Geraldine and Barack. Playing the race card?
Carlton M. Caves
2008 March 27

In a phone interview with Jim Farber, Geraldine Ferraro, one-time Democratic candidate for vice president and now a backer of Hillary Clinton, made the following statement about Barack Obama's presidential run:

If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position, and if he was a woman (of any color), he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is, and the country is caught up in the concept.

Published in the The Daily Breeze of March 7, this statement excited nationwide interest. The resulting deluge of punditry echoed down the pages of the mainstream press and the blogosphere, starting with the contention that Ferraro's comment was part of the Clinton campaign's new strategy of playing the race card and continuing through a counter-reaction that regarded the comment itself as too trivial for words, but the reaction as sufficiently revealing to merit some.

The first thing to get out of the way is the contention that Ferraro was transmitting a subtle racial message for the Clinton campaign. Ferraro was an historic figure as the first woman to run for vice president on a major party ticket, but her political career declined and died in the 90s, and she is now a footnote to history. The Clinton campaign was, I am sure, pleased to have her as a backer---why not?---but it's not as though any of the rest of us had paid any attention to her endorsement till this incident. Slated to lecture about the campaign in Torrance, California, she was asked to give a pre-lecture interview by a reporter for an obscure local newspaper that serves the South Bay region of Los Angeles. Not overwhelmed with interview requests, I am sure, and anxious to publicize her upcoming lecture, she agreed, without thinking too hard about what she would say or exactly how she would say it, and so out came the above comment. I think it exceedingly unlikely that any racial slur was intended, and it is absurd to think that somebody in the Clinton campaign orchestrated this decidedly low-key chain of events, whose a priori chance of rising above the news horizon was slim to none. No, it won't do to blame the Clinton campaign. Ferraro was acting on her own, and she spoke her own mind. The only real question is why the big reaction.

My initial reading was that Ferraro was saying that there are many Americans, of all races and ethnicities, who are enchanted by the history-making "concept" of an African-American president, and this is responsible for propelling the Obama campaign. I think Ferraro is right that there are many Americans who are attracted to the notion of having a black president and who view this as one of the many attractive features of Obama's candidacy. I'm pretty skeptical, however, that this is chiefly responsible for Obama's success, especially given that Clinton has her own history-making credentials. Given this reading, I didn't consider Ferraro's comment to be racist, just overblown and probably wrong.

I quickly discovered differently. Reading a bit of punditry, I found that the notion that Obama is "getting ahead because he's black" is identified as the objectionable thing that people say about beneficiaries of affirmative action. Thus my reading of Ferraro's statement is said to be explicitly racist, because it asserts that Obama is getting something he doesn't deserve solely because of his race, in preference, I suppose, to more deserving candidates of other races and ethnicities.

I'll call this the affirmative-action interpretation. I don't buy it, because if the electorate chooses to make Obama the Democratic nominee, for whatever reasons, he is by definition the most deserving candidate. In a democracy winning is the only criterion for "most deserving." The only way to apply affirmative action in elections is to skew the rules or the electorate so that members of a particular group are favored. We do this sometimes in America, by drawing Congressional and state legislative districts so as to favor one group or one party. That doesn't and can't apply, however, to the statewide senatorial election that Obama won in Illinois nor to the presidential election he is now involved in. The affirmative-action interpretation is, in my view, egregiously tendentious. It has a chip on its shoulder, so to speak, but I am prepared to believe that the experience of many African-Americans makes for just such a chip.

To confuse matters further, Ferraro claims not to have meant what I thought she did. In a follow-up interview with the The Daily Breeze, published on March 11 after her initial comment had attracted negative attention, she is reported to have said that she was "simply stating an obvious truth, as seen in exit polls that show Obama taking as much as 80 percent of the black vote in the Democratic primaries." Bill Clinton has made the same point, and it's hard to argue with it, since it seems to be a fact, but I find this reading quite difficult to square with the original comment and, in any case, even less likely to be the factor that is chiefly responsible for Obama's success. Obama wouldn't be winning the popular vote if only African-Americans were voting for him.

The main problem seems to be not so much the specifics of what Ferraro said, but rather that any mention of Obama's race by someone not associated with his campaign attracts attention and often criticism. This is a measure of the exquisitely sensitive feelings on racial questions in America. Fortunately, Obama himself has now addressed the question of race directly in a brave and inspiring speech given in Philadelphia on March 18, which I will discuss in my next commentary.

