Joe Biden's 'Back in Chains' Gaffe Was Offensive But It Shouldn't Distract Us

Joe BidenDuring a speech on Tuesday at a campaign stop in Danville, Virginia, Joe Biden warned his crowd of attentive listeners about Mitt Romney’s intentions to undo Wall Street reforms. He spoke boldly, confidently, and authoritatively, then capped the accusation off with, “They’re gonna put y’all back in chains.”

Now there are only a handful of people who might be angered by that comment: recovering masochists, inmates, POWs ... and African-Americans. Forty-eight percent of Danville’s population is black, and the audience that day reflected that demographic. You know darn good and well you can’t reference chains in a room full of black folks. Come on now, Joe. Talk about open mouth, insert foot. (And incidentally, they’re called “coffles.”)


A little research beforehand would've told him that the city of Danville was a high stakes player in the slavery melodrama, just like almost every other Southern city, town, and village. There was even a race riot in 1883. But it doesn't take a stab at being a historian to tip off a person in a position of power that it’s probably not wise to even hint at the enslavement period unless you’re prepared to say something constructive. And that, my friends, wasn’t it.

I like Joe Biden. I do. But I’m just not quite sure how to make this train wreck of a metaphor be OK. Honestly, if I was there, I would've been offended. I’m the person in the room who catches stuff like that and balls my face up in very obvious disgust. (Though, I must admit, I would've been more taken aback by how much that man has aged since the last time I saw him. I’m not a J.B. groupie so I don’t keep track of his media stops and campaign events, but I was like good Lord! Prez and his VP can keep that White House gig. It apparently zaps everyone who takes it of any drop of youthfulness. Yikes. But I digress.)

The Romney campaign hopped on this chains-in-Danville faux pas like a pimple on a prom queen and has wrangled it into representing Biden’s plot for racial divisiveness. Deep sigh and eye roll. I don’t think it boils down to all of that. I think it’s just one of those insensitive remarks someone who is part of the majority makes because they don’t have any cultural wounds to watch out for themselves. Hear tell some folks, we should be “over it” anyway, so any residuals of slavery should be fair game to be joked about, openly referenced, and used in illustrative quips during campaign speeches.

It’s not enough to make me dislike Joe, though. I mean, honestly, if that was the case, I’d be scratching folks off my list one by one, and not all of them white, either, including an old boss who told me I was surprisingly articulate for someone who graduated from Lincoln (which is a black college in Pennsylvania), for example, or the man from Capitol Hill who referred to my neighborhood as “the jungle” when I told him what part of D.C. I live in.  

Being black is certainly not tragic but you do have to learn when to pick your battles and be selective about when to be offended. Otherwise, you’ll burn yourself out or bleach your skin and try to create a whole other race or assimilate as inconspicuously as you can into another one.

Yes, Biden's comment was insulting and in poor taste, and I hope my president digs into his VP’s backside for saying such a thing. But compared to the policies that have been historically levied by presidents past to decimate our community in everything from the three strikes rule to pro-gentrification rezoning, it’s just a tiny boo boo on a body full of gashes and cuts. So I’m not allowing this to be a distraction. Puh-lease. Someone is about due to say or do something foolish again in about 24 hours, anyway, and this too shall pass. 

Do you think his comments were offensive?

Image via DonkeyHotey/Flickr

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