Thursday, 20 March 2008

Race Makes People Pre-occupied : Ferraro on Obama

Peter over at Injury, has written a very thoughtful piece that challenges the claim that Ferraro’s remarks about Obama are racist. The statement under dispute is as follows:
If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. And if he was a woman, 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. (taken from Daily Breeze Interview)
As I understand him, Peter maintains that it should be “obvious” (perhaps with the implied qualification, “for any unbiased observer”) that Ferraro’s comments should not be interpreted as racist. Given the tongue in cheek title of his post, “Race Makes People Insane: Ferraro and Obama”, I take the implication to be that those who interpret Ferraro’s comments otherwise are of questionable mental health (but only in jest of course). My own contention is that another interpretation of Ferraro’s comments is available to rationally competent individuals, so that someone who interprets Ferraro’s comments less charitably than he does may nevertheless continue to class themselves among the ranks of the sane.

To begin with, it should be noted that this is not the first time that Ferraro has made a statement like the one she made about Obama. In the April 15, 1988 issue of the Washington Post she made similar statements about Jesse Jackson when he was running for president. Whether her accusation is accurate or not (in either the Obama or Jesse Jackson case) is not is not a question I will take up here since it implicates a number of counterfactuals that I personally lack the power to assess. However, I think the fact that this was a “repeat offence” on Ferraro’s part casts matters in a slightly different light. Far from an “off the cuff remark” (as Peter suggests), I believe it points towards something more perennial (if not calculated). (It should also be noted that the statement about Obama was repeated on at least three separated occasions and then unapologetically defended on two subsequent occasions. (See here for the most recent discussion of Ferraro's statements)

I believe the similarity between Ferraro’s 1988 and 2008 comments is revealing. Any unprejudiced mind (no pun intended) can clearly see that Barack Obama is no Jesse Jackson. The fact that she would use almost the exact same words to describe them both, I believe, hints at the fact that she sees their shared race as somehow overshadowing their many fundamental differences. I think this is unfortunate and reflects a widespread tendency, in the United States, to see race as the primary defining characteristic of any individual that happens to be a member of a racial minority. (This is a claim I will develop further below.)

Ten days after the Daily Breeze interview, Ferraro told a FOX News interviewer:
I got up and the question was asked, 'Why do you think Barack Obama is in the place he is today’ as the party's delegate front-runner? I said in large measure, because he is black. I said, Let me also say in 1984 -- and if I have said it once, I have said it 20, 60, 100 times -- in 1984, if my name was Gerard Ferraro instead of Geraldine Ferraro, I would never have been the nominee for vice president.
Peter sees Ferraro, in the above quote, as merely “reiterating the fact that Obama’s race is a net political asset in the democratic primary.” While this may be true, I am of the opinion that there is something more insidious at work here. Ferraro’s comparison between her (self-professed) gender based vice-presidential appointment and Obama’s delegate lead in the democratic primary, presupposes that the two cases are in some way analogous. But it is not at all clear why anyone would think that they are. Ferraro was selected by Walter Mondale to be his vice-presidential running mate (presumably because having a female running-mate would draw attention to his campaign). Obama chose, we can assume of his own free accord, to run for the office of president of the United States. He was not recruited to be vice-presidential running mate by some other candidate who desired to exploit Obama’s race to get media attention. These strike me as very different scenarios.

Now, Ferraro’s point most certainly could not be that Obama chose to be black in an attempt to garner media attention. But perhaps her point is that Obama is exploiting the fact that he is black in order to get ahead in the polls. But one would need to present some evidence in support of such a claim. Ferraro has given us none. Moreover, only a momentary reflection on the course and spirit of Obama’s campaign would reveal that the claim is (on the whole) preposterous. (In fact, it is Obama’s opponents, rather than Obama or his campaign, that have been most keen on emphasising the issue of race.) So what makes the Ferraro and Obama case analogous does not seem to have to do with the overt exploitation of a social category for political gain. While such may be an accurate description of what went on in the former case (if we take Ferraro’s claim seriously) it does not seem true in the latter. So why think the two cases analogous? I will return to this question shortly. But first, a not-so-brief caveat.

Going into the primary, Hillary Clinton was a household name. Barack Obama was anything but. At the risk of understatement, he had an uphill battle against Senator Clinton. But he has consistently demonstrated that his campaign is better organised, able to raise more money, and inspire more enthusiasm and support from a wider cross-section of the American population than that of the seasoned veteran he has been up against. I must confess that I find it more than a little curious that the one candidate who everyone labels as politically inexperienced is the one candidate who has demonstrated the best organisational skill, leadership, and judgement in the execution of his campaign. Hillary has not only been in Washington much longer (as she often emphasises), but she also began with an obvious advantage due to her greater name-recognition. Yet her campaign has been characterised by one blunder after another, which has facilitated her fall from the privileged “shoe-in” position she initially held.

One suspects that Obama’s comparative success is due (in part) to the fact that, unlike many presently in politics who grew up believing that positions of power were their birthright, he did not enter into the race with a feeling of entitlement. He understood that only hard work, careful planning, and perspicuous decision making would yield the desired results. Pace what the cynics may say, a black man does not achieve what Obama has already achieved (no, not in this country) if all he has is “talk”. Anyone daft enough to think this even a possibility is sadly nescient about what it means to be black in America. (Incidentally, I do not believe Senator Clinton really believes Obama is all talk but the idea is undeniably a politically useful one.) Can you imagine if Obama ran this country as well as he has run his campaign? We have no reason to think he wouldn’t, and it would certainly be a marked improvement over what we have seen over the last seven years.

