Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

(The Root) — Joe Biden is no George Jefferson. But by the way Mitt Romney reacted to the vice president's inexcusable line Tuesday — that Romney and Rep. Paul Ryan might "put y'all back in chains" — you could be forgiven if you thought, somehow, that Biden had gone off and called Romney a "honky." It was the go-to epithet of Jefferson, the '70s TV character played by the late Sherman Hemsley.

Although Biden is famous for campaign-trail gaffes — and while the "back in chains" riff isn't even close to dropping an "h" bomb — you can see why it pissed Romney off: There's no way he can prove it, but it's a pretty safe bet that he feels like it's racial.

Advertisement

It's the same way African Americans feel about the last couple of years in American politics.

You can't give Biden a pass, because two wrongs don't make a right. And though conservatives talk all the time about running away from the Democrats' "plantation," any reference to slavery — at least in this context — isn't any better when it's made by a liberal.

Even if Biden was only referring to Republicans' promise to "unchain Wall Street" — the three words he spoke right before he launched into "y'all"— there's really still no excuse. He's the vice president of the United States, and he has to know that every word counts when he's out stumping for Barack Obama, the nation's embattled first black president.

Advertisement

But if it's a lesson for Biden, then it's also one for Romney and Ryan. They're not racists, but up to now, they've implicitly sanctioned plenty of loose talk from folks in their own party. Like in the GOP primaries, when Newt Gingrich called Obama the "food-stamp president," or when Herman Cain — the black guy in the race — said Obama wasn't a "real black man." Or when Romney — only hours after keynoting the NAACP convention — told a crowd they should "vote for the other guy" if they're "looking for free stuff." Or on Sunday's 60 Minutes, when Romney said that Obama "robbed" money from Medicare to pay for Obamacare.

If you had to go to court to prove that these comments were race-ish, you couldn't do it. In each case, there's an explanation — however implausible — that race had nothing to do with it. But like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's well-known take on pornography, when it comes to playing the race card, most people can comfortably say that "I know it when I see it."

That's how Romney took "put y'all in chains" — and rightly so — because if you really want to hear it that way, it sounds like Biden's saying that Romney's out to get black people.

It's also how most black people take a lot of the disrespect that's been thrown at Obama.

No one's used the n-word, and no one ever will. But starting from the once incessant demands to see his long-form birth certificate and going all the way up to the condescending charge that Obama "doesn't understand" the economy, African Americans can point — and rightly so — to a steady stream of chatter that's never quite outright race-baiting but sure feels that way.

So if it's the first time Romney's felt like this, or if he had to endure Mormon jokes as a kid — which is just as bad — either way, he gets a mulligan for overreacting and accusing the president of having a campaign based on "anger" and "hate." Obama's a lot of things; angry just isn't one.

Advertisement

But maybe next time, if Romney hears something foul come from his side of the aisle, he'll be the one who calls it out first. Because now, at least, he knows how black people feel.

And, after all, he'll surely know it when he sees it.

David Swerdlick is a contributing editor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter.

David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter