Why Geraldine Ferraro’s Comments Were Racist

Geraldine Ferraro, former VP candidate to Walter Mondale, resigned this week from the finance committee of Hillary Clinton’s campaign. The controversy centered around comments Ferraro made last week in regards to rival candidate Barack Obama:

“If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. And if he was a woman, 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.”

Ferraro has defended her remarks by claiming that Obama’s campaign has taken them out of context and spun them to sound racist. Now, I don’t know Geraldine Ferraro, I wouldn’t say she’s a racist because of such comments. However, I do think that the comment itself are racist, for two reasons. The first is actual the content of what she said and the second is the fact that she said it at all.

Ferraro is quite clearly drawing a conclusion about where Obama’s presidential campaign would be were he not a black man. At best, this hypothetical is tautological; at worst, it’s blatantly racist….

If we wanted to test Ferraro’s conclusion… I mean really verify it, how would we go about doing that? The first question is to ask “how could we prove Ferraro wrong?” The only way to prove Ferraro wrong would be to open a window into an alternate reality where everything else is the same, except that the man we know as Barack Obama is a white man. If Obama is in the same position given that criteria, then Ferraro is proven wrong.

This test is obviously impossible. However, allow me to play devil’s advocate. Let’s say we could go look back into an alternate reality where the man we know of as Barack Obama were born white. Consider what the implications of such an alternate reality would be. If Barack Obama were born white, that would mean his father would not be from Kenya. He would not likely be named “Barack Obama”. He would have grown up in Hawaii without the dark skin tone associated with being black, and thus would not have gone through the identity searching he discusses in his book Dreams from My Father. In fact, since he would have had a different father, his whole relationship (or relative lack thereof) with his father would be radically different, and he never would have written a book like Dreams from My Father. Perhaps his mother would not have married an Indonesian man and moved to Indonesia with a young Barack; perhaps he wouldn’t thus return to live with his grandparents; he wouldn’t have gone to the University of Chicago, or become a community activist, or a State Senator, or a US Senator, or finally a presidential candidate.

In other words, if things were different, they wouldn’t be the same. Go back 46 years, roll the dice again, and you get a completely different course of events. Hence, this line of reasoning is tautological.

On the other hand, if we are to interpret Ferraro’s statement as saying that the only reason Obama gets as much popularity as he does is because he’s black is to believe that (a) Obama’s only predominantly appealing quality is his skin tone; and (b) the millions of people who support Barack Obama are racists themselves, for supporting a candidate solely for that skin tone. So, at worst, the comment is disparaging of Barack Obama as a person, while implying that all of his supporters are racists. Garldine Ferraro is taken aback when she herself is labeled a racist, yet she is perfectly alright with calling of us racists.

Substantially, however, neither of these cases is really the argument that Geraldine Ferraro is trying to make, and that brings me to my second reason her statement was racist. If at best Ferraro’s statement is a tautology, then why make the statement at all? Like Bill Clinton’s statements in South Carolina, what Ferraro said offers no insight into the campaign, into the qualities (or lack thereof) of Barack Obama as a person and a candidate, or into the qualities of her own preferred candidate, Hillary Clinton. Her statement sounds like a factual claim, but it’s really an unverifiable hypothetical. So… what’s the point of it? The point is this: create the impression that the candidate of Barack Obama is completely without substance, that the appeal he has enjoyed so far is specious, based on the inherent racism of his supporters, either via affinity or via supposed “white guilt”.

The message is meant for two demographics: those who are already predisposed toward not trusting a black candidate, and those who can be convinced to question the the foundations of their trust in a black candidate. If you can be convinced that Obama’s support is based merely on racial politics, then are you likely to want to reject those politics, and thus reject Obama’s candidacy; and you certainly don’t want to be labeled as a white appeaser.

Interestingly, in a followup interview, Ferraro said:

“Any time anybody does anything that in any way pulls this campaign down and says let’s address reality and the problems we’re facing in this world, you’re accused of being racist, so you have to shut up. Racism works in two different directions. I really think they’re attacking me because I’m white. How’s that?”

Interestingly, Ferraro’s comments made earlier were not about addressing “reality and the problems we’re facing in this world”, they were about a hypothetical scenario (that is, not reality) in which Barack Obama is white. So, what exactly was the problem you were trying to address, Gerri? That Barack Obama is black?

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