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« Molly Ivins: 1944 - 2007 | Main | Republican Rogues Gallery »

February 01, 2007


This statement is so in keeping with "Joe Biden, Windbag Extraordinaire" that I was hardly surprised.

I wouldn't say that Biden is exactly racist, in a malevolent way. But he belongs to a generation of privileged white men who are still slightly startled to encounter a mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. Compounding the "oops" factor here is of course that African American presidential candidates like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton have been on the national stage for quite a few years. One questions their "mainstreamness" or their power of articulation at one's peril. I mean, Biden himself could take a lesson in public speaking from any one of those candidates.

The inherent condescension in Biden's statement is pretty telling. Part of it is of course due to the comfort/queasiness level one feels on seeing people of other races in positions of power instead of the customary subordinate role one has assigned to them in one's mind.

After all, Joe Biden, as a US Senator, is surely aware of the disproportionately large number of successful, "mainstream" Indian Americans in medicine, computer technology and scientific academia. Yet he made the following comment. It makes you wonder how threatened even the so called liberals feel by the presence of minorities in positions of power that the anxiety sometimes expresses itself as damning praise or as the lame joke that Hillary Clinton once cracked.

Racism is not just overt hostility towards the "other" but also an unconscious attitude of noblesse oblige where you feel compelled to "praise" unnecessarily. Like you would a slightly slow child who has surprised you by minding her p's and q's according to your book on etiquette.

I ought to point out here that I didn't mean that Biden should have mentioned only high achieving Indian Americans to show case the community. That too is stupid and racist in a different way. My point is that just as you can't walk into a Dunkin' Do Nut or a gas station without a good chance that the person behind the counter is of Indian origin, the probability that when you walk into a hospital, your attending physician may be an Indian American is also rather high. Let both be unremarkable facts and be happy that the minorities are assimilating into American life across the board.

Racism and suspicion across races are going to be with us for a long time. It is utopian to expect that we will all turn color / culture blind overnight. It is just that it is particularly jarring when so called intelligent persons in positions of power don't watch their publicly uttered words.

I kind of feel sorry for Senator Biden. But he should restrict his theatrics for the Senate Armed Forces Committee hearings. For now, I found the following statement most refreshing:
And after taking one more question, Mr. Biden did something entirely out of character: He announced he was done talking.

One of the comments on the NYT blog responded to the "done talking" remark thus: "Hilarious." Indeed.

At the risk of beating a dead horse, let me point to today's editorial in the Houston Chronicle regarding Biden's foot in the mouth affliction.

The two passages that caught my eye were:

"... his description of Obama drew intense reaction. The use of the word "articulate" by Anglos to describe talented minorities has become a cliché bordering on condescension. On Thursday, President Bush also described Obama on Fox News as "attractive" and "articulate."


"Two months ago, Biden also told a mostly Republican audience in South Carolina why Delaware was the only slaveholding state to side with the Union. "That's only because we couldn't figure out how to get to the South," Biden said. "There were a couple of states in the way."

More here and here on Biden's sour "compliment." Here's the deal: we rarely go out of our way to utter this sort of empty praise about big-shot white people. What do we do instead? We throw our cash at them and kiss their butts. So when one of the letter writers worries "that any good-faith praise of a black person could be perceived as inherently offensive," he fails to recognize an underlying twisted logic that holds "good-faith praise" sufficient for a black person, where no such vacuity will do for a white person like, say, Sen. Biden himself.

Lynette Clemetson's article in NYT says it all. For those of us who get it, it is right on the money. Those who don't, will keep arguing "good-faith praise."

After long years of living in the US and Europe, my own radar is now finely tuned. I am sure that when I lived in India as a member of the powerful (and arrogant) majority community, I had a tin ear myself towards the very common racial/ethnic slights to others.

Take the utterly ridiculous case of George Bush calling Obama "articulate" - this from an uncommonly inarticulate man. But does it bother him? NO. Bush is supremely confident of his place in the world hierarchy. After six years as the "war president," he continues to say "nucular" for "nuclear." Am I to believe he doesn't know the correct pronunciation? The fact is that he doesn't care - he is the most powerful man in the world. He can say what he wants and how he wants. The rest of us have to deal with it.

But the tendency is more common than one thinks, often in well meaning folks. My plumber, who has worked in my home for five years, hardly ever fails to notice how "clean" my house is. My car mechanic is "amazed" by my knowledge of English and local affairs. It doesn't bother me when they do it - I guess that is a bit of condescension on MY part. But it bothers me when the so called "pillars of the community" do it.

About eight years ago, some of us in our neighborhood were upset with a gross architectural infraction by a church close to our homes. We took our complaint to the Home Owners' Association Board. It became clear to us that the board was complicit in the whole thing and hot words were exchanged. One of the board members, Mr. F., who never forgets to remind us of his well traveled homme du monde credentials, went into an endless spiel about the execrable zoning laws in Calcutta, among other things! My husband and I were the only non-whites among the complainants and the only ones likely to know anything about Calcutta. After Mr. F. stopped speaking, he got a bracing tongue lashing from me, reminding him that Calcutta's zoning laws were not in dispute but suburban Houston's were. I bet he thought I was "articulate."

Well, the board is in trouble again - this time not with just one street but a large section of the neighborhood, me and my husband included. A lot of cloak and dagger stuff is afoot. Mr. F. is worried and is trying to make good with the neighbors by calling them personally. A week ago, I got a call from him. After a few minutes of "pleasantries," he asked me if I could explain to him the significance of the Hindu swastika. There was some issue regarding a Hindu household having adorned the front doorpost with the symbol and eyebrows were being raised by other residents. My first impulse was to ask the charming Mr. F. to hit the google button on his computer or go talk to the resident who had put up the sign. But I played along knowing full well that the swastika was not his main concern. Anyway, after almost thirty minutes of windbaggery, he was ready to hang up. But not before he apologized for troubling me - it was too early in the morning in India, he told me, to call up his "best friend," Mr. Shah in Mumbai!

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