THE BLOG
03/14/2008 04:11 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Geraldine Ferraro's Skewed Views

STEVEN BARNES:

Geraldine Ferraro famously said: "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."

Was that racist? Not according to the Mirriam-Webster dictionary, which primarily defines the term as "a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race."

Let's get that out of the way.

But Ms. Ferraro certainly has an odd view of the world. She sees an American society in which being black is an advantage. Such advantage doesn't exist in life expectancy, income, inherited wealth, arrest or incarceration rates, college degrees or chances of dying violently. Nor is it represented at any level of elected government: mayors, senators, or governors. In every single instance, blacks are at a disadvantage proportionate to their numbers in the general population. But according to Ms. Ferraro, take a run for President? Presto! This burden somehow magically becomes an advantage.

The most reasonable and thoughtful justification for this attitude lies in noting the extraordinarily high black vote for Obama. Surely I don't believe that he would have gotten this reaction had he been white. Good point, and I agree that there are considerable numbers of black people who voted for Obama because he was black.

But did this "advantage" work for, say, Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton? No? It wouldn't work for just any black man? You mean he has to be remarkable for this "racial magic" to kick in?

If that's true, then how exactly did Ms. Ferraro separate out whatever characteristics make Obama different from other black men? And how did she ascertain that these precise attractive qualities wouldn't have been equally--or more attractive--in a white male? Or a woman?

What's more absurd is that her assertion begs the issue's flip-side: "If Mrs. Clinton were a white man, she would not be in this position."

Hmmm. True, she probably wouldn't have married Bill Clinton. I'm just sayin'. And that means that every single event on her CV that relates to being First Lady of Arkansas or of the United States would have to be removed. She certainly didn't run for the Senate under her maiden name. Think that that name recognition helped her a bit?

But let's say she would still have been elected as the Senator from New York in 2000. She still would be running for President with considerably LESS elected office time than Obama has had (he was elected to the Illinois legislature in 1996), albeit hers was on the national level. She began her campaign with 100% name recognition and the formidable political connections, contribution Rolodex and campaigning machine built up by her husband, not to mention having a former President campaigning for her with Terminator intensity. Remove all that. Remove also her non-stop playing of the gender card, reminding us that "a woman in the White House is change!" Still think she'd be in the same position? Sauce for the goose, Geraldine.

And play fair in your critical thinking: Considering that whites outnumber blacks by nine to one or so, how exactly, given the differential in group size, does the global human quality of skin-color tribalism work to the favor of the smaller group?

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Ms. Ferraro actually seems to believe that you can quantify human misery...and then rank it to your own political advantage. I suspect that like Gloria Steinem, she believes that in America, being female is more of a burden than being black.

My personal belief? You simply cannot measure such a thing either way without discounting someone's pain, misery, or life experience. No one without a political axe to grind would ever do such a thing.

If you want to know whether a Ferrari or a Rolls Royce is more difficult to maintain, wouldn't you speak to someone who owns both? Or if you wanted to know whether being blind or short is the greater burden, wouldn't you want to ask short blind people?

There is only one group with real-world experience in being encumbered or advantaged both by melanin and estrogen: black women. If you really want to know, why not ask ten black women which factor has been more problematic, and listen to what they say? Why not set up a web site and invite tens of thousands of black women to comment, weighing the results in any way you find statistically valid? I suspect no one would do it if they don't believe the answers would fit their political agenda.

Out of curiosity, I've asked the question of about twenty black women of various ages, education levels, incomes, and geographic locations, and four out of five said race was more of a burden. And the ones who thought it was less of a burden than gender were...wait for it...EXTREMELY light-skinned.

Wow. What a Gomer! (As in: "Surprise, surprise, surprise.") Easy cocktail party conversation there, hypothesizing a relation between skin tone and degrees of negative interaction with society. (Does anyone out there really believe that Obama would have had an EASIER time were he darker skinned?)

But after a few calls, I abandoned my informal survey. I realized I had no interest in concluding that I "knew" the answer. I honestly feel it to be egotistical and self-serving for a black man to say that race is more difficult than gender. Or for a white woman to say gender is worse than race.

And I really, really don't want to be political about something that is so personal, that affects so many lives so terribly, and has for so terribly long. I will not weigh Jim Crow against the fear of rape. Or higher incarceration rates against unequal wages. Or premature death against domestic violence. Or postponement of suffrage with lynching or segregation. It would be petty, and self-righteous, and the worst kind of willful ignorance. We should not play those games. I WILL NOT play those games.

But if I did...I just might win.

TANANARIVE DUE:

I wish I had a time machine.

In 1984, when I was a student at Northwestern University, I timidly emerged from hibernation in my dorm to watch a speech by Geraldine Ferraro, the first female vice-presidential nominee in United States history. Wow! I was 18 years old, and that year I cast my very first ballot for Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro. And I take voting seriously: My parents, who are civil rights activists, knew blacks and whites who died so that all Americans would have that right. My mother literally ducked bullets in Florida to register blacks to vote.

Admittedly, I haven't thought much about Ferraro since then. But she held a warm place in my political memories.

