Over at Slate, Ta-Nehisi Coates says that Geraldine Ferraro is crying wolf: Nobody has called her a racist. Which, for Coates, is part of the problem, since Ferraro is a racist. Coates provides no argument at all that what she said was racist. Instead she observes that people who say racist things nowadays always say that they’re not racist, which is true but proves nothing, and argues that we shouldn’t set the bar so high that we fail to count genuine instances of racism as such, which is sound but, again, does nothing to help us judge this particular case.
Many have taken Ferraro’s comment that Obama wouldn’t be in his current position (presumably, his position of strength in the Democratic primaries) if he were a white man to be a way of belittling him, which it was: It was an argument that his merits are being overestimated because he is black. But many have taken her also to be saying that all he brings to the race is his race. But what she said does not logically entail the denial that he has any merits. It does not entail, that is, the absurdity that any black person would be doing just as well as Obama. It is also true, for example, that Obama wouldn’t be in this position if Clinton were a more inspiring figure, compelling speaker, or talented campaigner.
That Obama’s blackness had helped him in the campaign seems to me to be undeniable, and some of Ferraro’s critics, such as Joe Klein, concede as much. He understates how much it has helped him, though. As many people have pointed out, there are many similarities between the Obama campaign and the campaigns of George McGovern, Gary Hart, and Bill Bradley. One of the great weaknesses of the McGovern-Hart-Bradley coalition within the Democratic party has been its relative lack of appeal to black voters. It is hard to see a non-black candidate uniting the coalition that Obama has behind him. If he were reduced to just the affluent and the college-educated, without the vast majority of black Democrats, Clinton would be beating him. And he wouldn’t have that huge majority of black voters if his race were different. Does anyone really disagree?
Now having said all of these things, one may legitimately question Ferraro’s purpose in bringing it up. Over the last few months we have seen primaries decided because black voters have favored a black candidate. But we have also seen Mormons back a Mormon, evangelicals back an evangelical, veterans back a veteran, middle-aged white women back a middle-aged white woman, and upper-income Republicans back the richest Republican in the race. It is a little late in the day to complain about the unfairness of it all. And it’s not as though Obama could stop being black to make things fairer.
So Ferraro’s point may not have been worth making. But people are saying that her remarks were “offensive” (Obama aide David Axelrod), that she needs to “apologize . . . and then go away” (Klein), that she’s a racist (Coates)–all because she said something that’s true. I think that the resort to false accusations of racism to shut people up is worth standing up against.