden is, I think, that many African-Americans will see him as having these prejudices.

What is most bizarre about Biden's blunder is his attributing the property "clean" to Obama. I have never heard or read any politician saying of another that he is clean. Obviously, Biden does not mean to suggest that Blacks cannot be expected to bathe regularly. But what does he mean? We often hear it said that such-and-such ran a dirty/clean campaign and so Biden may have meant that Obama doesn't engage in dirty politics. People are sometimes said to have "clean records." We might mean that the person has had no arrests or or black marks on his credit reports or has earned no demerits. I think Biden may have meant that Obama has run clean campaigns and has no baggage of the sort Clinton had when he ran What is the reference class for "clean" in this case? I think it is not African-Americans so much as it is politicians.

Biden may or may not have self-destructed his campaign. I suspect it was going nowhere anyway. This race for the nomination is about Hillary -- who can beat her and who can't. Biden can't possibly measure up to Hillary intellectually (as his gaffe shows) or financially. Hillary has a political Fort Knox to draw from already or so the TV pundits have said.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I began reading your post, but had a problem when you refer to a "white code" that implies that we expect African-Americans not to be well spoken. Eubonics is an African American issue/problem. As long as this is legitimized and propagated, it will continue to be used and people who do so will sound not well spoken. There is no code, that is just the truth of the matter. I am not a racist, but who else is going to use incorrect english/eubonics and sound not well spoken accept an African-American? I have read some of your other posts and have really enjoyed them. I don't always agree with your views, but I think you are a brilliant man and I value whatever dialogue you would want to share with me concerning this comment.

2:10 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

What you call "Ebonics" is better called "African American English Vernacular" by us linguists. It is a dialect just like the odd dialect of Maine or of Arkansas or any other place except that it is associated with an ethnic group, not a geographic area. It is not taught anywhere. People grow up speaking it. When they come in contact with speakers of Standard English they may or may not, depending on their economic and social aspirations begin to acquire Standard English. If they go to college they certainly will.

There is nothing anyone can do about this dialect. Nor should anyone do anything about it. You wouldn't go to Maine and say, "Your speech is defective and you must change it." Neither should you take such an approach to AAEV. People talk like the people they love and/or admire and wish to emulate. You can't stop this any more than you can stop a Tsunami.

The important thing is to teach kids to read and write Standard English and leave how they talk alone. You can't "forcibly" change it anyway.

I thank you for your comments.

9:00 AM

Blogger Mrs. Geezerette said...

My husband has retained his southern accent all these years even though we live in the north. When he is around others from the south, his southern accent becomes more pronounced I have noticed. This same thing seems to take place with African Americans when they come in contact with each other.

11:39 PM

Blogger Oksana said...

Democratic candidate Joe Biden, whose nice head of hair is due to hair plugs and whose dazzlingly whiter teeth have been made that way by some dentist, can reasonably be said to have done all this in an effort to be President some day.
Yeah, that's really true...

1:00 PM


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