Ferraro, Limbaugh, and Racial Politics
Geraldine Ferraro has generated an amazing amount of controversy with her remarks that, “If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position.” And, no, it wasn’t for her improper use of the subjunctive but rather because it’s “racist.”
I’d ignored the controversy until now because, well, it’s Geraldine Ferraro. (About whom, incidentally, it could reasonably have been said, when Walter Mondale chose her as his running mate twenty-four years ago, “If she were a man, she would not be in this position.”) I haven’t paid much attention to her since her ticket lost 49 states.
Andrew Sullivan, however, drew an analogy that sparked my interest: Rush Limbaugh’s comments five years ago about Donovan McNabb.
I think what we’ve had here is a little social concern in the NFL. The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well,” Limbaugh said. “There is a little hope invested in McNabb, and he got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he didn’t deserve. The defense carried this team.”
Limbaugh was widely excoriated including, as Sullivan points out, by Wes Clark and several other Democrats running for president at the time. Sullivan asks, reasonably enough, why “Rush Limbaugh [is] now held to a higher standard than Geraldine Ferraro?” I agree that the comments are quite similar. And I’d argue that neither are “racist” in any meaningful sense.
Limbaugh was wrong, I think, about McNabb. He was, by any measure, among the top quarterbacks in the league and was hampered by a sub-par receiving corps. Further, by 2003, there had been so many excellent black QBs (along with plenty of mediocre ones) that the need for a poster boy was gone. It was, however, a discussion that could have been had.
It appears that the legacy of slavery and years of segregation, Jim Crow laws, poll taxes, anti-miscegenation laws, have all worked to propel black men to the Presidency. That is why we have had so many black Presidents. Basically, we have made it too easy for a black man to become President, because they can just glide to the Presidency. Something needs to be done to help the whte man out, since it has been so long since we have had a white President.
But that’s a straw man, if an amusing one. Ferraro’s essentially saying what Joe Biden did with his infamous “first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean” comment. Huge numbers of white Americans very much want to get beyond race and be able to root for a politician of color. Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and others who have presented themselves, though, were threatening. Obama is precisely the opposite; indeed, he’s the most soothing man with a real shot at the presidency that I can remember.
Of course Obama is benefiting from being black (or, more accurately, biracial). Can anyone imagine an unknown white state legislator making his first run for national office being asked to be the keynote speaker for a national political convention? Or being in the lead for his party’s presidential nomination after only three years in the Senate? Really?
That’s not to diminish Obama’s talents. He’s a captivating orator who’s running circles around a candidate who had all the advantages in the world. But much of his appeal is also his back story, which is inseparable from his skin color. Alex Massie has a long, thoughtful post on the matter. This excerpt, though, is particularly salient:
Obama’s candidacy also destroyed much of Clinton’s attractiveness. Yes, selecting a woman would be a historic moment. But selecting a black politician would be even more significant. The idea of a symbolic reconciliation or of some imagined historical make-up call acknowledging America’s original sin even as it sought to move, at long last, beyond it etc etc… all that makes choosing a woman pretty small beer.
[H]e had certain advantages that would have been denied a white, first-term Senator. No-one can feel good about themselves for supporting a wealthy white man, but backing the man who might be the first black President allows folk to praise themselves for their own broad-minded generosity and sense of historical significance.
The mere fact that any allusion to race — or, to some extent, any criticism at all — can and has been painted as “racist” also redounds to Obama’s advantage. Again, this is Geraldine Ferraro we’re talking about here. Do any of her critics really think she’s a racist? Or is this just political opportunism?
Bruce McQuain hopes,
Maybe, finally, we can begin to put all this PC nonsense to bed, recognize that not every reference to race or gender involves racism or sexism. Maybe we can actually have debates and discussions about the reality of statements and opinions vs. marginalizing and muting those who may say something we disagree by using false charges.
Somehow, I doubt it.