Clarksdale mayoral candidate Marco McMillian’s body was found after he was missing for a couple of days. A suspect has been arrested, and someone allegedly admitted to McMillian’s murder.
Obviously this is a tragic story. McMillian was a rising local political star – aside from his well-regarded work in the nonprofit sector, he was also a trendsetter being openly gay and black – both populations criminally underrepresented in American politics.
So, in response to McMillian’s death, his opponent, Bill Luckett, offered his condolences by saying McMillian was “a very articulate, clean-cut young man.”
Now, obviously, the biggest story is McMillian’s death, but a minor point I’d like to say is why in 2013 with a black president no less, there are still people out there that say “clean-cut” or “articulate” when describing black people.
Unfortunately, this patronizing and condescending response to black people isn’t new – in fact, it’s desperately old and depressingly familiar. It goes without saying that you should never give a black person a stamp approval with the asinine compliment of “well-spoken” or “articulate.”
Even if these non-compliments are well-intended, the implication is said black person deviates from the norm – the talking dog syndrome; when a black man is being touted for his ability to speak well, what’s really being said is that “Wow, you’re really smart…for a black person.”
Now, I don’t know Luckett personally and I’m sure his statement came out of a place of sincerity, but it’s indicative of a kind of racism that even well-meaning liberals are guilty of perpetuating.
Two words: Harry Reid.
Nevada senator Harry Reid talked about Barack Obama’s presidential chances by saying that he’s “light-skinned” without a “Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.”
Readers over the age of 30 will also remember how whites got to pretend they weren’t racist by saying how great Colin Powell would’ve been if he were president; a common theme was Powell’s well-spoken and articulate.
Chris Rock had an amazing routine in his Bring the Pain concert where he punctured the self-congratulatory bonhomie whites felt about Colin Powell. I couldn’t do the joke justice, so you’ll have to watch it – it starts at the 1.40 second mark.
As Rock points out in the skit, saying that Powell “speaks so well” isn’t a compliment because it assumes that Powell wouldn’t be able to speak well – the listener is surprised at just how articulate Powell is. And despite Rock’s offensive use of the term retarded, he does make a concrete analogy: the effusive praise of Powell’s speaking ability is condescending – a better example might be how impressed people are with children’s accomplishments.
But towards the end, in his comedic outrage he asks a very important question: “How do you expect him to sound?”
That is key – folks who are impressed with Obama, Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Oprah Winfrey, et al. are surprised because they don’t expect black people to speak standard English – they expect a variation on either hip-hop patois or Rock’s devastatingly on-point (and withering) take on Amos & Andy/Buckwheat vernacular.
And some people may argue that there’s nothing racist about saying someone is articulate – after all, being well-spoken isn’t a universal trait – there are mealy-mouthed dum dums who can’t speak in every race – why am I singling out blacks?
It’s simple – loads of people still think black people are stupid. Not only that, but think about President Bill Clinton: have people fallen over themselves to proclaim Clinton “well-spoken”? We just assume people who run for office are well spoken, and when they fail – like Sarah Palin – then we’re surprised. The point is: political figures are supposed to be well-spoken and it shouldn’t be a pleasant surprise that when Obama opens his mouth, he doesn’t speak in rhymes. We should be more surprised with the Palin example.
I’m not saying Luckett’s a racist, and I’m not saying that people who say that so-and-so is “well-spoken” are racists, either. What I’m saying is that this attitude is ingrained in our collective consciousness. And it’s not just black people – think about it: if we saw a judge walk into a courtroom who looks like Pamela Anderson – would you judge her to be as competent as Ruth Bader Ginsburg? I gotta be honest, it would give me a pause. I’m a self-identified feminist, and I still have the imprint of our sexist and misogynist culture, that doesn’t believe that sexiness and intelligence can coexist.
It’s time we do away with lowered expectations. We shouldn’t be impressed by seeing women perform well as surgeons, soldiers, or athletes; it shouldn’t floor us to find out a particularly adroit carpenter is a gay man. And finally, we shouldn’t be surprised or impressed to hear a black man with a strong grasp of standard English. McMillian’s legacy is that of working and transcending race and sexuality – and we owe it to him to move beyond this patting-someone-on-the-head rhetoric of using “articulate” as a compliment.