By Joel Wendland
When Geraldine Ferraro made comments about Barack Obama's race just days before the Mississippi primary, it was no slip of the tongue.
Ferraro told a reporter late last week that "If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position," she continued. "And if he was a woman (of any color) he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept."
Taking offense, many people read Ferraro as restating the oft-repeated right-wing claim that leading African American figures are undeserving and rose unfairly through the ranks only through affirmative action.
No expression of Obama's well-organized, inspiring, and substantive campaign. No assertions that perhaps Obama is winning the popular vote among Democratic voters because people across gender, race, and region see him as electable and as an honest, trustworthy leader who will bring real change after 8 years in the Bush desert. Only his race.
Ferraro practically confirmed that she meant to hint at the affirmative action issue when she responded to criticism of her comments by saying that during the nomination process "in 1984 if my name was Gerard Ferraro instead of Geraldine Ferraro, I would have never been chosen as a vice presidential candidate."
But she couldn't let it rest with this offensive sentiment and lashed out at those who sought an apology: "Racism works in two different directions. I really think they're attacking me because I'm white. How's that?" In other words, Black people who didn't like my offensive comment are racist toward me for saying so.
She appeared to project the calculating nature of her comment, its timing and intended purpose onto the motives of the Obama campaign for responding to her remarks. She accused Obama of playing the "race card." "He knows damn well that the best thing to do in a situation like this is to come back and hit with race."
Through it all, the Clinton campaign refused to fire Ferraro, to denounce or reject her comments, only expressing "disagreement."
This type of "wink-wink" response, of course, is no accident either.
The original purpose of the comments was to get a Clinton surrogate to inject race – without substantive discussion about racism and inequality – into the campaign in order to ensure that it was being talked about on March 11th, the day of the Mississippi primary, a state where approximately half of the Democratic voters are African American. (Note that Ferraro's comments were first reported on Mar. 7, one day before the nearly all-white Wyoming caucus, but little discussion took place in the media when Obama claimed an 18-point victory there.)
The point was to give the media the talking points to dismiss the 24-point landslide outcome in Obama's favor in Mississippi without having to have Hillary or Bill Clinton explicitly raise the racist card themselves as they mistakenly did in South Carolina.
This time Ferraro played the role Hillary and Bill Clinton played last time. But as Ferraro expressed in her angry retort about how sexist her detractors are, she thought she would have the added cover of not being Bill.
The remark fits into what increasingly appears to be the long-term campaign narrative of the Clinton folk: Barack Obama is Black and therefore not qualified or electable.
This notion was overtly expressed by Clinton backer Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell in early February, the day after the Super Tuesday losses for the Clinton campaign. He said that he thought Barack Obama would not win in Pennsylvania because he is Black, and voters in his state are racist and won't go for that.
While Rendell and his surrogates described his view as "realistic," when taken with the Clintons' comments in South Carolina and Geraldine Ferraro's statements before Mississippi (in addition to a host of other comments by lesser lights in the Clinton campaign) the racist theme is not just a slip of the tongue by exuberant supporters.
This is what campaign PR people call a "narrative." It gives legitimacy and credence to the right-wing's planned racist attacks on Barack Obama. And it deserves to be exposed and shunned. It has no place in democratic (small "d") politics. And if the Democratic Party doesn't watch out, racist divisiveness will cost them, and the American people, the fall campaign. But then again, one is beginning to wonder if Hillary Clinton really cares about the success of any Democratic campaign in the fall without her.