For the rest of this article, I want to propose a set of exercises that are useful in thinking about Ferraro's comment and the responses to it. Let's begin by reformulating Ferraro's comment so that it is clearly in accord with my reading:

If Obama were a white man, he would not be in this position, and if he were a woman (of any color), he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is, because the country is caught up in this concept of electing a black man as president.

Now let's exchange Obama and Clinton, black and white, man and woman:

If Clinton were a black woman, she would not be in this position, and if she were a man (of any color), she would not be in this position. She happens to be very lucky to be who she is, because the country is caught up in this concept of electing a woman as president.

It's interesting how this comes out. The initial phrase about black women is gratuitous and would almost certainly attract negative comment, although it is probably true. As far as women generally are concerned, however, the statement seems unobjectionable to me. Outside of the initial phrase, it would be attacked, I think, not as sexist, but rather as projecting an overly rosy view of attitudes about women in American politics.

Now let's make the original statement more positive, as though it came from an Obama backer, and again turn the tables:

I'm enthusiastic about electing an African-American as president. Along with Obama's many other attractive features, that's one of the reasons I'm backing him. He has come along at just the right time, because many Americans are caught up in the notion of electing the first black man as president.

I'm enthusiastic about electing a woman as president. Along with with Clinton's many other attractive features, that's one of the reasons I'm backing her. She has come along at just the right time, because many Americans are caught up in the notion of electing the first woman as president.

I find these statements unobjectionable and would have been willing to make one or the other of them at various times over the last nine months. Given that we Democrats have two well-qualified, attractive candidates for president, I am enthusiastic about having the first woman or first African-American president. Notice, however, that the positive statement about Obama is still subject to the affirmative-action interpretation and thus might attract negative comment, although the absence of invidious comparisons with other groups and the mention of other attractive qualities than race might immunize it against such interpretation. Still, one lesson of this exercise is that affirmative action, important and essential though it might be, has a downside in heightening racial sensitivities.

Let's try one more formulation, in the first statement including explicit racial, ethnic, and gender prejudices and in the second replacing these prejudices with religious ones:

I am not enthusiastic about having a president who is black or Hispanic or a woman. I would prefer that my president be a white man, like me.

I am not enthusiastic about having a president who is Jewish or Muslim or Mormon. I would prefer that my president be a Christian, like me.

We have no difficulty branding the first of these as extremely objectionable. The second is equally objectionable, yet many fundamentalist Christians would make it, arguing that the only way to ensure that the president has the right "values" is that he be a fundamentalist like them. Indeed John McCain made a statement much like the second in an interview last September. My own guess is that McCain regrets that statement and probably wouldn't say it again. The statement was an ill advised bone thrown to his party's evangelical base. It is a measure of their grip on the Republican party that he felt compelled to make it.

I voted for Obama in the New Mexico Democratic primary on Super Tuesday, and I would do so again now. We Democrats can be proud that our party really is beginning to reflect America's diversity, right up to the top of our presidential ticket. We're not perfect in this regard, but the contrast with the white-dominated, Southern-based Republican party is stark indeed.

Obama and Clinton are both capable and well qualified. The reason I voted for Obama is that his freshness and approach offer the hope of getting past the stale partisanship of the last fifteen years. It's not that partisanship will cease or even decrease much. The right-wing attack machine will not shut down, and it will be directed virulently at either Obama or Clinton. Given that, I think Clinton carries too much baggage to escape a bitter and divisive fight with the negative forces of the extreme right. My hope is that Obama can be elected with such good will that he can shrug off the right's attacks as the demagoguery that they are, thereby isolating the extreme right and allowing him to work with the responsible moderate fringe of the Republican party. That done, we can achieve the working majority to begin the transformation that America desperately needs after nearly 30 years of mainly conservative government and the catastrophe of the Bush administration.

I'm old enough to know that I'm likely to be disappointed. But hope springs eternal, and sometimes hope for the best trumps a more predictable, but less ambitious better. For me, hope for the best---hope that the eight years beginning next January can set America on a new course---rests with Barack Obama.

   Index to CMC commentaries