Wed 12 Mar 2008
“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.” - Geraldine Ferraro
In responding to the comments by former vice-presidential candidate Ferraro, the media and political pundits have mostly focused on her suggestion that Barack Obama would not be a serious candidate for president if he were not African-American. That type of comment is well known to anyone who has spoken up to defend affirmative action programs.
Although such programs are designed (and by law must be designed) to ensure that only qualified applicants are considered, one of the most common attacks on affirmative action is that it gives people of color and women an opportunity to which they are not entitled, a sort of free pass that ignores their lack of qualifications.
The unspoken assumption is that if you are a member of an oppressed group, you are simply not as well qualified as the white men competing against you. After all, if you were equally or better qualified, you wouldn’t need affirmative action. This ignores the plain and simple fact that under-qualified and just plan unqualified white men have always received “affirmative action” based on family connections, wealth, good ol’ boy networks, and of course skin color and gender.
There are, of course, no provisions for affirmative action on the basis of race or gender in the selection of political candidates. And certainly not for the selection of presidential candidates, an endeavor that is only possible in a serious way for those who can command political allegiances and money in large quantities. Perhaps there should be. After all, there have been no shortage of under-qualified or unqualified white male candidates for president. Pat Robertson’s only qualifications were his ministry and his money, having never held an elected office of any kind. Pat Buchanan’s sole claim was his role as a political commentator. And in the 20th century numerous serious candidates for president - including winning candidates - had never held a position outside of their home state. Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Jimmy Carter, for example, had both been state governors.
So it is hard not to see Geraldine Ferraro’s comments about Barack Obama as just one more example of the endless insult directed against African-Americans: If you were qualified, you wouldn’t need “help” getting the job. And since you are getting help, you must not be qualified. It is also hard not to see the horrible irony of suggesting that being an African-American man is a help in getting elected president, since no person of color has ever held that position or even been in a position where it seemed likely that they would be elected.
But there is another aspect to Ferraro’s comments that has been mostly ignored by the media but that must be particularly galling to many African-Americans. It’s the suggestion that it is ever “lucky” to be an black man in America. By virtually every meaningful statistical measure, to be a black man in America is to be on the shortest end of the stick. From education to incarceration to employment to access to medical care to life expectancy, the evidence is that if you are a black man you are demonstrably worse off than if you were a white person of either gender.
Some will argue that these examples cannot be meaningfully applied to Geraldine Ferraro’s comments. After all, Barack Obama’s story is one of achievement and success, not deprivation, addiction, prison or unemployment. So let’s consider how “lucky” it must be to be one of the only African-Americans - arguably the only one - to ever be seriously in contention for the office of president of the United States. Even applying that standard, Ferraro’s claim proves itself to be patently false. In the entire history of the presidency, has it ever been argued or suggested that a white man was ill-qualified for the office because of his skin color? How “lucky” can it be as a politician to have even leaders in your own party suggesting that your skin color is a badge of inferiority and lack of seriousness? Moreover, studies have shown over and over that when African-Americans run for virtually any elected office, white members of their own parties are likely to defect and vote race over political affiliation.
And to put it very bluntly, how “lucky” can it be to know that if you are once elected — heck, if you are even given the nomination of your party — you immediately become both a metaphorical and literal target for every variety of racist, from those in the most well-lit corridors of power who are always ready to kill careers with rumors, to those in the darkest basements who are ready to do it with a gun.
I have expressed before that I hope that Barack Obama is elected president not because I agree with his political program or think that he will himself bring about great changes, but because I believe that his election will bring great changes by forcing America to discuss and acknowledge the reality of race and racism as the primary dividing line in our society. But no matter what your view of the Obama candidacy may be, every person of conscience has an absolute duty to defend him from racist attacks, no matter whether they come from white supremacists rolling in the gutter or from polished and respected politicians speaking from podiums. In that vein, Geraldine Ferraro should be held accountable for her remarks: she should immediately and unconditionally apologize and step down from her position in the Clinton campaign.