With Barack Obama announcing Senator Joe Biden as his running mate, I feel compelled to launch a pre-emptive strike, pleading with the inevitable parade of "race commentators" who will be asked to rehash his earlier comments on Barack Obama as "the first mainstream African-American [presidential candidate] who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy." When Fox News calls, looking to do a talking heads segment, politely decline.
Let them know that you would deeply appreciate the opportunity to discuss race and racism in the United States, but that Joe Biden's campaign gaffe does not quite register enough for your earnest concern. Suggest that you instead wrestle with the disparities in health care between whites and African Americans that led to HIV/AIDS rates in some black neighborhoods rivaling those in sub-Saharan Africa. Offer to denounce the nativist and racist sentiment being spewed about Latin American immigrants by hatemongers trolling about on the internet. Propose to shed light on the woefully under-discussed issues of sex trafficking and slave labor affecting thousands of Asian immigrants and Asian Americans.
And after they have unceremoniously left you discussing racial politics with the dial tone, do not fret dear race commentator. You have chosen to embrace maturity in a political climate that has descended to the depths of its opposite.
Perhaps our nation's combustible mix of Puritanical idealism, hedonistic consumer capitalism, and the racial taboos inherited from an anxious white supremacy, was destined to lead here. We demand otherworldly perfection from our political leaders, yet subscribe to the fallenness of man, and thus search incessantly for their shortcomings, and failures. The frivolity of consumer capitalism, the whims of political power, and the ubiquitous landmines of sex, race, and money encourage genuine moral failings, such as Eliot Spitzer's prostitution scandal. But without any acknowledgement of this broader reality, which would rob each event of its novelty, and deny our perverse thrill, these scandals are sold to a public whose revulsion and desire are targeted for profit.
An old dilemma certainly, but our twenty-four hour news, enabled by cable television and the internet, has kicked it into overdrive; and we as a nation are bordering on overdose. Like our discourse on sex (and often intertwined with it), race-talk has been one of the most consistent fruit-bearing trees in the garden of "gotcha" politics. But since racism is often determined from the "state of mind" of the racist, the degree of difficulty shifts from say, catching a Senator soliciting gay sex in a public restroom or finding a Congressman with stacks of money in his freezer. To play "gotcha" with racism, we must often take a wayward statement and derive an entire constellation of beliefs from it--not impossible, but a risky endeavor.
Joe Biden is an excellent case in point. When he made the aforementioned comments, he was summarily dismissed as a competitive presidential candidate. Thirty years of dedicated service to the country as a legislator deeply concerned about families, education, and foreign policy were out of the window. No one cared that he had received a 100% rating from the NAACP, or is a committed supporter of old-school affirmative action--including minority contractor set-asides for highways and construction. He was never even given credit for recognizing he had offended people and immediately apologizing. In comparison to the entire Bush administration, or John Edwards' apology for his sexual affair, with its lawyerly contortions about his wife's cancer being in remission, Biden's straightforwardness and willingness to admit mistakes--Iraq, for instance--was and is refreshing.
For the half of Americans who were not born when Biden first took office in 1972, Biden's comments may seem wildly off base given our relatively tame experiences with America's most prominent black presidential candidates, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. By comparison, Biden I am sure, cannot help but remember America's introduction to both, when Rev. Jackson was giving "Black Power" speeches a few years after Martin Luther King's assassination, wearing dashikis, gold chains, and an Afro, and Rev. Sharpton was stomping through 1980s Brooklyn with a perm and an ill-fitted jogging suit. Neither could honestly have been said to be "mainstream" in American politics (for better or worse), to have inspired the physical attraction that Obama clearly has, or to have had during their public careers, the aesthetic dimension of presidential gravitas. To quote comedian Chris Rock, "how can you take anyone seriously with that hair?" If anything, the crucial mistake of Biden's comment is forgetting about Shirley Chisholm's inspiring 1972 presidential campaign and its progressive, grassroots vision of change.
With that said, dear race commentator, I hope you accept my humble plea kindly.This election has confronted you with a bevy of genuine issues to discuss, and there is still the matter of all the ones that are so often ignored. It is only with this in mind that I feel obliged to paraphrase Chris Crocker, vanguard of the Britney Spears fan club, and ask--before it even starts--for you to leave Joe Biden alone.
Brandon M. Terry, a graduate of Harvard and Oxford, is a Ford Foundation fellow and doctoral student at Yale University in Political Science and African American Studies.