"The way we see things is affected by what we know and what we believe," wrote John Berger in Ways of Seeing. "The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled."
When former vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro sees Barack Obama–a black man, raised by a single mother, whose middle name is Hussein and whose surname rhymes with Osama–she sees privilege.
"If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position," she said. "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."
Quite what concept Ferraro was referring to is difficult to fathom. Of the ten whitest states to have voted so far, Obama has won nine of them. Of the ten blackest states to have voted so far (including the District of Columbia), he has won nine of them. The votes are not weighted for melanin content. His lead is the product not of affirmative action but of democratic election.
Shortly after Ferraro made her comments, we saw just how advantageous Obama’s race could be when controversy over his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, forced him to deliver a landmark speech about race. Every presidential hopeful has his racial moment. For Reagan it was the Neshoba County Fair near Philadelphia, Mississippi; George Bush Sr. had Willie Horton; Bill Clinton had Sister Souljah; Bush Jr. had Bob Jones University. Each one sought to comfort white voters with at worst their bigotry and at best their ambivalence toward African-Americans.
That was not an option for Obama. Boy, was he lucky. All he had to do was address black alienation and white disadvantage, set it in a historical context and then call on people to rise above it. In so doing, he had to acknowledge not just the fact of physical segregation–schools and housing–but psychic segregation. For while Wright’s sermons clearly shocked many whites, to many blacks his sentiments were as banal an addition to the dinner table as hot sauce.
In truth there was only so long you could keep that elephant in the room before it dumped on the carpet. Obama cleared the mess up pretty well. Shifting the stains will be trickier. For all his talk about transcending race, not even this biracial, Ivy League, intact-black-family man could escape America’s racial dysfunction.
Which brings us back to Ferraro. For if her initial comments were ridiculous, her response revealed just what Obama is up against. "Every time that campaign is upset about something, they call it racist," she said. "I will not be discriminated against because I’m white. If they think they’re going to shut up Geraldine Ferraro with that kind of stuff, they don’t know me."
And so Ferraro turns the world on its head. The perpetrator claims victimhood and takes to the airwaves to claim she is being silenced. Having asserted her right to be offensive, she then seeks to deny the right of others to be offended. Accusations of racism, real or imagined, are portrayed as more egregious than racism itself. Obama is lucky because he’s black; Ferraro is discriminated against because she’s white. White is the new black. We have race without racism.
There are many problems with her retort, but for now let’s just deal with two. First, no one from Obama’s campaign actually called her a racist. Obama called her comments "divisive" and "patently absurd." His chief strategist, David Axelrod, called her "divisive" and "polarizing."
Second, the comments are patently racist. Indeed, they are taken straight from the playbook of late-twentieth-century racism. Before the civil rights era the accusation used to be that black people could not succeed because they were black. Once affirmative action was introduced the emphasis shifted to suggest that they succeeded only because they were black. Either way the point is clear: black people are genetically ill equipped to succeed on their own merits.
This was no one-off either. Shortly before the New York primary in 1988, Ferraro declared, "If Jesse Jackson were not black, he wouldn’t be in the race." One wonders what a black candidate would have to be or do to meet with Ferraro’s approval. In November, after Hillary Clinton was subjected to tough questioning in a debate, Ferraro said, "It’s OK in this country to be sexist. It’s certainly not OK to be racist. I think if Barack Obama had been attacked for two hours–well, I don’t think Barack Obama would have been attacked for two hours."
There is a word for people who consistently deny the existence and effects of racism while denigrating black achievement. It’s called racist. It is not a word that should be used casually, and it is a word that has at times been misused. But it is not a word that we should refrain from using simply because some people might be offended. Ferraro is a racist. That’s not all she is. And that’s not all she has to be. But that is what she has consistently chosen to be in her response to black men in politics.
To insist on this is divisive only insofar as it divides racists from antiracists. Those who seek to set underrepresented groups against one another must be challenged. There can be no progressive coalition in this country that does not include black men and white women. But that coalition must be based on antiracism and antisexism. Feminism that does not embrace antiracism, like antiracism that does not embrace feminism, is little more than a campaign for sectional interests masquerading as a struggle for equality. It seeks not an end to inequity but just a different division of the spoils.
Given his looks, oratorical skills and intelligence, it is difficult to imagine what Obama couldn’t do if he were a white man; but it’s pretty obvious that he wouldn’t have had to make that speech. In the end, though, it may be less useful to speculate about what his candidacy would look like if he were a different race than to wonder how he would fare if there were no racism.