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August 15, 2012

Our Vice President's Endearing Racial Insensitivity

Alexandra Petri reacts to Onion Joe Biden's loveable clumsiness:

Take the already widely circulated clip from Danville, Va., of Vice President Biden telling voters (the town, the L.A. Times notes, is about 50 percent black) that the Republicans are “going to put y’all back in chains.”

Onion Joe! Get back in the box!

This is, quite frankly, not the sort of thing a Serious Person could ever say and hope for anything less than a public pillorying.

Bad enough to insinuate that your opponent intends to enslave a section of the populace. How mortifyingly divisive. And with that single twanged y’all, this whole interaction became even more awkward than it needed to be. But this is so far from the sort of thing that anyone in a position as lofty as the vice presidency would be expected to say that one’s first response is a sort of mirthful discomfort. Can he hear himself? you wonder. You cannot help feeling that if he could hear himself he would stop at once.

That is the trouble with Joe.

He inspires the sort of discomfort one feels upon introducing one’s fiance to Grandpa after he has had a scotch too many.

“Please,” you mumble under your breath. “Please, please don’t say anything.”

It is not that Tipsy Grandpa has any sinister intent. It is just that his list of Acceptable Ways To Phrase Things has not been updated since 1943 or so. Routinely, in the company of the family, he makes Pole jokes and everyone laughs politely. Sometimes, when the spirit moves him, he recites limericks that imply his opinion of the Irish is low. Every few years you steal his prized lawn sculptures, but he always finds replacements. It is impossible to make him see what is so wrong about them.

I am not saying this to excuse Onion Joe’s periodically alarming outbursts. And sometimes he is completely right. But my instinctive response is to wince apologetically at his cringe-inducing gaffes, not denounce the man. He inspires less anger than embarrassment.

“All right,” you say, after he finishes. “Well, that was — very — informative, Joe. Who wants dessert?”

Except he’s the vice president.

Stop and think for a moment about what she's saying here.

Sure, loveable Uncle Joe routinely says things that are racially insensitive. Shortly before joining the democratic ticket in 2008, he referred to his future boss thusly:

"I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy," Biden said. "I mean, that's a storybook, man."

Like something out of a fairy tale, it is. And sure, when he mocks Indian call center workers or 7-11 employees, you get the feeling that deep down, he doesn't really have all that high an opinion of Asian immigrants. But he doesn't mean anything by it. It's impossible to make him see why what he's doing is wrong. You know, kind of like those adorable little lawn jockeys with the black faces. Enlightened people wouldn't be caught dead with something like that on their lawns, but Joe is old fashioned. Like Harry Reid, he's having trouble adjusting to that whole color-blind society thingamajobber:

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid apologized on Saturday for saying the race of Barack Obama – whom he described as a "light skinned" African-American "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one" – would help rather than hurt his eventual presidential bid.

Men like Reid and Biden aren't racists. They just don't know any better! In fact, they're just saying what we all think. Joe's special brand of adorable tone deafness is so authentic - so likeable - that we can't help but give him the benefit of the doubt! No delving into his subconscious for signs of lingering or coded racism - we'll just admit that what he said is deeply offensive on a number of levels, not the least of which is the trivialization of one of history's most blatant moral evils.

This administration has played the race card so often and so cynically against its opponents that it's hard to manufacture the requisite outrage on Romney's or Ryan's behalf. They're big boys - they can take care of themselves. What disturbed me the most about Biden's latest gaffe - the really cringe-inducing takeaway - was what it suggests about what he thinks about his audience. Who were, by some accounts, not moved in the direction Mr. Biden anticipated:

It might have been helpful to have reported that the general response from the crowd was a groan.

Good on them.

Posted by Cassandra at August 15, 2012 07:34 AM

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Comments

This pasty white guy can't get all that excited about Biden's "chains" remarks, either. I think Rudy Giuliani has the right take on Biden and the seriousness of his words.

