Mr. Obama also has sought to tie Mr. McCain to the country’s current economic woes, charging that the Bush administration has been “the most fiscally irresponsible administration in history.”
“And now John McCain want to give us another,” he said.
Among journalists, the usual practice when someone we’re quoting makes a minor grammatical error is to quietly correct it in print. In part, this is because (don’t gasp) not every quote is totally word-for-word accurate; reporters’ brains, like everybody’s, naturally edit lots of “ums” and “likes” and sometimes change a tense or two. So, the thinking goes, there’s usually no harm in cleaning things up for clarity’s sake.
But Obama gives us a different situation. As (among other people) David Foster Wallace eloquently argued in his oughtta-be-a-classic 2001 Harpers essay on American usage, we have to accept both that (a) black dialects are valid and internally consistent varieties of our language and (b) they’re not the culturally dominant mode of communication.
(Major caveat: I don’t know shit about actual black dialects, and couldn’t tell you for sure whether “John McCain want” might be part of Obama’s. Please bear with me anyway.)
Having a presidential candidate who sometimes speaks in a black dialect — who, in fact, deliberately embraced a black identity in high school — changes the game. What better way to push us toward linguistic equality than to accurately report Obama’s culturally black speech?
Obama, the king of self-consciousness, is aware of this divide. See this New York Magazine piece from before Obama decided to run:
“I mean, the fact that I conjugate my verbs and, you know, speak in a typical midwestern-newscaster voice—there’s no doubt this helps ease communication between myself and white audiences,” [Obama] says. “And there’s no doubt that when I’m with a black audience, I slip into a slightly different dialect.”
Transcribing Obama’s “black” speeches unedited would also reinforce the latently racist qualms that lots of white people have about him. But those qualms are rooted in a truth — that his ethnic identity is not West Virginia’s. A truth that merits reporting, if it can in fact be done accurately by the overwhelmingly white press corps. Don’t you think?