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September 18, 2007

Slave State

It's a bit hard for candidates not named Bill Richardson to break through with gaffes these days. He's just so much better at them than everyone else! But Tom Schaller reminds us of a better, simpler time, when Joe Biden was talking, and the rest of us were laughing:

In the current primary season, only Delaware Sen. Joe Biden has bothered to make so much as a feint toward the Bubba vote, with an absurd analogy between his home state and the South. In January, when pressed by "Fox News Sunday" host Chris Wallace on how a "Northeastern liberal like Joe Biden" hoped to compete in South Carolina, the senator responded: "You don't know my state. My state was a slave state ... My state is anything [but] a Northeast liberal state." Biden's comment left Southern politics expert Merle Black scratching his head. "That's just really quite bizarre," the Emory professor told the Wilmington News Journal. "That's not how you appeal to Southern voters."

Delaware: The Alabama of the Northeast.

September 18, 2007 | Permalink


"That's not how you appeal to Southern voters."

Not sure about that.

Posted by: Jason G. | Sep 18, 2007 10:59:54 AM

I'd agree that Biden made a boo-boo, but outside of New Castle county (Wilmington area) Delaware isn't even a mid-Atlantic state, let alone a Northeastern state. IMO, once you get south of Dover the state is more like non-northern VA than MD.

Posted by: sparky | Sep 18, 2007 11:52:25 AM

IMO, once you get south of Dover the state is more like non-northern VA than MD.

We have a name for that: Lower, Slower Delaware.

Posted by: Dave | Sep 18, 2007 12:36:00 PM

This wasn't the head-scratcher for me that it was for others, either. He's right.

But Delaware is not the Alabama of the Northeast. As Mudcat Saunders has reminded us, that distinction falls to Pennsylvania: "It's Philadelphia in the east and Pittsburgh in the west, but it's Alabama in the middle," he has said.

Posted by: Rick | Sep 18, 2007 12:44:04 PM

Yes- good comments, all. While Biden's word choice was awkward, his point that Delaware isn't a "northeastern liberal state" is right on the mark, and he was correct to say Chris Wallace "didn't know his state".

Frankly, I think enough people are uncomfortable with race politics that even bringing up the fact that they once existed is considered a "gaffe" (unless you talk about how everyone loves each other today).

Posted by: P | Sep 18, 2007 1:26:44 PM

To inch this north and out of the "slave states," I've heard the "Pennsyltucky" and "Philadelphia and Pittsburgh separated by Alabama" comments. Pennsylvania is home to plenty of racists and white supremacists both urban and rural -- there were cross burnings in Philadelphia in the 80's -- and I don't see why we should blame this on the south. Maybe Biden's selling himself short by thinking the "slave state" camaraderie applies only below Mason-Dixon. Isn't that what Thomas Frank was telling us a few years ago, anyway? Go white!

Posted by: mutakhalef | Sep 18, 2007 1:38:17 PM

I'm not sure why his comment would make you laugh, ezra. Have you ever been to Delaware?

Posted by: mad6798j | Sep 18, 2007 1:46:36 PM

The KKK basically ran Oregon about a century ago. I'm not sure what that has to do with anything, but then I'm also not sure what any of this has to do with anything, either.

Posted by: George Tenet Fangirl | Sep 18, 2007 4:56:27 PM

Given the comments, I suppose Delaware isn't Alabama... but it may well be Mississippi.

As someone who has vacationed extensively at the Delaware shore, as a mixed race ga guy it's... uncomfortable. Even Rehoboth, which has become a gay go-to destination in the Mid-Atlantic, gets pretty darn rural, pretty darn quick. And driving, as I do these days, from there to Philly to catch my plane home... I have to say i had no idea how rural it could get. Biden' at least right that Wallace doesn't know his stae. The trouble of course becomes... how to take biden coming from that context... which I think is the real problem he's had as a candidate. He's almost plausible... and then these nagging little things crop up...

Posted by: weboy | Sep 18, 2007 5:31:53 PM

I'm still confused, though, weboy. What "nagging things"? Biden was correct that Chris Wallace "didn't know his state", and he's correct that there is a tremendous cultural difference between New England and Delaware. Delaware being a former "slave state" is just a proxy for its being a little more Southern in cultural heritage than it is Yankee. He's not saying Southerners hate black people. He's not saying slavery was an acceptable policy. All he is saying is that Delaware's cultural heritage isn't completely foreign to the southern experience, so he wouldn't have any particular problems appealing to non-New England voters.

The only "nagging thing", in my opinion, is that Biden didn't come out immediately and rephrase the remarks- but the bottom line is that he was correct in essence but used a proxy that is inflammatory to people who gasp whenever race politics are hinted at...Even when race politics aren't directly the issue, but rather a proxy for other cultural experiences...

(I'm actually leaning toward a different candidate, but I think Biden was correct this time around. Just so you know.)

Posted by: P | Sep 18, 2007 7:48:00 PM

P can you tell me how race politics are just a proxy for other cultural issues? It's hard to eliminate race from the term "slave state."

Posted by: mutakhalef | Sep 18, 2007 8:30:13 PM

Certainly. Race politics is a proxy for other cultural issues when you say "My state was a slave state ... My state is anything [but] a Northeast liberal state" when what you mean is Delaware is not filled with your typical Yankee-New-England-socially-liberal-fiscally moderate-to-liberal constituency but rather a socially-conservative-fiscally-populist constituency (unlike New England and more like the South) with a demographic that is lower income (unlike New England, and more like the South), and more rural (unlike New England and more like the South).

Since "slave states" don't exist any more, Biden must be using it as a proxy to express something else. Since the end of the quote is "My state is anything but a Northeast liberal state", I think the best explanation is that Biden was using the state's status as a former slave state as a shorthand for these cultural and demographic issues; and simply used an awkward and charged phrase.

The other explanation is that Biden honestly believes all of his constituents are racists, and all Southerners are racists, and that no New Englanders are racists. I don't believe that- it seems more likely that he awkwardley used "former slave state" to express the things that differentiate Delaware from New England culturally and demographically rather than to say anything about race whatsoever. Which makes it a proxy, and a proxy for something that doesn't have anything to do with racial politics.

Posted by: P | Sep 18, 2007 9:38:32 PM

Earlier this year, these charmers (http://www.descv.org/) sponsored a memorial to Confederate soldiers from Delaware; to be clear, these were citizens of a Union state who went out of there way to fight in the Confederate Army. The Sons of Confederate Veterans' skewed interpretation of history is now on public display in Georgetown, DE, (and may even have public funding, but I'm not sure about this.)

Posted by: Anthony Cantor | Sep 19, 2007 4:22:30 PM

oops. out of THEIR way.

Posted by: Anthony Cantor | Sep 19, 2007 4:23:06 PM

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