How Nice of Michael Bloomberg to Call Cory Booker 'Well Spoken'

Illustration for article titled How Nice of Michael Bloomberg to Call Cory Booker Well Spoken
Screenshot: CBS

Michael Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor and current billionaire who recently threw his hat into the 2020 Democratic primary, feels very attacked right now. His competitors are none too pleased with his plan to spend up to $1 billion of his own money on his campaign, which kicked off with a $30 million TV ad buy and millions more in online ads if you include the $100 million spent on anti-Donald Trump online ads just before he announced his candidacy. This self-funded operation has caused Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders to accuse him of buying the election. Meanwhile, Cory Booker is thinking about the next debate: Neither Booker nor any other non-white candidate still standing (Andrew Yang, Tulsi Gabbard) has qualified, but billionaire Tom Steyer has, and time will tell if Bloomberg makes the cut.

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In an interview with Bloomberg, CBS’s Gayle King quoted Booker as saying that soon there will be “more billionaires in the race than black people.” King asked Bloomberg if that’s a problem for him. And Bloomberg gave just the kind of response one would expect from someone who once wrote an op-ed defending New York City’s racist stop-and-frisk policy:

BLOOMBERG: Well, Cory Booker endorsed me a number of times. And I endorsed Cory Booker a number of times. He’s very well-spoken. He’s got some good ideas. It would be better the more diverse any group is. But the public is out there picking and choosing and narrowing down this field. The truth of the matter is you had a lot of diversity in the candidates, some of whom were very competent. Why they aren’t there as you narrowed it down, I—you have to talk to other people who are experts. I don’t know.

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A record might as well have immediately scratched to a stop as soon as Bloomberg said that Booker was “well-spoken.” Regardless of Bloomberg’s intent, calling black people “well-spoken” has long been understood to be a racist faux pas, implied exceptionalism condescendingly granted to black people with an undercurrent of surprise. “Well-spoken” is the less chaotic but still deeply cringe cousin of “articulate,” which (deservedly) brought Joe Biden grief back in 2007 when he described then-candidate Barack Obama as “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” While describing Obama as “clean” is the most obviously offending factor of this typical gaffe-ridden drivel from Biden, the “articulate” bit caused plenty of uproar.

As it should have. Sure, white people cooing “you speak so well” at cursed dinner parties is not the biggest issue affecting Black Americans, and when it is we can consider that substantial progress. But it speaks to the racism that is largely left unexamined by white people who feel far too comfortable with their unearned bona fides as so-called “allies,” progressives, anti-racists, and members of the some-of-my-best-friends-are-black coalition.

Calling black people “well-spoken” is not the compliment you think it is. Save it for your three-year-old niece.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Bloomberg qualified for the December debate. The author confused him for the other white billionaire, Tom Steyer. Jezebel regrets the error.

Staff writer, mint chocolate hater.

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DISCUSSION

westerosironswanson
The Ron Swanson of Westeros

For the benefit of the inevitable greys:

Racism is not merely a simplistic hatred. It is, more often, broad sympathy toward some and broader skepticism toward others.

—Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Fear of a President”

In this case, calling someone “well-spoken” is pretty back-handed. Sen. Booker is a Rhodes Scholar who attended Yale Law School, he’s been elected mayor of Newark three times and to the Senate of New Jersey twice, once by special election to serve the remainder of Sen. Lautenberg’s term after he died, and once in his own right.

Of course he’s “well-spoken”, and that’s not a compliment, for much the same reason that you wouldn’t call Chesty Puller “punctual”, or Eleanor Roosevelt “forthright”. In each case, the compliment amounts to saying that they meet minimum levels of competence for their chosen profession, when Puller, Roosevelt and Booker have, by any reasonable measure, exceeded minimum competence in their chosen fields.

So the question becomes, if it’s obvious that calling Chesty Puller “punctual” is disrespectful, why isn’t it obvious that calling Cory Booker “well-spoken” is also disrespectful? And that brings us right back to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ point: Booker is not expected to rise to minimum levels of competence, for some reason. And because we wouldn’t expect him to rise to minimum levels of competence, when he does meet or exceeds minimum thresholds of competence, you get old white blinkered men like Mike Bloomberg who are absolutely sure that pointing it out is actually a compliment, rather than the back-handed snub that it is.