(The Root) — On Tuesday, Vice President Joe Biden told a racially mixed audience in Virginia that Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan’s economic plans would “put y’all back in chains.” From NPR:
Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney called it an “outrageous charge” and said called on President Obama to “take your campaign of division and anger and hate back to Chicago.”
The Obama campaign defended Biden and said his words were meant to counter Republican promises to “unshackle” the economy from regulations. Biden himself later said he had intended to use the word “unshackle,” and that “it’s their policies and the effects of their policies on middle class America” that is “outrageous.”
The Romney campaign didn’t waste a minute seizing upon the comments. Spokeswoman Andrea Saul said that Biden’s comments were “not acceptable in our political discourse” and a “new low.” Many have called the audience “black” or “largely black” to drive home exactly why this was a racial scandal.
We assume that what “not acceptable” is meant to convey is that the comment was a slavery reference, and specifically that it utilized racially coded language — something that those on the right are frequently accused of doing. Biden made the argument that that wasn’t his intention, but let’s say it was.
News flash: It is not always the worst thing in the world to mention race or America’s racial history, in metaphor or otherwise. Context matters. (See most accusations of “reverse racism” and how ridiculous they sound.) Intentions matter (see ongoing n-word debate).
Much to the dismay of those who would like to oversimplify race and racism to the point of meaninglessness, a reference to “chains” simply sounds and feels different coming from Biden — the earnest, liberal, keepin’-it-real gaffe machine — versus someone whose track record and expressed worldview suggest that he or she is deliberately tapping in to racial anxiety and anti-black sentiment for cynical or selfish reasons.
That’s why African Americans aren’t up in arms over Biden’s comment. We’re sure that’s disappointing for those in the Romney camp who were frothing at the mouth yesterday at the opportunity to problematize the speech. Sorry to break it to you guys, but this stuff is — and has always been — about more than just words.