The columnist Michael Kinsley once defined a "gaffe" as an occasion when a politician accidentally tells the truth. In our age of political correctness, some would place Geraldine Ferraro's remarks into this category. Long known for speaking candidly, Ferraro recently remarked that "if Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position."
There's a molecule of truth in this. Obama's appeal is that he is an African American who doesn't sound one bit like Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton. Blacks are inspired to see one of their own have a serious shot at the presidency. Whites are relieved that Obama doesn't seem to be motivated by the kind of chronic resentment that seems all too prevalent in black America.
Taken this way, Ferraro is stating the obvious. It's equally obvious, by the way, that if Hillary was male--and not married to Bill Clinton--she wouldn't be in her position. Hillary came to national prominence not through her own efforts but through the success of her husband. Virtually all her "experience" prior to being elected Senator is in fact Bill Clinton's experience. She wouldn't even have been elected to the Senate without Bill. So she too owes a great deal to her gender and her "first wife" position.
In a deeper sense, though, Ferraro's insinuation is completely wrong. In reality Obama's political success is due to far more than race. He brings some unique and very attractive qualities at a time when the country wants and needs them. Obama is a man of unquestionable intelligence and grace, and this is why the affirmative action label seems especially unjust when applied to him.
To me Ferraro's comments illustrate two things. First, they show the depths to which Hillary flacks are willing to go. It's typical of the Hillary camp that a sidekick like Ferraro attempts to plunge the knife into Obama while Hillary feigns ignorance and plays nice. Second, Ferraro's attack illustrates how some prominent liberals deep down think that all blacks are only capable of advancing because they are black.
In a way liberal support for racial preferences can be understood as an attempt to cope with this situation. We often hear liberal activists say, "If it wasn't for affirmative action there would be virtually no blacks in top universities." The implication of course is that blacks on their own merits are incapable of getting into Harvard and Berkeley.
The cruel irony of affirmative action is that it reinforces and strengthens liberal perceptions of black inferiority. Athough Obama seems smart enough to have gotten into Harvard, it's quite possible that affirmative action policies were partly responsible for his admission. Consequently policies of racial preference have the effect of placing an invisible question mark alongside the achievements of all persons of color.
When Clarence Thomas was nominated to the Supreme Court, it wasn't the Ku Klux Klan or the skinheads who said, "He's just there because he's black." It was the liberal Senators and activist groups that said this. Now Ferraro is saying the same thing about Obama.
Obama has so far presented himself as a non-racial, even post-racial, candidate. His reputation as a figure of racial unity has been sullied by his membership in a radical black church where the preacher has been making anti-white diatribes for more than two decades. Obama cannot just say he doesn’t agree. He needs to prove that he can truly help America move toward Martin Luther’s dream of a race-blind society.
What better way to do that than for Obama to say that racial preferences have now served their purpose and that they need to end? Not only would such a step completely destroy the Ferraro allegation that Obama is at bottom a “race man” who seeks to advance himself because of his skin color. In addition, this would be precisely the kind of bold move that would give Obama’s largely rhetorical campaign some real substance. It would take the Hillary forces completely by surprise. And it would win for Obama much-needed moderate and possibly even some Republican support in the general election.
Obama can launch a new national debate in which for the first time African Americans start asking, "Do these policies of racial preferences actually hurt more than they help?" Already in the wake of Ferraro’s insult some blacks are saying, "Maybe it’s time we stopped assuming that liberal Democrats like Ferraro and Hillary are our natural allies."