Ferraro's comments about Obama were racist. Why can't we say that?

The conventional wisdom debunked.
March 14 2008 12:11 PM

Playing the Racist Card

Ferraro's comments about Obama were racist. Why can't we say that?

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James Watson not only  claimed that blacks had lower IQs than whites but scoffed at any notion of intellectual parity because "people who have to deal with black employees find this not to be true." It's true that Watson caught his share of criticism, but in its wake came a parade of defenders insisting that Watson was not a racist but a dogged, persecuted speaker of truth.

Implicit to the racist card is the idea that no racists actually live among us. After reality TV star Duane "Dog" Chapman was taped by one of his sons dropping n-bombs, a more loyal son insisted, "My dad is not a racist man. If he was he would have no hair. He'd have swastikas on his body and he would go around talking about Hitler. That's what a racist is to me."

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The idea that America has lots of racism but few actual racists is not a new one. Philip Dray titled his seminal history of lynching At the Hands of Persons Unknown because most "investigations" of lynchings in the South turned up no actual lynchers. Both David Duke and George Wallace insisted that they weren't racists. That's because in the popular vocabulary, the racist is not so much an actual person but a monster, an outcast thug who leads the lynch mob and keeps Mein Kampf in his back pocket.

The bar for racism has been raised so high that one need be a card-carrying member of the Nazi Party to qualify. Had John McCain said that Hillary Clinton was only competitive in the presidential race because she was a woman, there'd be no dispute over whether the comment was sexist. And yet when the equivalent is said about a black person, it's not only not racist, but any criticism of the statement is interpreted as an act of character assassination. "If anybody is going to apologize," Ferraro told MSNBC, "they should apologize to me for calling me a racist."

In some measure, the narrowing of racism is an unfortunate relic of the civil rights movement, when activists got mileage out of dehumanizing racists and portraying them as ultra-violent Southern troglodytes. Whites may have been horrified by the fire hoses and police dogs turned on children, but they could rest easy knowing that neither they nor anyone they'd ever met would do such a thing. But most racism—indeed, the worst racism—is quaint and banal. There's nothing sensationalistic about redlining or job discrimination. No archival newsreel can capture what it means to be viewed as a person who, minus the beneficence of well-meaning whites, simply can't compete.

All of this leaves me wondering, Who does a guy have to lynch around here to get called a racist? If twice claiming that a presidential candidate is only in the race because he's black doesn't make you racist; if shouting, "He's a nigger! He's a nigger" from stage doesn't make you racist; if calling an accomplished black woman "the cleaning lady" doesn't make you a racist, what does?

What is clear, however, is that black people are buckling under the weight of all this nonracism, and I'm sure, if he could, the junior senator from Illinois would gladly return all of the "favors" he's gotten for being a black man named Barack Hussein Obama.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a senior editor for The Atlantic. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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