NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Geraldine Ferraro, a trailblazer for women as the first woman on a major party national ticket (Walter Mondale’s presidential running mate in 1984), told a California newspaper the following about Senator Barack Obama: “If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position…. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is.”
One hardly knows where to begin in commenting on this infamously insensitive and inaccurate statement. Do I think Geraldine Ferraro is a racist? No, I do not. Do I think she radically underestimates the difficulties that African-Americans, even when highly educated and wealthy, still face every day in our society? Yes, I do.
Otherwise, she would never say what she did — and then be so uncomprehending of why it was offensive to blacks.
First, no one who has lived as a black person in America for even one day would ever equate being black with being “lucky” in the sense that blackness confers preference and societal advantage. I have been educated and sensitized to this through many long discussions with black friends and colleagues over the years. They have made me aware of the many slights and indignities African-Americans face on a weekly, if not daily, basis that most whites never see because the offending whites do not behave the same way around us. For example, an African-American walks into a department store and the white security personnel follow only him or her, not any white shoppers. Or, a black graduate student notices that when he walks alone across a campus parking lot, people in the cars he passes often lock their doors — something they don’t do when he is walking with a white student or students. Or, black men find they are pulled over by police at disproportionate rates, no matter how expensive their automobile — just because they are black. How can anyone call such experiences “lucky?”
One black businesswoman, trying to explain the outrage she felt at Ferraro’s remarks, said, “You’re always dealing with race and how not to make it part of your message and how really to get people to transcend these lines…. That’s what it is to be black. It’s to really hope that people really see you for you.”
Barack Obama has been engaged in a Herculean struggle to transcend race in his presidential campaign and to be judged for who he is as a candidate — to transcend identity politics, of race or gender.
Ferraro’s comments also signal that she may herself be a prisoner of the gender and racial identity politics of her era. Born in 1935, Ferraro seems oblivious to the post-racial culture of those under 35 in America: young people who see much hope in Barack Obama precisely because he is a brilliant candidate for national office who happens to be a black man — not a black man running for president.
Lastly, Ferraro’s comments seem to dismiss Obama as an “affirmative action hire” who is where he is only because he is black. Given the fact that he is one of the most naturally gifted and charismatic politicians to arise in the last 20 years, that is a lot like saying that Tiger Woods is where he is because he is black and that he is “very lucky” to be where he is in the PGA Tour.
Richard Land is president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.