The Racial Politics of Speaking Well (NYT)

By LYNETTE CLEMETSON

WASHINGTON

SENATOR JOSEPH R. BIDEN’S characterization of his fellow Democratic presidential contender Senator Barack Obama as “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy” was so painfully clumsy that it nearly warranted pity.

There are not enough column inches on this page to parse interpretations of each of Mr. Biden’s chosen adjectives. But among his string of loaded words, one is so pervasive — and is generally used and viewed so differently by blacks and whites — that it calls out for a national chat, perhaps a national therapy session.

It is amazing that this still requires clarification, but here it is. Black people get a little testy when white people call them “articulate.”

Though it was little noted, on Wednesday President Bush on the Fox News Channel also described Mr. Obama as “articulate.” On any given day, in any number of settings, it is likely to be one of the first things white people warmly remark about Oprah Winfrey; Richard Parsons, chief executive of Time Warner; Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; Deval Patrick, the newly elected governor of Massachusetts; or a recently promoted black colleague at work.

A series of conversations about the word with a number of black public figures last week elicited the kind of frustrated responses often uttered between blacks, but seldom shared with whites. (more…)

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