If you’ve ever wondered how the Irish can become black, then you needn’t look any further than the recent career of Vice President Joe Biden.
As the pundits breath sighs of relief (on the left) and babble on about style and disrespect (on the right), many black folk cheered loud and clear through social media and in real time/life in support of yet another ‘white’ political leader who has amassed significant cultural capital amongst the black demographics in this country.
Abraham Lincoln, Robert Kennedy and (to a slightly lesser extent) John F. Kennedy established this template historically via specific life-altering policies such as the Emancipation Proclamation and the support for the Civil Rights Act.
Former President Bill Clinton built upon this legacy through a range of cultural cues such as speaking in a southern idiom, playing the sax and being authentically comfortable speaking in predominantly black spaces – like the black church.
After last night’s drubbing of Congressman Paul Ryan in the 2012 vice presidential debate, it may be time to add Biden to the black Mount Rushmore of white politicians whose ideological bona fides, complemented by overt, and now discreet racial cues, work through the quagmire of race and politics to positively situate certain political figures in the collective black imagination.
Ironically we hear more about Biden’s so-called gaffes than we do about black voters’ affinity for the VP, but last night’s debate took him to the mountaintop.
When then-presidential candidate Biden claimed that candidate Obama was “clean and articulate” he was lightly criticized but essentially given a pass by black folk largely because of some of the cultural capital he had already accumulated via riding the train to and from work every day, maintaining his political commitment to Democratic principles, and generally embracing his middle class roots and working class appeal.
His ability to poignantly articulate his own personal/familial tragedy is yet another factor in his public life that generates cache amongst African Americans who have historically struggled to register the narratives of the black experience in the canons of mainstream America.
When the “put ya’ll in chains” comment was thrust into the news cycle recently, Biden once again moved the needle with and amongst his black constituency.
While all of his opponents decried Biden’s injection of race into the election – some even claimed these comments were racist – too many black folk appreciate code switching (shifting from standard English to black English vernacular here) especially when it is done in the service of making analogies that remind us of the pain of our history and warn us about the currency of oppressive forces in the 21st century.
What many of those who tried to politicize this comment missed was the fact that Biden’s analogy/metaphor was used here in the service of progressive ideas. That is, he wasn’t saying he wanted to put black folk (or anybody) in chains, but he was suggesting that certain economic policies advocated by the right can result (metaphorically speaking) in economic oppression.
Speaking in codes can often be dismissed as low-level political discourse. Time and time again theGrio has covered some of the racial codes inherent in comments like “Food Stamp President,” the “47 percent,” and the dichotomy of makers vs. takers. But like it or not, Biden has played this political game to perfection.
By stepping up to the plate last night, Biden reinvigorated the Obama/Biden campaign but he also simultaneously did the same for the black democratic community. When he queried Ryan as to whether or not he was talking about his family (specifically his mother and father) with respect to Ryan’s 30 percent are “takers“ comment, black Twitter cheered loudly and clearly. Defending one’s family from any kind of attack is surely an American ideal, but it is one around which black folk have developed entire rituals – like the dozens.
Biden’s defensiveness about the Romney/Ryan plan to undercut the social safety net rings true for black voters who have had to defend their very right to vote in this election. For those voters, Biden did everything they believe that the president couldn’t/wouldn’t do last week.
And even better than that – all of the attacks aimed at style, histrionics, anger, and/or disrespect will now bounce off of Biden like bullets off of Teflon. Those same attacks aimed at President Obama may have done more damage to the re-election campaign than the president’s performance in round one.
James Braxton Peterson is the Director of Africana Studies and Associate Professor of English at Lehigh University. He is also the founder of Hip Hop Scholars LLC, an association of hip-hop generation scholars dedicated to researching and developing the cultural and educational potential of hip-hop, urban and youth cultures. You can follow him on Twitter @DrJamesPeterson