The White Populism of Geraldine Ferraro

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Joan Walsh writes a good column on Geraldine Ferraro, but I don't understand the following section. Walsh begins by claiming Ferraro's comments on Obama were indefensible. Then inexplicably marshals a defense:


In her 2009 interview with Traister for "Big Girls Don't Cry," she softened -- a little. "I got tied in by the Obama campaign on being racist, which I probably will go to my grave with and will never get over," she said, with sad prescience. "And I wasn't, obviously. What I said was not racist. If Hillary had drawn black women the way she drew other women, she would have won. Black women had two choices, race or gender. They went with race. As a mother, if I were a black woman, would I rather have my kids see a black get elected president of the United States? I would, quite frankly. I didn't think there was anything wrong with that. So when this [reporter] said to me, 'What do you think is going on, I said, 'It's black voters.'" She went on: "So when I heard this stupid-assed comment by [David Axelrod] who knew me, because I had supported [African American state controller] Carl McCall when he ran for governor ... to call me a racist ... I was like a lunatic." 

As I noted last year when I reviewed David Remnick's great Obama bio, "The Bridge," while Ferraro was pilloried for suggesting Obama's race was a political advantage, inside his campaign, some advisors believed the same thing. Mona Sutphen told Remnick many in the campaign also thought race was helping Obama more than it was hurting. "He is the embodiment of American diversity. In the end, that played really well for him," Sutphen explained. 

Remnick observed that where before the election, campaign pollsters feared a "Bradley effect" -- when whites tell pollsters they'll vote for the black candidate, but don't -- but afterward they discussed a "Palmer effect" or a "Huxtable effect" - the possibility that popular black TV characters like "24's" David Palmer and the whole "Cosby Show" made Obama's race less a disadvantage than an asset for many voters. That's just a long-winded, ruminative set of ways to suggest something like what Ferraro claimed. But putting it in her white ethnic Queens vernacular - "He happens to be very lucky to be where he is" -- gave it the tone of white grievance that made it objectionable. She was right; she sounded "like a lunatic."

Let's begin by noting that every presidential candidate in recent memory has tried to deploy identity in some politically advantageous manner. It is certainly true that Barack Obama attempted to leverage his own identity as a biracial black man in much the same way. It's also true that through most of American history, whiteness was not simply the deployment of political advantage, it was the deployment of decisive political advantage. And yet while you could definitively say of that Roosevelt and Lincoln were "lucky" to be white, your statement would be myopic, and skip over many other attributes, the absence of which kept millions other white people out of the presidency. 

One can't even award that level of "true" myopia to Geraldine Ferraro. As always, the original quote is instructive:

If Jesse Jackson were not black, he wouldn't be in the race.

Oh wait. That's Ferraro in 1988 describing a man fortunate enough to be born in grinding poverty to a 16-year old poor single mother and a deadbeat father. Jackson went on to become a presidential candidate, winning seven primaries, four caucuses and seven million votes, a historic feat made possible, not by skill, hard work or intelligence, but by all the advantages routinely and liberally afforded to black people raised in the Jim Crow South:

Twenty years later Ferraro had matured and endeavored to offer a more nuanced take:

If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. And if he was a woman of color, he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is.

This is not an indelicate rendering of some ruminative, long-winded truth. It does not simply assert, as Sutphen and Remnick did, that Obama's diverse background helped him. It asserts that his skin color imparted a singular, decisive advantage, without which, Obama could not cope with the likes of Hillary Clinton. The necessary implication is bizarre. It holds that the party of Jack Kennedy would never have as its front-runner a handsome, male, Ivy League educated, Illinois senator, who edited the Harvard Law Review, had a picturesque family, and was a rousing speaker, unless he had the obvious, and indisputable advantage of being black.

The implication is bizarre, but familiar. It is the alternative world of white populism, one that Ferraro, tragically, chose to inhabit. The hallmarks are all there. She repeatedly claimed that Axelrod and the Obama campaign had called her "a racist." The charge does not exist in known reality (I have yet to see such a claim attributed), so much as in that parallel universe where whites are always under attack. Ferraro, again:

Since March, when I was accused of being racist for a statement I made about the influence of blacks on Obama's historic campaign, people have been stopping me to express a common sentiment: If you're white you can't open your mouth without being accused of being racist. They see Obama's playing the race card throughout the campaign and no one calling him for it as frightening. They're not upset with Obama because he's black; they're upset because they don't expect to be treated fairly because they're white.

I'm put in the mind of the great Jane Austen, proving that Ferraro's white populism is the manifestation of something all-too human:

The power of disappointing them, it was true, must always be hers. But that was not enough: for when people are determined on a mode of conduct which they know to be wrong, they feel injured by the expectation of anything better from them.

Ferraro is a hero to a generation, and this is as it should be. Full stop.

I was eight when she was nominated for vice-president, and while I could not register the full import of the thing, I understood that the world had somehow opened up, and later, more specifically, that Ferraro, herself, through dint of her own hard work, had opened the world up. 

From Ferraro, from someone who likely been told she was only in the 1984 race because she was a woman, many of us, indeed, expected better. 
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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