Editorial: How Much Do Race and Gender Matter?

By Becky O'Malley
Friday March 14, 2008

Is it too late to apply a little logic to poor old Gerry Ferraro’s comments about the effect of race and gender on the presidential race? Let’s approach it from the other direction. 

First, would Hillary Rodham even be in the running if she’d never been Mrs. Clinton? Doubtful. The world these days is full of articulate well-educated lawyers who have tired of corporate legal work and are looking for a more satisfying mid-life career. (Been there, done that.) Many of them are women, some are men.  

But only the women have been eligible for the position of a president’s domestic partner, the way things have worked in this country so far. (There’s been mention lately of the only “bachelor” president, James Buchanan, who lived with a male friend most of his life, but let’s not go there right now. Gay rights advocates are probably loathe to claim him because he did such a bad job.) So Hillary Clinton’s claim to have gained relevant experience as the First Lady is only possible because she is a Lady. Gender advantage, in other words. No way Obama could have been First Lady. 

Racial advantage? Well, if Bill had actually been black, instead of just appearing sympathetic to certain aspects of African-American culture, when he was starting out he wouldn’t have been elected governor of Arkansas, his launching pad for eventually attaining the presidency. Period. And he probably wouldn’t have been elected president either.  

And what if his wife had been black? Same analysis, squared, because mixed-race marriages weren’t a political plus back then. In fact, they only became unambiguously legal about six years before Bill and Hillary got hitched. So she pretty much had to have been white to be what she is today, an ex-First Lady and proud of it. 

Time to trot out the old cliché about George W. Bush being born on third base and thinking he’d hit a triple. It’s not clear why former Congresswoman Ferraro and/or the former First Lady and/or her advisors don’t see that Hillary Clinton started out at least on second base heading for third. 

What of it? One more time, folks. This isn’t about which candidate has overcome more disadvantages. Or which one has had more advantages. It’s about which one will do the best job going forward.  

One more time, then, let’s do the math, though it’s been done at least once before in this space. Both are good talkers, not surprising because both were admitted to and actually attended high status law schools. (He was president of his big-time law review, which is major brownie points for those who follow that sort of thing, though most voters don’t.) Both did some public service work. (She did some regular corporate work as well, if that’s something you admire.) Both have had short terms in the U.S. Senate, the only elective office she’s ever held. (He also served in the legislature of a major state.) On the negative side, both have had a few questionable friends over the years. But who in the race hasn’t? (Though some would say that she is married to one of them.)  

In this kind of calculation the resumes are pretty much a wash. She’s older, he’s younger. What should that count, if anything? It will count, you can be sure, just as it will count that John McCain is older than either of them. But how much will it count? 

Black friends have suggested that Ferraro was a calculated sacrificial surrogate, tasked with raising the racial question, as she did at least three times, and then exiting. But very few voters don’t know already, without Gerry Ferraro spelling it out for them, that Barack Obama is African-American, and most even know that he’s African-European-American. The kind of people who wouldn’t vote for him because of his racial heritage surely had already made up their minds before Ferraro spoke up. 

Here’s where it could get Byzantine. Maybe Gerry’s a closet Obama fan, doing what she’s done to make Hillary look bad. No, that’s just too weird.  

But if you don’t think that’s what’s happened anyhow, check out Keith Olbermann’s outraged commentary, archived at crooksandliars.com. It’s directly squarely at Senator Clinton, imploring her to “reject AND denounce” any of her so-called friends like Ferraro who are injecting racial innuendo into the contest. She hasn’t done it yet. So she looks bad. 

The business about African-Americans only getting wherever they’ve gotten to because of their race is a persistent and pernicious myth that will be with us for at least one more generation. It’s inevitably raised by those who are sure for some reason that they deserve a better position in the world than they’ve been able to attain on their own.  

Whatever happened, for example, to Allan Bakke, who carried his quest for a place at the bottom of the admissions list at Davis all the way to the Supreme Court? He was last heard from practicing anesthesiology in Minnesota, a respectable career but not a distinguished one. It obviously wasn’t the fault of his black competitors that he didn’t make the cut in the first round, but he had trouble believing that, and the court went along with him. 

It makes much more sense to say that there are still many reasons for failure in this country that are outside the individual’s control, but you have to achieve success on your own. Insofar as poverty and the unstable family life which often results from it have affected some groups, racial and/or cultural, more than others, there are explanations for not getting ahead. If your parents or grandparents lived a segregated life, that’s another disadvantage. And if your grandfather or great-grandfather was also a slave, that’s even more of a problem.  

But Barack Obama didn’t have most of these handicaps in his background. He does have whatever advantage or disadvantage might accrue to having a dark skin, but that’s mighty hard to quantify. His successes, however, are his own, or at least they’re mostly his own. To discount his having a mother and grandparents devoted to helping him succeed would of course be a mistake.  

There’s a sense in which Gerry Ferraro’s comments can be parsed as relevant if illogical. There are vast numbers of Americans today, black, white and in-between, who are eager to put this country’s racist past behind us. Such people take a certain pleasure in seeing any African-American advance to a position of prominence, even the likes of Condoleeza Rice, Colin Powell or Clarence Thomas. But very few of them are so foolish as to promote any of those three or any other unqualified black person for any important job. Racial goodwill does not equate to fecklessness—most of those who prefer Obama to Clinton are doing it for all the right reasons. And the same analysis applies to those who favor Clinton—they would like to see a woman as president, and why not Hillary? But it also applies to those who are now reluctantly rejecting her because of her unfortunate choice of associates. It’s painful to watch a plausible candidate shoot herself in the foot.