Until now.

Now, I want to march straight back through time. The woman who is defending her ludicrous and insulting statement about how "lucky" Barack Obama is to be black is not the woman I voted for. She's either deluded, woefully naive, or perhaps a sad political shell.

On Wednesday's "Good Morning America," Ferraro said that her spot on that ticket in 1984 was based solely on gender and had "nothing to do with her qualification." It pains me if that's true, but Ferraro should speak for herself.

Ferraro, unfortunately, is part of a growing number of my past political heroes selling out their legacies to flip over the race card as soon as the stakes raise for their candidate of choice--Hillary Clinton. The first casualty was Bill Clinton himself--who famously tried to marginalize Barack Obama as a BLACK! candidate by reminding voters that Jesse Jackson, too, had won South Carolina. With one quick jab, Bill Clinton sullied another gem of a memory: a wide-eyed me racing to the stage to shake his hand after a stirring oratory and a promise of change in 1992.

But I had forgiven that slip into race-baiting silliness. After attending the Democratic debate in Los Angeles last month, my husband and I both left almost singing "Kumbaya," dreaming of an unbeatable Dream Ticket, counting our luck that we had two such high quality candidates to choose from. What an embarrassment of riches!

Originally, Sen. Clinton only tepidly distanced herself from Ferraro's absurd assertion. Wednesday, Ferraro resigned from Clinton's finance committee. But I have now officially noticed a pattern: Clinton surrogates seem to like the race card. They must think it can work.

Look how we're talking about it! Sooner or later, we can dig down and find our differences. Oh, it might work, all right--but I don't think the Clintons, or the Democratic party, will like the result one bit.

Here's what the struggling Clinton camp either hasn't figured out or is trying desperately to thwart: While many black voters, history buffs and aging hippies are salivating over the prospect of a slave nation electing its first black president, there are untold numbers of Obama supporters who couldn't care less.

There are Obama supporters who don't even understand why people keep insisting he's black at all--he's half white! They possess the blessed luxury of a lack of social and historical context. (My mother, Patricia Stepehens Due, who is two or three shades lighter than Obama, spent 49 days in jail for ordering food at a Woolworth lunch counter in Tallahassee, Florida, in 1960. Hint: She wasn't jailed because she's a woman.)

Obama is a masterful campaigner. A record-shattering fundraiser. He's commanding a campaign charting a new way of doing things, demonstrating to his voters daily how their vision can be brought to reality. Obama's supporters like his policies and his intellect, his oratory gives voice to their dreams, and he has stirred hundreds of thousands of them to do something they have never done: register to vote and contribute their hard-earned money to a political campaign. If the party plays its non-racial cards right, that enthusiasm could translate into a Democratic revolution this fall.

All that, and he's black?

Someone should ask Geraldine Ferraro why Hillary Clinton can so frequently stir her base into applause with the reminder that she would be the first female president while Barack Obama reminds voters that he would be the first black president...hmmm...almost never? Of course, he doesn't have to say it because his race speaks for itself every time he appears--but isn't Hillary's gender just as obvious?

What accounts for the difference? Racism and sexism aren't dead or on a holiday, but women make up half the electorate. And all male voters were birthed by women, and most of them sleep next to a woman at night.

Both candidates represent historic change. Just ask Hillary. She'll be happy to remind you. Again and again.

But anyone who thinks Barack Obama would be winning over the hearts and minds of whites in Iowa, Idaho, Wyoming and Texas by constantly reminding them that he'd be the first black president--in other words, constantly pointing out their differences--has little understanding of the all-too-human fear of the Other.

Race is a tantalizing Achilles heel, and I suspect that Clinton surrogates want to send arrows flying toward that most obvious vulnerability at every chance. It's a great warm-up for the Republicans, since conservatives fear appearing racist if they harp on Obama's race. Luckily for the Republicans, Clinton supporters like Geraldine Ferraro are happy to take up the cause.

Oh yes, Obama's so lucky to be black! Lucky that the specter of violence loomed so large that his Secret Service detail was assigned sooner than any presidential candidate in history? Lucky that even his name subjects him to scorn and fearful ridicule? Lucky that if he allowed his hair to grow out into a 'Fro more like mine rather than his conservatively-cropped hairstyle, a swath of voters might see him with very different eyes?

I don't remember much about the day I heard Geraldine Ferraro speak at my college in 1984, except that it was cold--being from Miami, I remember every day in Evanston as cold.

What I remember best is my pride. My hope. Believing in her helped me believe in me.

Now that same Geraldine Ferraro is trying to use the excitement of Obama's black voters against him, as if the black community's pride and support negate Obama's worth. Just a quick little jab at at the pain. A lot of black voters just never believed a black candidate would have a chance.

To Geraldine Ferraro, apparently, hope is just desperation-time politics.

But not to me. And not to a lot of us who take our ballots seriously.

If I had a time machine, I might go back to the historic day of Geraldine Ferraro's address at my college in 1984 and do what untold numbers of voters of all races will do if race-baiting helps decide the Democratic nomination: Curl up with a blanket and stay home.