On a scale of zero to 10, zero being a minor annoyance and 10 being a complete outrage, the kerfuffle over Sen. Joe Biden's use of "clean" and "articulate" to describe Senate colleague and fellow presidential hopeful Barack Obama ranks about a 2 - although with many black Americans, it's a very strong 2.
Having followed Biden for years, I'm certain that the Delaware Democrat meant absolutely no harm when he mused to the New York Observer on the day of his presidential campaign announcement about fellow Democrat Barack Obama of Illinois: "I mean, you got the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that's a storybook, man."
That glib attempt at a compliment was typical Joe. As those who've seen him unedited on C-Span are aware, the dear man doesn't know when to shut up.
Blame Biden's spending too much time in the Senate. He's been there since 1972, when he was a young pup of 29. Senate rules allow members to talk on and on, even when they should be learning how to be better listeners.
This, by the way, should serve as a warning to the young Obama: Get out of the Senate as soon as humanly possible or you, too, could succumb to its lure of self-important, self-destructive motormouth narcissism.
Obama's two distinctly different responses to his colleague revealed how he, too, has yet to gain his footing in the slippery realm of racial politics.
His first impulse was to play Biden's statement down, rise above it and move on. "I didn't take it personally and I don't think he intended to offend," Obama said when reporters swooped in for a reaction. "But the way he constructed the statement was probably a little unfortunate."
But, later in the day, Obama realized a need widely held among black voters for him to defend those black candidates who ran before him. He then issued a much stronger statement: "I didn't take Sen. Biden's comments personally, but obviously they were historically inaccurate," he said. "African-American presidential candidates like Jesse Jackson, Shirley Chisholm, Carol Moseley Braun and Al Sharpton gave a voice to many important issues through their campaigns and no one would call them inarticulate."
Every presidential election teaches Americans something about themselves. The rise of America's first truly viable black presidential candidate already has begun to expose racial fault lines that many Americans did not know existed.
One of them is the word "articulate." President Bush certainly meant no offense when he, too, called Obama "articulate" in a Fox News Channel interview. Yet, even when intended as a compliment, the A-word can irritate black Americans like fingernails scratching on a blackboard.
What some black people, like me, hear is: "Oh, you're so articulatefor a black person." It's an irritant that usually has little public consequence, although it can ruin private relationships.
Should white people now be terrified of saying the wrong thing? "Now we can't even say you're articulate?" host Bill O'Reilly asked on his Fox News program. "We can't even give you guys compliments because they may be taken as condescending?"
Let us hope that's not the case. It would be a tragedy for this A-word kerfuffle to lead to fewer candid conversations across racial lines when we need to have more.
I hope Americans take this to be a learning experience, much as I learned from Jewish friends who told me they were annoyed when Gentiles like me felt obliged to fill spaces in conversation with, "Some of my best friends are Jewish."
Or third-generation Asian-American friends who express their annoyance at being asked, "You speak such good English. How long have you been in this country?"
Besides, much of our sensitivity as black Americans to white condescension is rooted in bad experiences with some of our fellow black folks. In my youth, long before the MTV and BET era, some of my peers would denigrate articulate English as an attempt to "put on airs" by "talking proper." Let us thank the patient persistence of many wise black parents for today's articulate black leaders.
In this way, presidential campaigns can be teachable moments in the long saga of American history. It is a time for Americans to learn more about their fellow Americans as we choose someone to lead us. We shouldn't be afraid to talk to each other. Just don't forget to listen.
Can you hear me, Joe Biden?