It is quite difficult to acquire a Southern accent growing up in the area surrounding Cleveland, Ohio, where I grew up. Yet it seems that Republican Josh Mandel, who is challenging Sherrod Brown in a U.S. Senate race, would have you believe he acquired one in the nearby suburb of Beachwood. In Mandel’s appearance with presidential candidate Mitt Romney in southern Ohio’s coal country this past Tuesday, he applied what sounded to many like a Southern twang to his speech.
I don’t fault Mandel for trying, and failing, at code-switching. It’s a skill that entails changing one’s pattern of speech or behavior to acclimate to a particular environment or audience, something many of us know all too well. Vice President Joe Biden also gave code-switching a go this week at a speech in Virginia when he told a campaign-event crowd in Danville, Virginia that presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and his new running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, are going to “unchain Wall Street” and “going to put y’all back in chains.”
Biden is usually so good at code-switching that hardly anyone thinks twice when he slips into it in front of a largely Black audience. We already know President Obama is a master at code-switching, a necessary trait for any First Black American President Ever. And as Mother Jones’ Adam Serwer noted in his recent Bloggingheads episode, Republicans have their own brand of code-switching: the “aw, shucks” politician, none of whom are running for President at the moment.
Some say Biden’s remark is part of his unpredictability, but I disagree. It’s all code-switching, which sometimes can be taken too far. That’s why I was and remain disappointed with the Vice President’s “chains” remark, when it seems that he got a little extra comfortable.
To be fair, it isn’t as if Biden just burped out that remark, completely out of context. He claimed, in his clarification the following day, that he meant to say “unshackle,” a rhetorical flourish he’s used previously to describe “unshackling” the middle class, and a play on a previous usage by Romney’s new running mate, Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. I get where the vice president was going. But the Republican fake-outrage train had long since left the station. During a tough introductory week for Ryan, Romney did his best to switch the focus to Biden, citing the remark as a seed of “division, attack, and hatred.”
So, Biden defenders, it is less about whether or not he “meant it” than whether the remark was necessary at all. The remark gives us a chance to re-examine how politicians employ racial coding as a carrot to particular segments of voters, and to what degree we accept it – particularly coming from a Democrat.
That is ironic, given that we hear racialized politics from the Right so loudly these days that we should stop doing them the favor of calling them “dog-whistles.” But to whatever degree Republicans use race as a political tool, this is about whether we hold Democrats to the same standard.
Biden, consciously or not, used racial dog-whistle politics. Hinting at such a painful historical moment for African Americans in a political speech is suspect at the outset, but using it to evoke the eventual reality that a President Romney would create is simply wrong, strictly on a moral level.
All that said, I get why he did it. It’s easy to code-switch, but it’s tough to describe in a political speech the prospect of a Romney administration by running off a series of stats about how (for instance) food stamps, access to Medicare, reproductive services, Head Start, and Pell grants would be cut, and over two million African Americans would get a tax hike. It doesn’t play as well in a political speech. If the Obama campaign believes that life will be stark for African Americans under Romney, they should be able to describe it, minus the slavery metaphors.
Jamil Smith is a Segment and Digital Producer for “Melissa Harris-Perry,” airing Saturdays and Sundays at 10am ET on MSNBC.