This is not to say that people who use the phrase are racist or that they mean to insult the Black people they’re describing. After all, Mr. Schmidt has also said that Ms. Harris is “intellectually” superior to Vice President Mike Pence and would defeat him handily in a debate, arguing, “They’re not in the same league with each other.”
It’s also true that “articulate” is not only used this way with Black people. Southerners, immigrants — especially the undocumented — children and the otherwise marginalized are referred to as “articulate” in very similar ways. It’s even used to describe white people who don’t fit into any of those categories. But that doesn’t negate the fact that the repeated use of particular words by particular people in particular contexts and situations gives these words socially charged meanings. And that’s what’s happened here.
Intentionally or not, when Black people are given the “compliment” of being “articulate,” it’s often combined with other adjectives like “good,” “clean,” “bright,” “nice-looking,” “handsome,” “calm” and “crisp.” When someone feels the need to point out that an individual Black person has these qualities, it’s understandable that Black people who hear this will infer that the speaker thinks this is unusual and that Black people are usually the opposite — bad, dirty, dumb, mean-looking, ugly, angry, rough and inarticulate.
This is why, regardless of the speaker’s intentions, when Ms. Harris or any other Black person is described as “articulate,” many hear a backhanded compliment at best.
H. Samy Alim, director of the Center for Race, Ethnicity, and Language at U.C.L.A., and Geneva Smitherman, professor emerita of English at Michigan State University, are the authors of “Articulate While Black: Barack Obama, Language, and Race in the U.S.”
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