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What Joe Biden said

Senator Joe Biden, who has announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for president in 2008, was reported by the New York Observer as saying of Barack Obama:

“I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy,” he said. “I mean, that’s a storybook, man.”

In fact that is in one way a serious misrepresentation of what Biden said. As Mark Liberman at Language Log shows (with an audio clip), Biden actually said: “I mean, you got the first, sorta, mainstream African-American?”, and Horowitz said “Yeah”, and then Biden continued. In other words, Biden did not say that Obama was the first sorta mainstream African-American who was articulate etc, which would be really very silly; but that Obama was the first sorta mainstream African-American, and also that he was those other things. But the first sorta mainstream African-American what? Presumably, the first sorta mainstream African-American presidential candidate.

What kind of work is “mainstream” doing there? Does it mean far from the lunatic fringe, or acceptable, or not frightening? If so, why would an African-American risk being thought of (by Biden? by the American people?) as on a lunatic fringe, or unacceptable, or frightening? Is this use of “mainstream”, like a sigh of relief, related somehow to Biden’s use of word “clean”? On the latter term, Liberman links to a post by Lane Greene at the Economist blog and comments:

Lane addresses the weaker complaint that “that Mr Biden is racist in the mild, unconscious way that causes people to use words like “articulate” and “clean” when describing a black senator, when it would never occur to most people to use them to describe a white senator”, and refutes it by finding recent journalism or punditry in which those same words are used to describe white senators.

“Refutes”? Not so fast. What does Greene actually say about the word “clean”? Merely this:

What about “clean”? Here’s NPR, describing Sam Brownback as “Mr Clean“.

But that doesn’t “refute” anything at all. Obviously there is a great difference between dubbing someone “Mr Clean” and saying that he is “clean”. That “Mr Clean” is a common nickname for men of assumed moral probity does not “refute” the charge that calling a black man simply “clean” is potentially racist, in that it could imply pleasure at the man in question not being grimy and filthy like all those other black men. (I’m not convinced, either, that this is “the weaker complaint”, as Liberman characterises it.)

And yet, of course, there are also moral senses of “clean” and “dirty” – you might be accounted “clean” in relation to a particular investigation, or called “dirty” if you take bribes. Perhaps Biden just meant that Obama had no baggage of corruption about him? Well, that might be more plausible if the conversation had explicitly been about any possibility of corruption, which it wasn’t. And Biden’s use of “clean” is, you might think, rather uncomfortable right beside his final compliment, “a nice-looking guy”. Is that one visual claim or two?

Perhaps “clean” in the sense of not corrupt is still one possible explanation of what Biden meant. But it’s not the one he gave to Jon Stewart, as the NYT reports:

What got me in trouble was using the word clean. I should have said fresh. What I meant was he’s got new ideas.

Er, okay. He should have said “fresh”. Hey, like the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air?

  1. 1  C. Reaves  February 1, 2007, 10:05 pm 

    What kind of work is “mainstream” doing there? Does it mean far from the lunatic fringe, or acceptable, or not frightening? If so, why would an African-American risk being thought of (by Biden? by the American people?) as on a lunatic fringe, or unacceptable, or frightening? Is this use of “mainstream”, like a sigh of relief,…
    I intuitively understood what Biden was saying in calling Obama uniquely ‘mainstream’. Expressing it in words: Obama is the very first black national politician who has not risen from the ranks of the civil rights movement. He has never had to re-cast himself from an advocate role to a mainstream role to win votes. He really is mainstream. In a way no other American politician can, Mr. Obama reminds us not how far we have to go but how far we have come, and it feels good.

  2. 2  Richard  February 1, 2007, 10:15 pm 

    the first mainstream African-American

    What, indeed, does mainstream mean here? Note that Biden is defining the mainstream in this statement, so, whatever it signifies, all previous African-American politicians are placed beyond its pale by his utterance.

    Note also, “outside the mainstream” was recently used as a Republican attack point (as brilliantly dissected by Jon Stewart et al) – so whatever it is, it’s a form of political weaponry.

    who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy

    I appreciate your attempt to report carefully here, but surely it’s clear that this is well-developed, ‘unconscious’ racism. If Obama is the first to possess these qualities, then we have an insult to the speaking skills, intelligence and personal appearance of other African-American politicians – the question of their cleanliness (spiritual or hygienic) strikes me as secondary.

