"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."