This administration has played the race card so often and so cynically against its opponents that it's hard to manufacture the requisite outrage....

Indeed. And it's become hard to tell when the requisite outrage actually is appropriate.

They just don't know any better! In fact, they're just saying what we all think.

Not that you were suggesting otherwise, but these two statements really are orthogonal to each other.

Eric Hines

Posted by: E Hines at August 15, 2012 09:14 AM

"I am not saying this to excuse Onion Joe’s periodically alarming outbursts. And sometimes he is completely right. But my instinctive response is to wince apologetically at his cringe-inducing gaffes, not denounce the man. He inspires less anger than embarrassment."

No, that's EXACTLY what you're doing, Ms Petri. Had a Rethuglican said anything REMOTELY like this, we'd still be hearing the screams of "RACISM!" from you and your fellow "reporters". But he's YOUR crazy racist uncle, so it's ok, right? Your polite embarrassment at his antics is why it continues. If instead, you treated him no differently than you would treat a Republican, he's be forced to resign. But forgive me if I don't hold my breath waiting for either of those things to happen.

Posted by: MikeD at August 15, 2012 10:15 AM

Giuliani said it wasn't just that Biden speaks thoughtlessly, it's that he's not very smart. The VP debates should be entertaining, if only to watch the moderators tie themselves in knots trying to stay away from subjects where Ryan will mop the floor with Biden.

Posted by: Texan99 at August 15, 2012 11:02 AM

Forget the part about being in the wrong state, or the slavery thing.

Biden was born in Scraaanton. Lived in Delaware his whole life. He's got that annoying Pennsy-friggin-Ware accent going on.

And he busts out with a 'y'all'?

Stay away from my regional dialect, you damned Yankee.

Posted by: Brian Dunbar at August 15, 2012 01:11 PM

I may have said this back during the "clean, articulate" thing, but my mother grew up where Biden did and he speaks a language on race that she hears loud clear. Her lifelong best friend is a black woman so she's got not a racist bone in her body. But she can hear every racist dog whistle he utters because he speaks the language she grew up in. She has long been horrified and repulsed by him, and believes he's a racist pig to his very core.

FWIW...

Posted by: FbL at August 15, 2012 02:29 PM

About Biden being smart ... oh he's smart enough.

Consider he's been a senator since the early 70s, gotten re-elected a few times. Holding the only job he's ever had, and he's held it against some opposition.

Smart might the wrong word - low cunning, perhaps, is a better description. But he didn't get where he is today by being a dummy.

Posted by: Brian Dunbar at August 15, 2012 03:45 PM

Here's what gets me about this whole thing: do they really believe these types of remarks are wrong/racist on the merits?

If they're genuinely wrong (as in morally wrong), then there's really no excuse for saying - or even thinking! - them. So this whole line of rationalizing doesn't make any sense. Things that are wrong don't become *less* wrong because you kinda like the wrongdoer.

The whole column struck me as a tacit admission that, "If anyone else had said this, I'd be horrified... but he's on our side so I'll give him a pass."

...which, come to think of it, is pretty much the way all these gaffes are handled by the media. If the gaffer is someone they like, it's harmless and criticizing it is "PC". If the gaffer is someone they dislike, it's clearly racism and if you dare to defend the gaffer, that's evidence that you're a racist, too :p

Bizarre stuff.

Posted by: Cassandra at August 15, 2012 05:40 PM

That's because liberals always mean well, so no matter what they do, it's OK. Conservatives are evil, so even if they consistently do the right thing, it's suspect because of the hidden motive. If you addressed their shortcomings equally, you'd actually be guilty of unfair discrimination, see? Remember, equality of outcome, not equality of treatment.

Posted by: Texan99 at August 16, 2012 09:47 AM

What would Biden actually have to do to have these people think that he really is a racist?

What the heck is wrong with these people that they need to put on the dialect thing? Everyone knows they don't really speak that way, and it's condescending as all get out.