    …Although my perspective is coloured by Mary Douglas: others might be more offended by that particular aspect. Perhaps the most disturbing thing is, he’s really saying; “Obama is our kind of people,” he’s like us/me. In which case his skin colour really does stand alone as a lost signifier – whatever difference might be supposed to result from his blackness we can tell it’s neutralised, because Biden accepts him.

  3. 3  Richard  February 1, 2007, 10:22 pm 

    that last bit about his blackness being neutralised: I think I might be misinterpreted as assuming that somehow all dark-skinned people have to take on the role of ambassadors for “their kind” – No.

    The reason I mention it is, Biden makes a point of it. It is important for Biden that Obama is African-American, quite apart from any political positions he holds. Biden feels that Obama fulfills some symbolic or signifying role by being an African-American in Congress… but in all other ways he’s acceptable, because aside from that skin marker, he looks and sounds just like any other articulate, bright senator.

  4. 4  dave  February 1, 2007, 10:31 pm 

    Richard, interesting bringing Mary Douglas in here… care to elaborate? You mean clean=not dangerous, i.e. categorizable & assimilable? (It’s been years since I skimmed Purity and Danger…)

  5. 5  sw  February 1, 2007, 10:51 pm 

    I tend to agree that this is a significant problem for Biden, and, quite possibly, the end of his campaign (just as the “botched” joke before last November’s election was pretty much the end of Kerry’s plans to seek another opportunity to unseat the Republicans from the Presidency).

    While I do think that the slippage of racism is evident, as I discuss below, it also seems fairly clear that those adjectives do indeed apply to Obama: compared to Bush, Cheney, or even Biden himself, he is very articulate; he seems to be strikingly intelligent, again compared to those men; “clean”, despite Biden’s backtracking and as Steve points out, is used frequently in politics and cop shows to mean those who are not compromised by ethical scandals or serial murders; and, hey, he is a hottie. It is the juxtaposition of these terms to “first mainstream African American” (which C. Reaves above explains rather nicely) that causes the problem for most commentators, who then pick up on the individual words, but, as Steve shows, this juxtaposition is ambiguous. And without the damnation of that juxtaposition – well, those words are apt.

    The problem may be more difficult to pinpoint: it is a cumulatively patronising tone, in which Biden bestows upon Obama these characteristics. The racism is not the implication that Obama is unusual amongst African Americans in having these characterstics – the “unconscious” allegation, rendered explicit by those who, ahem, when they hear the word “clean” and “African American” in the same sentence assume that the reference is to “dirtiness” and “pollution” – but rather that they coalesce into an assessment of Obama when discerned by Biden. The “unconscious” racism is not simple metonymy as described above – although this remains a possibilty – but the assumption that there is a systemic way of authoring this “storybook”, that of the gently liberal benefactor.

  6. 6  sw  February 1, 2007, 11:00 pm 

    Ah, Mary Douglas – perhaps Richard could elaborate, but while I’m here . . . ancient rules regulating pollution and cleanliness are not just primitive public health interventions (e.g., the trichinosis-pork explanation for why some populations have shunned pork) but are closer to shiboleths by ritualising the way we determine and discern the clean (the Godly) from the dirty (the unGodly), especially compared to how they do it (surely this is where the reference to Obama as “clean” fits, if one follows the racial connections suggested above). Perhaps more importantly, and less relevant here, these elaborate rituals for proscribing and prescribing are codes that help us understand our relations to God through daily acts of purification and abstinence, which we understand in secular terms as cleaning and refraining from the foul. It’s been a while since I read MD either – could be off by a mile.

  7. 7  dave  February 1, 2007, 11:27 pm 

    From the pauses in the audio clip, which are marked in Mark Liberman’s transcription, it’s clear that the epithets which Biden applies are grouped as two pairs. Each pair seems to me a repetition (with variation) of a single thought, and Biden pauses between thoughts. That is, (1) Obama is bright/articulate, and (2) he is clean/a nice-looking guy. The first relates to his cognitive ability, and the second to the way in which (according to Biden) he impinges upon our senses.
    Unhappily, then, I find unlikely the reading (or, more exactly, the hearing) according to which Biden meant non-corrupt by clean. But I may be hampered by a UK English ear.

