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Progressive Vs. Liberal Views Of Racism

I was a bit surprised to see that Lynn Gazis-Sax doesn't "get it" with respect to why Joe Biden's description of Barack Obama as "articulate" is problematic. But her explanation as to why she doesn't get it highlights a basic difference between progressive and liberal viewpoints. She notes that John Edwards is also often described as "articulate," then asks:

if it’s not condescending to use about a white man, why should it be condescending to use about a black man?

I should first note that I think describing Edwards as "articulate" is typically condescending -- it's generally coupled with observations about his physical attractiveness, and thereby used to imply that all he's got going for him is that he looks and sounds good on the surface, and hence that he lacks experience and substance. Quite similar to the most common line of attack on Obama, in fact.

Nevertheless, calling Obama "articulate" is more problematic than using that word about Edwards precisely because of the men's races. The liberal view of race, as expressed in Gazis-Sax's quote above, is based precisely on a refusal to allow the race factor to be taken into account. The liberal says that if we act as if race doesn't exist, racism will be taken care of. Colorblind equality of treatment -- achieved by asking "would I do this exact thing to someone of a different race? -- is the order of the day.

Progressives, on the other hand, recognize that our actions don't happen in a vacuum. Rather, our actions occur within a complex and racially-biased social structure, which filters and shapes their effects. A superficially race-neutral act can end up having strongly disparate effects on people of different races, because it pulls on a racially-biased string in the social network. What's more, pulling on such a string may well reinforce it. It is therefore irresponsible to refuse to take race into consideration, or to say that "I would treat someone of a different race this way" is always a sufficient justification for an act. (This is not to say that surficially equal treatment is always wrong -- indeed, in many cases it's exactly the right thing to do. But it must be chosen in light of the social structure it's interacting with, not on the basis of a refusal to consider that structure.)

So what does this mean in the specific context of Biden's remarks? The key point to recognize is that the word "articulate" has a racially-biased history attached to it. When used to describe a black person, it invokes a different set of ideas and stereotypes than when applied to a white person, because the web of connections in our culture is not colorblind. Therefore we must take into consideration the race of anyone we might consider describing as articulate -- both to ask what that word will communicate to hearers (and hence what effects it might have on reinforcing the inequities attached to it), and to ask why it was that a racially-tinged word was the one that popped into our heads.


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