Posted by: Allen at August 16, 2012 04:03 PM

The odd thing to me is that I really have no idea whether Biden is a racist, and would never think to accuse him of being one without some pretty convincing evidence.

But if you apply the standard the Democrats apply, yes - he qualifies. To my mind, no one should be calling *anyone* a racist based on that little evidence. If the Dems didn't do that all the time, it wouldn't be a legitimate question.

It's when you apply the standards they use to accuse their opponents of racism to a Democrat that the question is raised: is it a serious standard? Do they apply it even-handedly? The answer to both questions (based on the way they keep making excuses when their side does these things) seems to be, "No. It's not a serious standard and they absolutely don't apply it even-handedly."

I've said it before: people really need to stop caring when these folks play the race card because their accusations are laughable. To wit, this amazing (and deeply amusing) comment on a post over at The Atlantic:

It's worth noting, though, that George Romney's son is running a George Wallace campaign.

[Holy coded racist accusation alert, Batman!]

All of the lies that Gov. Romney tells every time he speaks-- e.g., “apology tour”, “entitlement society”, “put free enterprise on trial”, “Fannie and Freddie caused the financial crisis”,“regulatory uncertainty”, “throw Israel under the bus”, deliberately harming America, New START's preamble sells America out, “class warfare“, “very little of” federal spending goes anywhere but to bureaucrats, etc.-- are all designed to paint the president as the Other.

Isn't that what both parties do - try to paint their opponents as "the Other"? It's called differentiating yourself from the competition. Except when it's raaaaaaaaaacist :p

I know that when I hear someone blaming Fannie and Freddie for the financial crisis, the first thing I think of is George Wallace and the KKK. Dear Lord.

Posted by: Cassandra at August 16, 2012 04:34 PM

Fair enough Cassandra, I don't really know either. But he is sure making me wonder.

Pfft, that dog whistle thing. If anyone wants to make a case for that you could have done it with the Biden thing on the clean and articulate comment. He's saying to white voters in the democrat base, it's OK to vote Obama, he's an acceptable black man. I know, I know, I don't know that, but if we're talking the same standard...

Posted by: Allen at August 16, 2012 04:53 PM

Oh, I wonder too :p

I just wouldn't accuse him of being a racist based on nothing more than my gut feeling. Both the clean and articulate crack (to quote directly, "I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy,") and Harry Reid's truly atrocious, "... "light skinned" African-American "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one" are cringe-worthy.

I can't imagine saying something like that. To anyone, about anyone, period. Holy freaking crap - how much more offensive and patronizing can a person be?

I worked with Indians ("dot, not feather", to use a phrase that tickled the spousal unit when he first heard it) when I was in my 20s and admire them greatly. But I have imitated an Indian accent - not to put anyone down, but simply because (1) I enjoy accents, and (2) there's just something funny about accents in certain contexts.

It is not derisive. But when Biden talks about outsourcing and complains about having an Indian company answer the customer service hotline, there's something different about it. It's the context - "those people" are taking "your jobs". The whole setup seems like something right out of the White Privilege Handbook lefties cite so often and with such outrage.

I think it's fair to wonder when you hear the same person say so many offensive things. I guess I'm just so tired of the continual accusations of racism.

Why can't we just say, "You know, what you just said is offensive. It's not making me receptive to whatever your point is."

I've actually said that to people before, usually in response to some remark that stunned me, and it seems to work. We've all said things that are insensitive - I know I have. If a person does that frequently, it's natural to wonder a bit about what they really think, and why they don't understand (or possibly don't care about) time tested rules that keep us from unintentionally offending each other.

Posted by: Cassandra at August 16, 2012 05:16 PM

I can't imagine saying something like that. To anyone, about anyone, period.

That's because you're a raaaaaaaaciiiiiist and know that you have to hide it. Those who aren't racists are not encumbered with the need for such a filter. QED.

For an encore, Democrats proved that black is white and got killed at the next pedestrian crossing.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at August 20, 2012 04:11 PM

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