Sunday, June 1, 2008

RACE AND THE POLITICS OF RESENTMENT

The forever bitter Geraldine Ferraro has done it again. In a Boston Globe op-ed published on Friday, she argues that the Dems should launch an investigation of sexism and racism in the primary campaigns. Maybe this would be useful, but I worry a lot more about the Republicans' anti-women, anti-family policies and the GOP's long and sordid history of race baiting than I do some vile Hillary haters and nasty Obama baiters. But, though Ms. Ferraro couches her argument in the high-minded rhetoric of healing, her piece is really just another chance for her to pontificate on what she thinks is the justifiable "racial resentment" of working-class, white voters.

She writes: "As for Reagan Democrats, how Clinton was treated is not their issue. They are more concerned with how they have been treated. 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. It's not racism that is driving them, it's racial resentment. And that is enforced because they don't believe he understands them and their problems. That when he said in South Carolina after his victory "Our Time Has Come" they believe he is telling them that their time has passed.

Whom he chooses for his vice president makes no difference to them. That he is pro-choice means little. Learning more about his bio doesn't do it. They don't identify with someone who has gone to Columbia and Harvard Law School and is married to a Princeton-Harvard Law graduate. His experience with an educated single mother and being raised by middle class grandparents is not something they can empathize with. They may lack a formal higher education, but they're not stupid. What they're waiting for is assurance that an Obama administration won't leave them behind."

Let's unpack this a bit.

1. "If you're white, you can't open your mouth without being accused of being a racist"? Well, in my experience, it depends on what you say when you open your mouth. In the 1980s, Ferraro argued that the only reason Jesse Jackson was a national candidate was because of his race. In 2008, she made nearly the identical argument regarding Obama. I think it's too much to take these utterances as evidence of Ferraro's racism. We waste too much time fretting about the "hearts and minds" of alleged white racists and not enough time ferreting out real institutionalized, structural racism, in places like the mortgage market, in real estate practices, and in hiring decisions. Compared to these deep-rooted injustices, Ferraro's ill-chosen words are minor.

But did Ferraro inject racial politics into the race in a divisive way? Of course. And she should be criticized for doing that.

2. "Obama's playing the race card..." In fact, what is noteworthy about this campaign is how little Obama has mentioned race, except in the context of calling for unity and the bridging of racial divisions. Stanford Law professor Richard Thompson Ford has written a smart little book, The Race Card, in which he argues against the misuse of charges of racism, which he argues divert attention from the larger issues of deeply entrenched, institutional racism. In my opinion, Obama hasn't spoke enough about deep-rooted racial inequalities in America, probably because of the fear of being branded as a "black" candidate who will pander to the supposed "special interests" of black folks. And Obama has refrained from calling out his critics for being racially insensitive. On the race card, Ferraro really has it wrong. Obama has played his hand close rather than resorting to the race-baiting that Ford so powerfully demolishes in his book.

3. "...as frightening..." I can understand how some white Americans (particularly those who have never set foot in a black church or had anything resembling a meaningful conversation about politics and religion and everyday life with a black person) could find Reverend Wright or Father Pfleger's words frightening.

Ms. Ferraro what, what has Obama said that is the least bit frightening?

4. "They are not upset with Obama because he's black..." I'm afraid, to some extent, this is wishful thinking. I spend a lot of time every summer sitting around the campfire with my Reagan Democrat relatives. Most of them think that Bill Clinton was a far-out socialist. But after a few beers, it's hard for them to contain the barely beneath the surface racial resentments. If I want to rile em up, I just have to evoke the memory of the late Detroit Mayor Coleman Young--the "Coal Man" is the least of the harsh epithets that fly his way.

The sum of anecdote is not data. The statistics on racial inequality are grim. Today, the fifteen most racially segregated metropolitan areas in the US are in the North. It's important to remember that the Rustbelt North has a long and troubled history of racial conflict. Northern whites fought fiercely to keep their neighborhoods racially pure. They picked up and fled when even a few blacks moved in. Segregation prevailed--in movie theaters, amusement parks, and restaurants--well into the 1960s in many parts of the North. This is the world in which I came of age. Things have changed a lot in the last forty years, but there are still deep, deep currents of racism and racial resentment that we can't wish away, and not just in the deep South.

Ms. Ferraro (and other politicians and pundits who opine about race) need to confront the forgotten history of racial inequality in the North and the unfinished struggle against it. To deny the existence of racism does not help.

5. "They don't identify with someone who has gone to Columbia and Harvard Law School..." This is a version of the Obama as out-of-touch elitist argument. Versus what? Wellesley and Yale, the White House and upper, upper class Chappaqua married to a Georgetown and Yale graduate who gets $250,000 a speech? Or a privileged son of military brass who surrounds himself with lobbyists, and is married to a beer-distributor heiress? Or our current president, Yale, Skull and Bones, and Harvard? My parents, who have not voted for a Democrat since 1964, loved that Harvard-educated, Hyannisport sailor, and international jetsetting president elected in 1960. My bus-driving Irish immigrant grandfather and hard-working Irish immigrant grandmother had portraits of the truly elite John and Jackie hanging in their kitchen. It's not the pedigree that should matter. It's the politics.

By playing up the charge that Obama is an elitist, Ferraro is playing into the hands of Republicans who have spent most of the last forty years accusing Democrats of being out-of-touch, even as the GOP pushed through all sorts of policies that benefited the elites and screwed people like my grandparents.

To Ferraro et al: Enough of this politically problematic, historically inaccurate discussion of race and elitism. It's time to focus on the issues.