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."

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.

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."

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.