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The presidential campaign has other issues besides rusty chains

Vice President Joe Biden greets supporters Institute for Advanced Research Learning Danville Va. Tuesday Aug. 14 2012. (AP Photo/The Register

Vice President Joe Biden greets supporters at the Institute for Advanced Research and Learning in Danville, Va. on Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2012. (AP Photo/The Register & Bee, Steven Mantilla)

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Updated: September 17, 2012 1:09PM

There are certain words a politician can’t use if there are black faces in an audience.

“Chains” is one of them.

It doesn’t matter whether the politician is a Democrat or a Republican. There will be fallout.

If a Democrat speaks the offending word, he or she will be accused of playing the race card. If a Republican, the offender will be cast as a bigot or worse.

Having campaigned with President Barack Obama four years ago, Vice President Joe Biden should know these rules.

But the loose-lipped Biden gave his opponents something to talk about other than the real issues when he uttered the dastardly word.

On the campaign stump, Biden warned that Mitt Romney would “unchain Wall Street.”

“They’re going to put you all back in chains,” Biden said, revving up the crowd.

Because he was speaking at a campaign event in Virginia, it was easy for political pundits to make the slavery connection.

But location doesn’t matter. Audience does.

Had the audience been composed of whites only, no one would have considered the “chains” remark to be anything other than a strongly worded rebuke of Romney’s position on big banks.

For those of you who have forgotten, when the Democrats took over, Wall Street was being accused of contributing to the near financial collapse in this country. New regulations and policies effectively put big banks on a short leash. Given the context of what the country has gone through, the “chains” comment makes sense whether or not you agree with Biden’s point.

But because black people were in the audience, the assumption is, Biden was dredging up slavery. For that to be the case, it would mean that the vice president was trying to warn black people that Romney intends to take America back to “Roots.”

Besides being ludicrous, Obama got, what, 97 percent of the black vote last time around. He certainly doesn’t need to rattle old chains to get out the black vote.

Unfortunately for Biden, the imagery of chains is so closely associated with slavery, the word makes for a poor metaphor.

Although Biden later said his language simply echoes the “unshackled” rhetoric used by Republicans in the past, there likely wasn’t more than a handful of black people in the room, and white people wouldn’t have thought for a minute that the candidate was talking about slavery.

But elsewhere, the “shackle” theme has also proven to be too hot to handle.

A few months ago, Adidas had to withdraw plans to roll out sneakers that featured rubber shackles after the preview on Facebook led to an outpouring of criticism.

“The attempt to commercialize and make popular more than 200 years of human degradation . . . is offensive, appalling and insensitive,” said the Rev. Jesse Jackson at the time.

In a curious turnabout, the Republicans have seized upon Biden’s “chains” gaffe to condemn the Obama campaign for using rhetoric with “uncomfortable racial overtones.”

“So Mr. President, take your campaign of division and anger and hate back to Chicago and let us get about rebuilding and reuniting America,” Romney said, as if the Republican Party is known for uniting blacks and whites.

Of course, the idea that Biden was race-baiting is ridiculous.

Prisoners are chained. Wild animals are chained. Black people haven’t been in chains since 1865 when slavery was legally abolished in this country. When I see chains, I’m more likely to be reminded of the horror of mass incarceration in this country than I am to think about slaves.

But the uproar over Biden’s “unchained” remark (coupled with his y’all utterance, an apparent nod to Southern speak) helps explain why so many voters are turned off.

Indeed, a nationwide USA Today/Suffolk University Poll projects that 90 million Americans won’t vote in November.

Frankly, I’m more offended by Romney’s false assertion that Obama is letting welfare recipients skip the work requirement. But truthfulness doesn’t seem to matter in this campaign.

For instance, Romney’s welfare claim resurrected images of slackers, most often portrayed as minorities, living off the middle class and is a clear-cut example of race-baiting.

There are some serious issues confronting Americans in this presidential campaign. But it is going to be difficult discerning what these candidates are really about if we keep getting sidetracked by rusty chains.

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