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?

Geraldine Ferraro. Click image to expand.
Geraldine Ferraro

There is peculiar bit of jujitsu that white public figures have employed recently whenever they're called to account for saying something stupid about black people. When the hard questions start flying, said figure deflects them by claiming that any critical interrogation is tantamount to calling them a racist, which they most assuredly are not. Last year, Bill O'Reilly took a jaunt up to Harlem's famed Sylvia's and returned with the news that blacks had learned the basics of table manners and developed opposable thumbs. When Media Matters attacked O'Reilly for his voluminous ignorance, he angrily accused his critics of distorting "a positive discussion on race and accusing me of racism."

As Don Imus was being drummed off the air, journalists and Washington oligarchs assembled to assure us all of Imus' decency, pointing to his good deeds on behalf of children with cancer and claiming that despite his penchant for caricaturing black people, he surely was no racist. Michael Richards marred his career by laying into a couple of hecklers with a textbook deluge of hate speech, but what disturbed him most was the fact that someone out there may have inferred that he was, you know, racist. "I'm not a racist," Richards told David Letterman. "That's what's so insane."

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It gives me no joy to report that Geraldine Ferraro has now applied to join the ranks of the obviously nonracist. I was 8 when she ran for vice president and vaguely aware that a party that would promote a woman for an executive office might be a party that would one day give a kid like me a fair shake. Thus I've retched while watching Ferraro beeline to any television studio that would have her, flaunting her rainbow bona fides, and claiming that she's being attacked "because she's white" and demonized as a racist.

"The sad thing is that my comments have been taken so out of context," Ferraro told Diane Sawyer, "and been spun by the Obama campaign as racist."

When the New York Times reached Ferraro at home, having resigned from the Clinton campaign, she doubled down: "If you point to something that deals with race, you're immediately a racist?" When asked whether she was sorry, she responded, "I am sorry that there are people who think I am a racist."

The racist card is textbook strawmanship. As opposed to having to address whether her comments were, as Obama said, "wrongheaded" and "absurd," Ferraro gets to debate something that only she can truly judge—the contents of her heart.

It's a clever and unassailable move: How would you actually prove that Ferraro is definitively a racist? Furthermore, it appeals to our national distaste for whiners. It's irrelevant that the Obama campaign never called Ferraro a racist. It's also irrelevant that Ferraro said the same thing of Jesse Jackson in 1988. And it's especially irrelevant that Ferraro apparently believes that Obama's Ivy League education, his experience as an elected official, and his time of service on the South Side of Chicago pale in comparison with the leg-up he's been given as a black male in America. By positioning herself as a victim of political correctness run amok, Ferraro stakes out the high ground of truth telling.

Ferraro may be the most strident, but she's far from the first to join the rogue's gallery of public figures who have made patently foolish claims about black people, then ducked beneath the shield of nonracism.

Fellow "not a racist" Ron Paul was busted last year when it was found that newsletters bearing his name were filled with hateful invectives directed at blacks. When the news broke, Paul swore that he was no racist and that the writings said nothing about his own beliefs. No matter that the newsletters were titled Ron Paul's Freedom Report, the Ron Paul Political Report,and the Ron Paul Survival Report.

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