  8. 8  en  February 1, 2007, 11:36 pm 

    Oh, this one just made my day. Suddenly I remembered this site:


  9. 9  Steven  February 2, 2007, 12:32 am 

    SW, you say the only problem is with the alleged juxtaposition to “first” etc, that otherwise “those words are apt”. Listening again to the clip, I’m more with Dave at #7. “Clean” really does seem to be twinned with – or at the very least, as I said in the post, “uncomfortable right beside” – “nice-looking”. Those two epithets are separated by three “and”s from the previous pairing of “articulate and bright”.

    C. Reaves makes a very nice point about “mainstream” having, in this context, a possible concrete historical implication. (But what about Condoleezza Rice?) Though I’m not sure that it’s entirely free, simultaneously, of the more suspicious rhetorical usages to which “mainstream” is often put, as Richard elaborates.

  10. 10  sw  February 2, 2007, 2:38 am 

    No, I did not say the only problem was with the juxtaposition.

  11. 11  Richard  February 2, 2007, 2:45 am 

    SW and Dave have really done my elaborating for me, re Douglas. “Clean” is a handy catchall thought, encompassing “healthy,” “hygienic,” “godly,” “exemplary of the practices of our social group,” “safe” etc etc etc, as opposed to “dirty,” “abnormal,” “dangerous,” “monstrous,” “Other.” Classification is the first stage in taking action, and cleanliness has been used to sell everything from nuclear power to modernist social housing, so this can’t do his career any harm, I suppose, whether or not it hurts Biden.

    Which tempts me to wonder if this is a calculated move by Biden.* Is he falling on his sword – and making a stir – to help the young guy; saying what must and cannot be said?

    * I’m tempted, but not convinced, before anyone responds to this bit of foolishness.

  12. 12  sw  February 2, 2007, 3:30 am 

    Richard, your last proposal is by far the most interesting so far, although I agree that it is not very convincing; it is, however, more consistent with Biden than snickering allegations of racism.

    By the way, now that Steve has carefully listened to the pauses and thus explained to us what Biden really meant through the proximity of the utterances, we can consider the possibility that Biden made that incriminating leap from “clean” to “nice-looking” by way of . . . “clean-cut”. Worth considering? After all, Obama is very clean-cut in his beautifully tailored clothes, with his toothy grin and firm jaw line, and closely-cropped hair. Make of that what you will, racial-semioticians!

  13. 13  dsquared  February 2, 2007, 9:52 am 

    I think that the big conceptual knot which is tying everyone’s tongues here is that although Senator Obama is an American of African descent, he is not a descendant of slaves. About a million years ago I wrote a blog post on how the term “Minorities” in American public life imported something uncomfortably close to Holocaust denial into normal language, because it implicitly pretended that there was no difference between the “racism” experienced by immigrants and the particular social problems caused by the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade (if Unspeak had been published then I’d have called it Unspeak). I think this is what’s at the base of the otherwise unquantifiable feeling that Obama is “different” from the average black American.

  14. 14  lamentreat  February 2, 2007, 10:38 am 

    thunk! that’s the sound of dsquared hitting the nail right on the head.

  15. 15  Steven  February 2, 2007, 11:40 am 

    Yes, that’s a very important point. Indeed, according to Debra J Dickerson, it means that Obama is not black.

  16. 16  Steven  February 2, 2007, 11:52 am 

    Richard, your last proposal is by far the most interesting so far, although I agree that it is not very convincing; it is, however, more consistent with Biden than snickering allegations of racism.

    Have I been “snickering”? Have I accused anyone of racism? Or are you making snickering accusations of snickering accusations?

