In what promises to be one of the most exciting presidential races in the history of the United States, the nation's ugliest skeleton was bound to emerge sooner than later. With the rapid and sudden emergence of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) as a frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, someone was bound to detract attention from the salient issues at hand and turn what should be trivial into the campaign's focal point: the candidate's race. Unfortunately, the topic reared its ugly head most prominently thanks to Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) when he announced his own entry into the presidential race.
There are, quite understandably, many reasons why so many people took offense to Biden's characterization of Obama's presence in the presidential campaign as "the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy." As Obama pointed out after some initial hesitation, the statement was inaccurate because of those who came before him, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Shirley Chisholm.
What makes the statement even more depressing is that it demonstrates how racism persists to this day but in its most dangerous form, hiding behind subtleties and degrading "compliments." Sen. Obama may claim to understand what Biden meant, but as a public figure, his acceptance of statements of that nature only makes racism of that kind seem acceptable to the public.
Many people may choose to remain blind to the inferences that Biden made in his statement out of fear of rehashing the past — a past that they refuse to believe still exists. For too long, African Americans have struggled to loose the shackles that defined them in the eyes of the majority as intrinsically lower specimens that had to prove their worth and, their equality to the white majority. What Sen. Biden voiced during his interview with The New York Observer simply exposed the subconscious and often secretly held bewilderment that whites hold at the anomaly of an intelligent African American.
Obama's response to Biden's remarks further exposed the failure on his part to address the statement for what it really was — perhaps out of fear of alienating the white base that has come to respect him for how well he speaks or for the way he carries himself. In the process, he risks alienating much of the black vote that provides an important and reliable base for the Democratic Party. He already faces an uphill battle in that department with both the blacks' support of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and his lack of connections to the American black tradition from the days of slavery or the Jim Crow-era.
With weak defenses that point out Biden's record on civil rights as proof that he could not possibly be racist, the nation as a whole falls into the trap of continuing to perpetuate these stereotypes of the African American, particularly of the common black man and members of "the talented 10th." Some may contend that a big deal is being made out of nothing with Biden's statements, particularly because of blacks' proclivity to jump on anything that can be construed as an attack on them. But, we must keep in mind America's history. Within this nation's borders, no group has had it worse than the African American over such a long period of time. Groups such as Japanese Americans, Irish Americans, Jews and Italian Americans have faced some form, more or less, of racial or ethnic persecution. In the year 2007, however, one would be hard-pressed to hear the description of a public figure from any one of those groups who is particularly articulate, clean or bright, coupled in the same sentence with their specific racial identity. With that in mind, the question begs to be asked: Why is it acceptable in describing and in defining an African American?
What the country needs is an end to the pussyfooting of public figures around the importance that racism still holds in today's society, coupled with courageous discussion that leads to action. There is a lesson to be learned from the effect of things such as a joke editorial poking fun at Asian-American stereotypes printed in this very paper, or from "slip-of-the-tongue" statements made with supposedly good intentions from a highly visible Senator. If even one person feels offended, the likelihood that the feeling is shared is high. This warrants an attentiveness, rather than apathy, to race. Dialogue among the public is always welcomed; however, until this crucial discussion shares even some of the spotlight with the popular debates about health care, education or foreign policy, it will continue to be a visible blemish on the face that America portrays to the rest of the world and to itself. Walter Griffin is a freshman from Philadelphia, Pa. He may be reached at email@example.com.
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