Way back at the start of the ’08 campaign, Joe Biden caused a flap by describing Obama as “articulate and bright and clean.” From Richard Wolffe’s book Renegade: The Making of a President, via Talking Points Memo:
Bush was so taken aback with the public criticism of Biden that he called in his African American secretary of state Condoleezza Rice. “I don’t get it,” he said. “Condi, what’s going on?” Rice told him what everyone else had said: that white people don’t call each other articulate.
Yeah, I’m pretty sure we do. When talking about someone who gets words out of his/her mouth for a living, it strikes me as not uncommon to describe such a person, if he/she is good at the job, as being articulate. “Articulate” becomes condescending when used to describe someone who is not expected to be able to speak well: an athlete, for example. Then the implication is “Hey, he can talk.” In the old days reporters found it especially surprising that black athletes, entertainers, cops, etc., could speak well; hence the dragging out of “articulate” in enough racial contexts for the word to pick up the air of a backhanded slur. The reporters learned the word’s racial pitfalls a while back; I first heard about its implication when reading a copy of the New York Times stylebook from the 1970s. But Biden has an invincibly active mouth and just about anything is bound to come out of it at one point or another.
TPM posted the above anecdote because it’s supposed to make Bush look bad. But I think he comes off okay. He was confused about something racial, so he asked his black friend what was up. Seems reasonable to me. Yeah, yeah, Bush is a rich, white, sheltered conservative who doesn’t have a clue. But when it comes to race, most of us have half a clue at best. Part of being black or white in America is being confused about blacks and whites. I was confused by most, not all, of the racial charges that flew about during the early primaries. (Like, it’s wrong to say Lyndon Johnson should get a lot of credit for America’s civil rights laws? He passed the damn things!)
The two races are a pair of riddles riding side by side in a ball of confusion, and — how to put this? — away from the office we don’t hang out all that much. Hence Steven Colbert’s very funny jokes about his “black friend” — every white American wants one and they’re harder to come by than you might think, in large part because centuries of racial oppression have bred a certain distance and distrust between the two groups. But if you have a good friend, and you’re confused about something she might be able to explain, then go ahead and ask her.