Thursday, March 13, 2008

Obama Lucky To Be Black! A Special Mid-Weed Post

AS SOMEONE WHOSE JOB it is to pay close attention to language, especially heightened language about race, gender, and class, political discourse in the United States over the last ten days has been unusually . . . meaty.

From Samantha Powers' Howard Dean-esque rants about Hillary Clinton to the Elliot Spitzter fiasco to the Geraldine Ferraro footmouth, the follow-up footmouth, and the final footmouth last night on NBC, it's been a rough few days.

The Ferraro's transgressions, however, seem even more disturbing than Spitzer's. His sins remain errors of hubris and desire; they are private. Ms. Ferraro's sins, however, stand as errors of community and common good; they are public. As such, they add to a mounting discourse of reverse racism that perpetuates the misguided notion that ethnicity=identity=accomplishment.

Though she made several observations about Senator Obama's good fortune in regard to his race, this is her most troubling:

If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. 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.

After typing the above quote, I realized I was at a loss of what to write next. I was so baffled by its obtuseness, I had nothing enlightening to say about it. There are so many things wrong with her assertion, it's hard to know where to begin. On one hand, my training as a close reader of texts makes me want to parse each misstep in her statement, pointing out how ill-informed it is. On the other hand, it seems prudent not to endow her observations or her defensive responses with detailed unpacking.

I would say only this: her statement comes in a long, long, long line of seemingly benign observations about race and accomplishment that are neither benign or observant. Her defense was that her words were taken out of context, that she never intended racism; rather she praised the Black community.

In the world of literary studies, this is a classic case of connotative versus denotative meaning. The denotative meaning of a word is its literal dictionary meaning. In a purely denotative world, "that dude is hot" would mean that the dude's body temperature is higher than it should be. Connotation is the cultural associations attached to a word or idea. In our pluralistic, connotative world, "that dude is hot" means that the dude is attractive.

Denotatively, Ms. Ferraro never comes out and says "Senator Obama is less qualified than Senator Clinton, and he only achieved what he achieved (admission to a good college, a law degree from Harvard, good teaching position, state and national congressional seats) because our culture has decided to lower the bar for Black people because Black people are inferior."

Because she never literally said this sentence, Ms. Ferraro claims she was not being racist. But, our culture has a history of coded speech about race; hot button words and phrases that denote one thing and connote another.

One of the many things Obama's candidacy has done is make our vision sharper to better see through such language. No one fell for it, no one bought it, no one believed it.

The great irony of her comments, though, ignores the larger issues of race that are probably, for some, still affecting his candidacy. Sadly, there are some--maybe Ms. Ferraro--who simply will not vote for someone who is Black. In other words, if Mr. Obama were a White man, he may already have the nomination.


  1. Interesting point. I tend to agree with Ferraro's statements because i think that a Black man in the media is much more difficult to criticise - directly. For instance, in the way that Hillary's age was pointed out and even her ability to lead because of Bill.

    In no way am i trying to take away from Obama's skills...well, that is not my intention. So your post certainly makes me think as to WHY i do feel similarly to G.Ferraro.

    Obama has not had an easy road at all. No Black man has an easy road. But the truth is that no MAN has an easy road because of race or religion or anything like that... And it takes HARD work and TALENT to rise above the others similar to you no matter how you are born into this world.

    Thanks for taking on this issue and bringing your light to shine on it.

    Makes me think.

    (Do you think that every race (or other things as well) often blame their race as to why things are harder on them and thus easier on those who are not their race? Doesn't a lot of the fuel for racism come from our perspective of our own difficulties...thus leading us to blame SOMETHING?)

    thank you for your time.

  2. Ms. Ferraro was not necessarily connotatively implying what you suggested. Yes, she was saying that his blackness helps, but that is not to say that it is because we've lowered the bar for black people... and it is certainly not to say that because the bar is lowered, black people are "inferior".

    Eminem got ahead in rap because he's white. Does that mean that affirmative action exists in rap? No. He just used his image to appeal to a broader audience. Just because Obama's blackness may help does not automatically mean that the help comes from affirmative action in politics.

    It comes from a better sold image, one that appeals to people. People are tired of the old white guy.

    Thanks for the post though, interesting to think about.

    To read some hilarious shit, check out my blog at:

  3. Prof. Rader,

    I think it is unfair of you to suggest that Ms. Ferraro would not vote for a black candidate. There is nothing in her comments that suggest that she feels blacks are inferior in any way. Her comments are not about genetic differences in ability, but rather differences in the social obstacles that women and blacks face.

    A black president would go a long way towards healing racial sores; easing white guilt, and showing black people that race is no longer the impediment that it used to be. This would be good for the country in addition to whatever good an Obama presidency would accomplish. And this is certainly part of the reason that he has so much support amongst yuppie, fair-trade coffee drinking, organic food-eating, ultimate frisbee-playing, Prius-driving, college educated types. This class of people also makes up a good chunk of our reporters, and political commentators.

    I think this is one of two points Ferraro is trying to make. The second is that while it is common to assume that blacks and other minorities face unfair obstacles, in fact greater obstacles are faced by women - in the realm of politics. I think a quick look at the kinds of coverage that the two Dem. candidates have received in the MSM would support that: racially themed coverage of Obama has been mostly positive, while gender-focused coverage of Clinton has been mostly negative.

    -diego g.

  4. Really, really provocative comments, here. I will say this, if Ms. Ferraro meant to suggest that the pool of super-talented African American men is smaller than it is for super-talented White men, then I think her comments are fair. By that token, it is, literally *easier* to excel in a small group.

    However, if she's saying that Obama could not have achieved what he's achieved were he White, that is another assertion altogether and has, at its core, assumptions about racial efficacy that are troublesome.

  5. I think the subject of her comments is "society at large", and not any characteristics of african americans (genetic, talent pool-wise, cultural, or otherwise).

    Slate's Judith Shulevitz makes the same point with more tact than Ferraro:

    "Hillary Clinton had had a more horrifyingly personal encounter with sexism in her days as a public figure than Barack Obama has with racism."

    Ferraro is saying that our culture has decided to "lower the bar for Black people", but she is not saying that this is due to any inferiority (she doesn't actually use the words "white guilt" but this is probably what she means). She is also saying that our culture has decided to raise the bar for women, for no reason in particular other than subtle prejudices. Obviously there's other groups that are both higher (white men) and lower (gays, muslims) in the hierarchy of political palatability - but out of the two remaining candidates Obama has faced relatively fewer obstacles.

    btw, I don't actually have anything against people that enjoy frisbee, organic food, etc. That was intended to be a bit of self-effacing humour.

    also, i like your blog. i got here from a link in an article discussing that "stuff white people like" blog.

    -diego g.

  6. Thanks, Diego. I see where you're coming from, and you do have a point. I'm not convinced Obama has suffered *less* than Ferraro or Hillary. I think being a white woman of privlege (though certainly not without its obstacles) may not be as relentlessly challenging as being a black man in America.

    That said, I'm not sure life should be a contest of offenses. On some level, does it matter who has suffered more?

    As for the white folks, I'm glad you found that site and that you like my blog. I actually did a follow-up post about Stuff White People Like. It's the most recent post.

    Take care . . .dr.