Geraldine Ferraro’s comments concerning Barack Obama are causing a flurry of political discussions today. Some are calling them”racist,” others “insensitive,” and both are pretty on point. I’d like to suggest that, at heart, they are mostly ignorant. What they fail to understand is exactly what racism has been in this country’s history and, further, continues to be in this preseidential election.
Ferraro expressed her views in a March 7th article in a small southern California newspaper, the Daily Breeze. The article reported the exchange as follows:
“If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position,” she continued. “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.” Ferraro does not buy the notion of Obama as the great reconciler.
“I was reading an article that said young Republicans are out there campaigning for Obama because they believe he’s going to be able to put an end to partisanship,” Ferraro said, clearly annoyed. “Dear God! Anyone that has worked in the Congress knows that for over 200 years this country has had partisanship – that’s the way our country is.”
Yesterday, Ferraro defended her views with a charge of “reverse racism.” This article reported:
“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,” Ferraro said. “Racism works in two different directions. I really think they’re attacking me because I’m white. How’s that?”
Today, in an interview broadcast on ABC, she clarified her words by suggesting they were taken out of context, while simultaneously standing by them. [See ABC News.]
What the former Vice Presidential nominee fails to see is the way race has operated in United States history. Historically speaking, the United States has been a white supremacist nation. Simply put, “white”–a shifting and ellusive term in many ways–stood as the standard of what was right, acceptable, superior, and, most importantly, normal and natural.
Suggesting Obama is where he is today is, simply, in the candidate’s own words, “patently absurd.” It is ahistorical, denying the way the concept and designation of whiteness has operated in this nation’s past. Most importantly, it denies the ways race and whiteness worked to define leadership and legitimate power. If anything, it is far more true to say, historically, Hillary Clinton and every other “white” elected official is where they are today due to race. “Whiteness” has been the unspoken, unacknowledged prerequisite for power in this nation’s history. Any nonwhite person who has achieved status in such a system has done so despite or in acquiescence of that fact.
Is Ferraro a racist? Of course, it depends on how that word is defined but in my usage, yes. She is reflecting the grossest form of “white privilege”–the primary byproduct of a white supremacist system. She suggests that the system is oppressing “whites” by creating higher standards, special exemptions, and cosmetic (and fundamentally baseless) valorizations in favor of nonwhites when, in reality, all it is doing in struggling (in spite of itself) to undo the chronic shortcomings of its history. She may feel and think this, millions more may also share her perspective, but they, too, are trapped in the hangover of the past.