Did Joe Biden 'chains' remark go too far?

Team Obama says that Biden was referring to the harm to consumers if Republicans 'unshackle' Wall Street. But critics dub the remark an appeal to race.

Steven Mantilla/The Register & Bee/AP
Danville Mayor Sherman Saunders and former Rep. Tom Perriello (D) of Virginia applaud Vice President Joe Biden at the Institute for Advanced Research and Learning in Danville, Va., on Tuesday.

Did Joe Biden go too far on Tuesday when he told attendees at a Virginia campaign rally that the GOP would “put y’all back in chains”?

Since then lots of Republicans – and some prominent Democrats – have hit the incumbent VP hard for a remark they say had racial undertones. When he uttered the phrase “back in chains” Biden was talking about GOP plans to repeal the Obama administration’s Wall Street reforms. But much of the Virginia audience was African-American, and Biden’s words were an unmistakable reference to slavery’s bondage, in the view of critics.

“You know, these are the kinds of things you say when you’re desperate in a campaign,” said presumptive GOP VP nominee Rep. Paul Ryan in an interview Thursday with Sean Hannity on Fox News Radio.

Administration officials insist that Biden was talking about finance and simply made a clumsy reference to the harm that would befall consumers if the Romney-Ryan ticket wins. President Obama said as much in an interview with People magazine. Biden aides said the veep verbally tripped after saying that Republicans want to “unshackle” banks.

“He often talks about the middle class and the importance of unshackling the middle class,” said White House Deputy Communications Director Jen Psaki in a briefing for reporters on Wednesday. “He was using a metaphor yesterday and talking about Wall Street reform and the fact that we can’t allow Republicans to defund Wall Street reform.”

However, some African-American Democrats were not convinced. Former Virginia Gov. Doug Wilder told CNN that “without question” the remark was an appeal to race. Mr. Wilder indicated that he took particular umbrage at the fact that Biden referred to “y’all,” not “us.”

“So he was still involved with that separate America. And I’m sick and tired of being considered something other than an American,” said Wilder.

At the website The Root, which is aimed at an African-American audience, contributing editor David Swerdlick called Biden’s remark “inexcusable” and said that “any reference to slavery ... isn’t any better when it’s made by a liberal."

But he and other Root commentators were also annoyed at what they judged to be faux outrage from Republicans. The GOP has long used coded language in reference to racial issues, according to Mr. Swerdlick, such as when some Republicans insinuate that President Obama is not a real American by calling for his long-form birth certificate.

“African-Americans can point – and rightly so – to a steady stream of chatter that’s never quite outright race-baiting but sure feels that way.... But maybe next time, if Romney hears something foul come from his side of the aisle, he’ll be the one who calls it out first. Because now, at least, he knows how black people feel,” wrote Swerdlick.

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