    By the way, now that Steve has carefully listened to the pauses and thus explained to us what Biden really meant through the proximity of the utterances

    No doubt you are right that carefully listening to pauses is a waste of time, although it is what showed the NYO’s original transcription to be faulty in the first place. Have I claimed to know what Biden really meant? I have not.

    we can consider the possibility that Biden made that incriminating leap from “clean” to “nice-looking” by way of . . . “clean-cut”.

    Sure, “clean-cut” is another possibility, although one not mentioned by Biden, who also separately explained it as “clean as a whistle, sharp as a tack”. Another possibility is that clean, on TV cop shows, very often means that someone has been frisked by a bodyguard or law-enforcement officer and found not to be carrying a firearm – “He’s clean!”.

  17. 17  C. Reaves  February 2, 2007, 2:37 pm 

    In high school I was always suspicious of the deep social commentary wrung from Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn by the professional metaphor-finders who apparently wrote the Teacher’s Guides. I wonder if we are not doing the same thing by trying to wring more meaning out of a single word and what Biden “meant” by it than aught to be wrung.

    Could it be that Biden was simply trying to verbalize a sense of newness and freshness that Obama brings to politics, and simply chose an unfortunate word that could be interpreted to have racial meaning? If that is the case (and I suspect it is) then isn’t it the interpreters, the professional metaphor-finders, who have really manufactured the racial insult? In the immortal words of Opus, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

  18. 18  Steven  February 2, 2007, 3:13 pm 

    I entirely agree that that is possible, and I don’t like the rush to blunt diagnoses of racism by some other commentators, eg Josh Marshall’s pseudopsychoanalytic claim that Biden “suffers from what one might with real generosity call chronic racial grandpaism”. (“Real” generosity?) We have no access to what Biden really meant, and on the contrary we do have access to his laudable voting record; but there remains the problem that words can have unintended consequences, and those consequences can be real even if they were not intended.

  19. 19  Gwynn Dujardin  February 2, 2007, 3:53 pm 

    Hmmm. “Sharp as a tack” is not another way of saying “clean as a whistle.” The former is an assessment of Obama’s intelligence; the latter suggests that he is “clear” of anything that might be incriminating; that he has a “clean record.”

    In that respect, I, too, kept imagining a suspect being frisked and pronounced “clean,” which is to say, not carrying a weapon. This relates to your subsequent post, Steven, about humans “carrying” bombs (on-human bombs?) — and ‘dirty’ — i.e., versus clean (!?) — bombs (how can a bomb be anything but messy??). But it also speaks to the dirty politics of presidential campaigns, and how candidates are relentlessly frisked and interrogated.

    Unnecessarily protracted as our presidential campaigns are, they are largely devoted to “digging up the dirt.” It is assumed that any campaign is a “ticking time bomb,” as the revelation of some past indiscretion (the presumption of guilt) will cause a candidacy to crash and burn. Recall Nixon’s infamous ire at “dirty tricks” — he meant to refer to his “enemies'” distortions of him and his record, but it was “dirty tricks” that brought “Tricky Dick” down.

    In some ways, Obama’s race makes it difficult for the press and other candidates to “tarnish” Obama’s candidacy. Newsweek has a piece out this week on how comics feel they can’t lampoon Obama without coming across as racist. Funny business, this campaign stuff.

    Will Obama’s “black-ness” will encourage comics, the press, and other candidates to “clean up their act” where candidate “coverage” is concerned? Or will they only get more tricky? Or dig up different dirt?

    For if “black” is “clean,” “Arab” is surely, or safely, dirty these days: witness the reports this week on Obama’s one-year stint in an Indonesian elementary school; or reports on his “dirty” smoking habit.

    Obama’s eloquence will play a role in this somehow — that is, I see in attempts to represent his speaking ability positively efforts not to portray him as a “smooth talker.” Anti-Clintonites could smear Clinton as “Slick Willie” — that wouldn’t fly here. (In this, I am reminded of Othello, whom Shakespeare scripts to say “Rude am I in my speech, and little blessed with the soft phrase of peace,” before he wows his Venetian prosecutors, i.e., Desdemona’s father, with his tale of how he wooed Desdemona with battle stories. . . )

    Between Obama’s race and Hillary’s gender and marital status (i.e., at what point in any given article does one report her marital status and mate? Must Monica Lewinsky be mentioned in every piece?), we’re in for an interesting campaign.

