SENATOR JOSEPH R. BIDEN’S characterization of his fellow Democratic presidential contender Senator Barack Obama as “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy” was so painfully clumsy that it nearly warranted pity.
There are not enough column inches on this page to parse interpretations of each of Mr. Biden’s chosen adjectives. But among his string of loaded words, one is so pervasive — and is generally used and viewed so differently by blacks and whites — that it calls out for a national chat, perhaps a national therapy session.
It is amazing that this still requires clarification, but here it is. Black people get a little testy when white people call them “articulate.”
Though it was little noted, on Wednesday President Bush on the Fox News Channel also described Mr. Obama as “articulate.” On any given day, in any number of settings, it is likely to be one of the first things white people warmly remark about Oprah Winfrey; Richard Parsons, chief executive of Time Warner; Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; Deval Patrick, the newly elected governor of Massachusetts; or a recently promoted black colleague at work.
A series of conversations about the word with a number of black public figures last week elicited the kind of frustrated responses often uttered between blacks, but seldom shared with whites.
“You hear it and you just think, ‘Damn, this again?’ ” said Michael Eric Dyson, a professor of humanities at the University of Pennsylvania.
Anna Perez, the former communications counselor for Ms. Rice when she was national security adviser, said, “You just stand and wonder, ‘When will this foolishness end?’ ”
Said Reginald Hudlin, president of entertainment for Black Entertainment Television: “It makes me weary, literally tired, like, ‘Do I really want to spend my time right now educating this person?’ ”
So what is the problem with the word? Whites do not normally object when it is used to describe them. And it is not as if articulate black people do not wish to be thought of as that. The characterization is most often meant as a form of praise.
“Look, what I was attempting to be, but not very artfully, is complimentary,” Mr. Biden explained to Jon Stewart on Wednesday on “The Daily Show.” “This is an incredible guy. This is a phenomenon.”
What faint praise, indeed. Being articulate must surely be a baseline requirement for a former president of The Harvard Law Review. After all, Webster’s definitions of the word include “able to speak” and “expressing oneself easily and clearly.” It would be more incredible, more of a phenomenon, to borrow two more of the senator’s puzzling words, if Mr. Obama were inarticulate.
That is the core of the issue. When whites use the word in reference to blacks, it often carries a subtext of amazement, even bewilderment. It is similar to praising a female executive or politician by calling her “tough” or “a rational decision-maker.”
“When people say it, what they are really saying is that someone is articulate ... for a black person,” Ms. Perez said.
Such a subtext is inherently offensive because it suggests that the recipient of the “compliment” is notably different from other black people.
“Historically, it was meant to signal the exceptional Negro,” Mr. Dyson said. “The implication is that most black people do not have the capacity to engage in articulate speech, when white people are automatically assumed to be articulate.”
And such distinctions discount as inarticulate historically black patterns of speech. “Al Sharpton is incredibly articulate,” said Tricia Rose, professor of Africana Studies at Brown University. “But because he speaks with a cadence and style that is firmly rooted in black rhetorical tradition you will rarely hear white people refer to him as articulate.”
While many white people do not automatically recognize how, and how often, the word is applied, many black people can recall with clarity the numerous times it has stopped them in their tracks.
Melissa Harris-Lacewell, professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University, said her first notable encounter with the word was back in high school in Chester, Va., when she was dating the school’s star football player. In post-game interviews and news stories she started to notice that he was always referred to as articulate.
“They never said that about the white quarterback,” she said, “yet they couldn’t help but say it about my boyfriend.”
William E. Kennard, a managing director of the Carlyle Group and a former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, recalled that in his days as partner at a Washington law firm in the early 1990s written reviews of prospective black hires almost always included the words, “articulate and poised.” The characterization was so consistent and in such stark contrast to the notes taken on white job applicants that he mentioned it to his fellow partners.
“It was a law firm; all of the people interviewing for jobs were articulate,” said Mr. Kennard, 50, who is also on the board of The New York Times Company. “And yet my colleagues seemed struck by that quality in black applicants.”
The comedian and actor D. L. Hughley, a frequent guest on HBO’s “Real Time With Bill Maher,” says that every time he appears on the show, where he riffs on the political and social issues of the day, people walk up to him afterward and tell him how “smart and articulate” his comments were.
“Everyone was up in arms about Michael Richards using the N-word, but subtle words like this are more insidious,” Mr. Hughley said. “It’s like weight loss. The last few pounds are the hardest to get rid of. It’s the last vestiges of racism that are hard to get rid of.”
Sometimes the “articulate” moniker is merely implied. My colleague Rachel Swarns and I chuckle wearily about the number of times we have finished interviews or casual conversations with people — always white, more often male — only to have the person end the meeting with some version of the statement, “something about you reminds me of Condoleezza Rice.”
Neither Rachel nor I look anything like Ms. Rice, or each other for that matter, so the comparison is clearly not physical. The comment seems more a vocalized reach by the speaker for some sort of reference point, a context in which to understand us.
It is unlikely that whites will quickly or easily erase “articulate” and other damning forms of praise from the ways in which they discuss blacks. Listen for it in post-Super Bowl chatter, after the Academy Awards, at the next school board meeting or corporate retreat.
But here is a pointer. Do not use it as the primary attribute of note for a black person if you would not use it for a similarly talented, skilled or eloquent white person. Do not make it an outsized distinction for Brown University’s president, Ruth Simmons, if you would not for the University of Michigan’s president, Mary Sue Coleman. Do not make it the sole basis for your praise of the actor Forest Whitaker if it would never cross your mind to utter it about the expressive Peter O’Toole.
With the ballooning size of the black middle and upper class, qualities in blacks like intelligence, eloquence — the mere ability to string sentences together with tenses intact — must at some point become as unremarkable to whites as they are to blacks.
“How many flukes simply constitute reality?” Mr. Hudlin asked, with amused dismay.