Saturday, March 26, 2011

Boy, Did Shakespeare Get It Wrong

… Or, maybe more accurately, Mark Antony got it wrong in Julius Caesar when he said that bit about how the evil that people do lives after them, while the good is interred with their bones.

Take, for example, the apparent liberal hagiography/amnesia on the untimely death of Geraldine Ferraro, the 1984 Democratic Vice Presidential nominee – the first woman selected to run on a major party’s ticket, which was, without question, an event of major historical significance. Don’t get me wrong; I very much appreciate what a big deal that was. The 1984 election was only the second presidential election I was able to vote in, and I, like many wide-eyed young liberals at the time, was enormously proud of my party for taking such a (an?) historical step. And Ferraro seemed like a genuinely likable candidate: She was well experienced and smart, and, best of all, took no grief from anybody. That combination of competence and toughness went a long way to shatter the prevailing gender stereotypes of the day, and for that Geraldine Ferraro deserves much credit.

Unlike a lot of other equally qualified and likeable women in politics, however, Geraldine Ferraro had a fairly glaring character flaw: She was a racist.

Recall Ferraro’s infamous attack on then-candidate Obama when she (repeatedly) said: “[I]f Barack Obama were a white man, would we be talking about this as a potential real problem for Hillary?” As discomforting as that was, a lot of liberals struggled to defend her against claims of racism at the time. As Ta-Nahesi Coates observed:

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. …

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.”

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.

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.”

Okay, actually the more I read about Ferraro’s anti-Obama slur, the less forgiving I become. And it’s all the more alarming when you consider that this wasn’t the first time Geraldine Ferraro channeled her Inner Pat Buchanan. From Ben Smith at Politico:

“If Jesse Jackson were not black, he wouldn’t be in the race,” [Ferraro] said.

Really. The cite is an April 15, 1988 Washington Post story (byline: Howard Kurtz), available only on Nexis.

However, judging by my Twitter stream earlier today it seems as though all is not only forgiven, but forgotten. I’m not going to call out anyone in particular, because most of what I saw came from genuine friends of mine whose views I respect. But in tweet after tweet after tweet, I saw glowing comments about what a brave soul Geraldine Ferraro was, how she was a dedicated public servant, how she was a martyr for women everywhere … and on an on. For the most part, without a word about her disturbing racist past.

I don’t get it. Yes, she was a figure of tremendous historical importance. So was Henry Ford, but we don’t forget about his anti-Semitism. So please don’t ask me to forget about Ferraro’s racism.

And this isn’t about picking race over gender; it’s not about saying racism is a worse sin than sexism – but it shouldn’t be about saying the reverse, either. If you lionize Geraldine Ferraro while brushing off her racism, that’s really what you’re doing: You’re saying her overcoming sexism is somehow more important than her practicing racism. My question is, why should we have to choose between fighting one or the other? There have been plenty of genuinely qualified non-racist women in both major political parties whom we can and should admire; I’m just not inclined to admire a racist who happened to be a woman of historical significance.

Sorry if that offends, but that’s the honest truth.

© 2011 David P. von Ebers. All rights reserved.


  1. Joanie in MiddleMassMarch 26, 2011 at 2:21 PM

    Thanks for reminding me why I had a visceral and negative reaction to the woman, dating from the Hillary campaign, and no warm fuzziness at the news of her death.

  2. While her comments were racial, and perhaps even racist, I'm not sure they are sufficient to show SHE was a racist, someone that shapes theirs views primarily on race. All humans, certainly all Americans are influenced by race, and openly acknowledging that does not make you a racist.

    Just as it would have been unlikely for a white male congressman from a solid blue state to picked for the Dem VP slot in 84, it would be unlikely that a freshman white male Senator would get the Presidential nomination in 2008, or the a white minister who had not previously held any government position would be running in 2nd place in 1988. The American people felt a justifiable pride in getting these three Americans into those positions in part because of their demographics.

    I do think her reactions after being called on it did her no favors, but I am still not convinced they prove her to be a racist.