    Dave@7: Your “UK ear” puts me in mind of a “clean” pop culture reference: The Beatles film, A Hard Day’s Night. Throughout the film, the lads keep referring to Paul’s grandfather as “very clean.” The repetition makes it funny — but to this US ear, the joke was never fully clear to me, other than some inverse play on “dirty old man.” (thus related to Steptoe and Son?? same actor, no?) Sorry for the unseemly denouement here; the way my mind works, I always see in weighty public matters their funhouse mirror image in pop culture. . .

  20. 20  Richard  February 2, 2007, 4:13 pm 

    On the point of over-analysing a not-very-carefully thought out line: yes and no.

    Biden would have to have superhuman communicative acumen either to come up with phrases so packed with meaning that they reward endless reinterpretation, or to speak with such crystalline transparency that only one meaning can be found. On the other hand, both “articulate” and “clean” are well-established as inadvisable things to say about black folks in America; his use of them is more than unfortunate, it’s a serious political lapse.

    For myself, I’d much rather live and speak in a communicative space that wasn’t such a minefield; pretty much anything can be interpreted as insulting to someone. I’d even say that ‘political correctness;’ the attempt to find some anodyne mode of speech that doesn’t risk offending anyone, is itself a major source of unspeak. Have I contributed to this prickly atmosphere by trawling Biden’s words for signs of racism? Perhaps, but not much, I think: I’m behind the curve as far as spotting racial slurs is concerned.

    Regarding Obama’s separation from the Atlantic slave trade of the 16th-19th centuries; I wonder how many people are aware of this, how much difference it would make in popular opinion even if universally known, and how true it is. I will grant that he’s pretty much a test-case for the category “black;” with his connections to Hawai’i, Indonesia and potentially native Americans, he sounds like a ‘real’ global citizen – and therefore implicated on both sides of colonial oppression.

  21. 21  Richard  February 2, 2007, 4:20 pm 

    if “black” is “clean,” “Arab” is surely, or safely, dirty

    Quite. What does that do to the category “African”? Or are Indonesians now Arabs?
    Wikipedia tells me (and who am I to argue?) that he acknowledges a history of using marijuana and cocaine. Is that still worse than smoking?

  22. 22  Steven  February 2, 2007, 4:31 pm 

    Gwynn, I like very much your riffing on “clean” and “dirt” in the general context of reporting on presidential races. Now it’s out in the wild, the word “clean” does have all these other interesting resonances, and I don’t think that talking about them amounts to manufacturing insults or accusing any individual of racism. Re Nixon and “dirty tricks”, I am also reminded of the theory that Nixon lost against JFK because he hadn’t shaved for a second time the day of a TV interview, and so his five-o’-clock shadow made him look – well, sort of dirty.

  23. 23  Gwynn Dujardin  February 3, 2007, 3:21 pm 

    This article in Slate lends a different perspective on Biden’s remarks; for all the meaning(s) we have assigned them, they are ostensibly — from the author’s point of view, based in US federal law — “irrelevant.”

  24. 24  Richard  February 9, 2007, 4:35 pm 

    Maybe this thread is dead, but just in case anyone’s listening; The Colbert Report was fantastic last night (2/8/02) on the “is Obama black” question. Firstly, I thought this whole topic was off-limits to white folks in US media, or at least that Whitey’s comments were restricted to a couple of stock phrases; Colbert’s maneuvring within this minefield is masterly. His interview of Debra Dickerson opens up whole fields of enquiry: Dickerson’s definition of Black in US politics, the coining of “African-African-American” (as if the previous formulation didn’t have its own problems), and more.

    For me, the money quote is;
    Colbert: “if you hadn’t told me he wasn’t black, and I voted for him, thinking he was black, I’d be supporting a black person, and then I’d be supporting all black people, but now you’ve told me, so I won’t.”
    Dickerson: “that would make you a racist.”
    Discuss, with special reference to what, exactly, Dickerson’s point is.
    > Colbert Report, posted 2/9/2002: Debra Dickerson (I don’t know of any way to get a stable link straight to the video via their site)

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