Senator Clinton, on the other hand, is the one who supposedly has the wealth of political experience, and yet she was the one who had to loan money from her own pocket to keep her campaign afloat. How could this be anything but evidence of poor planning on her part? Given the advantage with which she began, had she demonstrated prudence and organisational skill equal to that of Obama, then he certainly would not be where he now is (a point Ferraro seems to have overlooked). Pace what the Senator Clinton camp may say, I submit that the mark of a great leader is not experience but effectiveness. Thus, a much more apt diagnosis of why Obama has been so successful is his superior management of his campaign vis-à-vis Senator Clinton’s.

So I ask once again, wherein lies this alleged analogy between Obama and Ferraro? What comparable feats did Ferraro accomplish by being selected as Mondale’s vice-presidential running mate? My contention is that the comparison is not an apt one and we need to ask why anyone would think it is. But again, another not-so-brief caveat:

Peter also points out that “even those who are denouncing Ferraro for racism admit that many blacks are voting for him [Obama] because he is black”. While true, I believe his observation overlooks important subtleties in the support Obama has received from the African American community. At the beginning of the presidential race the vast majority of blacks supported Clinton. Now, there are many reasons for this, a few of which are insidious. Among them (the insidious ones, that is) is the fact that the vast majority of blacks did not take Obama seriously as a candidate because they did not think he was electable. The prevailing sentiment among African Americans was that white people would never vote for a black candidate, and the unsuccessful bids of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton was often cited as evidence to this end. Blacks were not going to vote for Obama because they thought in so doing they would have been throwing their votes away. (I am not suggesting that this is true, but this is what most members of the African American community believed.)

What convinced blacks to beginning supporting Obama was that he demonstrated that he was electable. How? Well, by securing the support of whites. I submit to you, and this is a claim that few in the media seem to appreciate, that blacks only began rallying behind Obama in record numbers when he demonstrated that he could win white votes. Thus, to say that Obama’s success is due to the fact that he has overwhelming black support grossly oversimplifies matters. (Interestingly, the only other candidate that gained anywhere near the overwhelmingly high percentage of black votes that Obama has was Bill Clinton).

End of digression, and back to main point at hand. My point, then, is that there are several things Ferraro could have described as salient vis-à-vis the effectiveness of Obama’s campaign. Ferraro could have said that if Obama wasn’t as good an organiser as he is, he would never be where he is. But she did not say that. She could have said that if it wasn’t for the fact that Obama was able to win so many cross-over voters and independents, he would not be where he is. But she did not say that. She could have said that if he believed that the presidency was something he was entitled to rather than something he had to work for, he would never be where he is. But she did not say that. She could have said that if he had not consistently raised more money than every other candidate since January, he would not be where he is. But she did not say that. She could have even said that if it wasn’t for the fact that Obama, unlike many black candidates before him, demonstrated that he could win white votes (allowing blacks to feel they could support him without throwing away their votes) he would not be where he is today. But she did not say that. Any of the above factors strike me as far more salient vis-à-vis the success of Obama’s campaign. (Indeed, many blacks ran for office before Obama, but the pigmentation of their skin did not automatically secure for them the successes Obama has had in the democratic primary.) But Ferraro did not mention any of these things. What she took to be most salient, and what she knew that American public would regard as most salient once the idea was touted, was the fact that he was black. And the question I pose to you is, why?

Now, I am not so daft as not to notice that there is an obvious answer to my question. Of course, being a Senator Clinton supporter, she would not want to say something complimentary about Obama. But again, one must look deeper. She didn’t have to say anything at all about why he has done so well in the primaries. Certainly she is aware that with regards to one’s political opponents, the rule is if you don’t have anything bad to say, then don’t say anything at all. But she did have something to say. And like a true follower of the “political golden rule” she made it critical (and even hurtful). Contra your suggestion, I believe Ferraro’s comment was anything but a “positive racial message”. (Incidentally, most blacks I know are quite capable of distinguishing between being complimented and being patronised.)

Peter points out that Ferraro’s statement is probably true. But that’s all beside the point, and the fact that he fails to recognise this is what accounts for Peter’s rather benign interpretation of Ferraro’s comments. The question underlying the interpretation of Ferraro I have been advocating is this: why is the content of her statement perceived as salient? It is true that if Beethoven had never lived, he wouldn’t have been a great composer. But certainly, having lived is not a salient feature of Beethoven’s being a great composer. (Just consider the many others who have lived, and yet did not turn out to be great composers.) The point ought to generalise to the present case. But what racism does, at its most insidious level (the level that the American psyche—so preoccupied with the N-word, burning crosses and white hoods—never seems to appreciate), is that it warps peoples conception of what is salient, so that skin-colour trumps everything else. This, I submit, is the tendency that Ferraro has fallen victim to, and this is what makes her comments problematic, even lamentable.

In conclusion, even if one remains un-persuaded by my assessment of Ferraro’s remarks, I hope I have at least demonstrated that things are not as clear cut as Peter paints them, and that people whose interpretation of Ferraro differs from his are not suffering from some kind of mental deficiency or (worst) insanity.


Aaron Bogart said...

Hi Avery,

Interesting post (as ever), and I couldn't agree with you more. In America, as in many places, ethnicity has become the little shard of a mirror that one thinks reflects the whole. BTW: Your main point (I think) is similar to what Appiah says in "The Ethics of Identity". Have you read it? If not, I highly recommend it.

Hope all is well -


Hi Aaron,
I haven't read the Appiah piece but it sounds like something I should check out. Thanks for the heads up.