The Commander-In-Chief’s Code-Switching

by Dish Staff

McWhorter has met “more than a few who seem honestly to think that when Obama, who generally speaks in a vanilla standard way, uses some black inflection or slang with black audiences, he is being fake”:

Wrong. Obama is doing something most black Americans do: using a special repertoire that has a function, to connote warmth and connection. Linguists call it Black English. If Obama is phony in switching into it to strike a certain note, then millions of black people are spending their entire lives being linguistically inauthentic. Doubtful. And — we must be under no impression that Black English is simply the things generally thought of as slang (or, with less scientific justification, errors) such as ain’t and good old aks for ask. Black English is a whole spice rack beyond this.

Take “folks,” for example, which Obama used in his mentioning that, “We tortured some folks.” To many, it sounded like he was trivializing the gravest of issues. But black speakers (and many whites as well) tend to substitute “folks” for “people” to indicate a sense of affection for, or identification with, the people in question. Black academic types (such as Obama) are especially given to saying “black folks” as a way of indicating that they do not feel superior to ordinary black people despite their own success. Obama’s extension of it to discussing the war on terror was unsurprising.