If you pay attention to the del.icio.us links to the right of the page, I’ve been linking a few articles tonight on Barack Obama and what his candidacy may tell us about race and American politics. Thanks to Joe Biden’s rather dumb comments the other day, there are some thought provoking pieces appearing in periodicals about this subject matter.
Eugene Robinson’s column got me thinking further about how whites can adequately express their positive opinion of Barack Obama without unintentionally giving offense. In some circles, it’s been pretty well established for a while that when a white person refers to a black public figure as “articulate”, that’s condescending. The events a few days ago reminded me of an old Chris Rock joke, which I figured someone else had blogged, and sure enough, here it is:
Another comparison, though, is illustrated by an old Chris Rock joke: “People say Colin Powell speaks so well. What’d they expect him to say? ‘Ahmma drop me a bomb’?”
Of course not. Robinson and Rock assume immediately that whites stereotype all blacks as dumb and are shocked by the appearance of an intelligent black person. This is undoubtedly true in some instances, but there is the more innocent use of “articulate” to mean well-spoken, nothing more. Robinson suggests using “eloquent” instead, which I see more as a synonym. And perhaps if whites called Obama, Powell, et al “eloquent” with the same air of surprise that Robinson and Rock perceive, that too would be seen as a slight, I don’t know.
What I’m getting at is that I wonder what might be an acceptable way of expressing a genuine appreciation for the oratorical skills of someone like an Obama, who compares quite favorably with the feeble speechifying of many others in the political game, notably our current president. After all, Obama’s rousing speech at the 2004 Democratic convention–one of the best speeches in recent American political history–was probably the single most important moment that sent him on his current upward trajectory. It is pleasant to listen to a public official talk about the issues of the day in an articulate/eloquent/whatever-you-want-to-call-it manner. What exactly are the bounds on the socially acceptable ways of extending Senator Obama this compliment?
Lest this post be taken as a defense of Biden, I will hasten to add that Biden was quite dumb to call Obama the “first” articulate black politician, and he threw in some puzzling words like “clean” to boot. I’m responding more to the Eugene Robinson column here.