Geraldine Ferraro wrote a horrible op-ed in the Boston Globe. She says a number of things about the effects of sexism on the Clinton campaign, which I do not propose to consider here. But she also claims that the concerns of Reagan Democrats have not been heard:

“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.”

I’m going to accept Ferraro’s claims about Reagan Democrats for the purposes of this post, not because I believe them to be true, but because I’m interested in the state of mind that would lead her to write this. I’m sure that some such people exist — when Ferraro says that they have stopped her on the street, I have no reason to doubt her. I am also sure that her all Reagan Democrats are not as she describes them, both because no such simple picture could cover such a diverse group of people, and because hers seems to me slanted in some specific ways. But leaving aside the accuracy of her sociology, and focussing on Reagan Democrats as she imagines them:

Reagan Democrats, Ferraro assures us, do not expect to be treated fairly by Obama. Why, exactly, is that? “Because they’re white” isn’t enough of an answer; they have to have some reason to expect that Obama, in particular, will treat whites unfairly. Why might they think this? Ferraro says it’s because they don’t think he understands them or their problems. His positions won’t help here, she says, which is a pity: one of the first places I’d look for reassurance is at a candidate’s positions, and the issues he has made a priority. Neither will his biography: also a pity, since a lot of it consists of sticking up for working men and women. They can’t empathize with his upbringing by middle-class whites, though Ferraro doesn’t tell us why not.

It’s odd that Reagan Democrats, as Ferraro describes them, are so uninterested in a candidate’s history and positions, and so curiously unable to empathize. Still, Ferraro tells us that there is one way to reach them: they are, she says, waiting for an assurance that he won’t leave them behind.

You’d think that this might have done the trick:

“Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience — as far as they’re concerned, no one’s handed them anything, they’ve built it from scratch. They’ve worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.

Like the anger within the black community, these resentments aren’t always expressed in polite company. But they have helped shape the political landscape for at least a generation. Anger over welfare and affirmative action helped forge the Reagan Coalition. Politicians routinely exploited fears of crime for their own electoral ends. Talk show hosts and conservative commentators built entire careers unmasking bogus claims of racism while dismissing legitimate discussions of racial injustice and inequality as mere political correctness or reverse racism.

Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle class squeeze — a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many. And yet, to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns — this too widens the racial divide, and blocks the path to understanding.”

Though Ferraro says that Reagan Democrats want assurance that Obama understands their problems, apparently this isn’t enough. Nor is the fact that Obama has gone out of his way to have an inclusive message, to reach out to all kinds of people, and to try to treat everyone with respect.

But if neither his positions, the things he says, his biography, or quite explicit assurances can reach the Reagan Democrats Ferraro imagines, then what could reach them? Frankly, it’s hard to imagine.

And what is it about Obama that makes it impossible for him to reassure Reagan Democrats, whatever he says, whatever he does, and whatever positions he holds? Ferraro says this: “They don’t identify with someone who has gone to Columbia and Harvard Law School and is married to a Princeton-Harvard Law graduate.” But that can’t be right: surely Reagan Democrats don’t have such a finely-grained view of the distinctions* between Ivy League law schools that while Obama qualifies as an elitist, someone who went to Wellesley and Yale Law School and is married to a Georgetown-Yale Law grad counts as the salt of the earth.

It’s very hard to avoid the conclusion that Obama cannot reach the Reagan Democrats in Geraldine Ferraro’s head, that they don’t think he will treat them fairly or understand them or their problems, because he is black.

Consider this passage from her op-ed: “when he said in South Carolina after his victory “Our Time Has Come” they believe he is telling them that their time has passed.” I went back and looked at Obama’s South Carolina speech. Here’s the only place in which Obama said anything about our time coming:

“Over two weeks ago, we saw the people of Iowa proclaim that our time for change has come. But there were those who doubted this country’s desire for something new – who said Iowa was a fluke not to be repeated again.

Well, tonight, the cynics who believed that what began in the snows of Iowa was just an illusion were told a different story by the good people of South Carolina.”

The “we” whose time for change has come is not blacks, in this speech. It’s all of Obama’s supporters, black and white. (It’s proclaimed by the people of Iowa, for heavens’ sake; not the people of East Saint Louis or Newark.) But for some reason, the Reagan Democrats in Ferraro’s head didn’t hear it that way. When Obama says “we”, he couldn’t possibly mean a “we” that includes them. He couldn’t mean “the people of this country”, or “the people who want change”, or even “my supporters”. They heard him say: our time — blacks’ time — has come. Your time — whites’ time — has passed.

And since that’s just self-evidently not what Obama said, I find it very hard to see how anyone could have interpreted it in that way if race was not already on his or her mind.


I do not, at this juncture, want to get into the question whether or not these Reagan Democrats are racist. For one thing, they exist in Geraldine Ferraro’s head, and there’s a limit to how much we can infer about them. For another, I think that the word “racism” has outlived its usefulness. Ta-Nehisi Coates explains why:

“There is peculiar bit of jujitsu that white public figures have employed recently whenever they’re called to account for saying something stupid about black people. When the hard questions start flying, said figure deflects them by claiming that any critical interrogation is tantamount to calling them a racist, which they most assuredly are not. [There follows a long list of people saying outrageous things and then reacting with horror at the thought that they might be racist.]

All of this leaves me wondering, Who does a guy have to lynch around here to get called a racist? If twice claiming that a presidential candidate is only in the race because he’s black doesn’t make you racist; if shouting, “He’s a nigger! He’s a nigger” from stage doesn’t make you racist; if calling an accomplished black woman “the cleaning lady” doesn’t make you a racist, what does?”

Coates is right: this is just a game. And it’s a game I have no particular interest in playing. If people want to redefine the word “racist” so that only actual slaveholders count, let them. I’m more interested in the “critical reflection” Coates rightly says that the “I’m not a racist” move is designed to shut down; in asking: does race play a role in someone’s thought and action that it ought not to play? rather than in asking: does that role reach whatever bar of horrificness s/he wants to say it would have to meet to qualify as “racist”?

It seems obvious to me that race does play a role that it should not play in the thought and conduct of Ferraro’s imagined Reagan Democrats. It’s not just that they listen to speeches that have nothing to do with race and imagine that they do; that when they hear Obama say things like “our time for change has come”, they assume, on the basis of nothing whatsoever, and in flat contradiction to what Obama is actually talking about, that he is dissing whites. And it’s not just that they find themselves in the peculiar position of thinking that Obama’s Harvard Law degree makes him an elitist with whom they cannot identify, whereas Clinton’s Yale Law degree has no such unfortunate effects. It’s that race makes it impossible for them to seriously consider one of the two candidates for the Presidency of the United States.

This is an incredibly important election. Our country is facing unusually serious challenges. And the choice between the two candidates is unusually stark. Obama and McCain differ on almost everything: the conduct of the war, foreign policy, the economy, health care, the works. This is a choice we should take very seriously, and make on the best possible grounds, after thinking as clearly and carefully as we can.

Ferraro’s imagined Reagan Democrats cannot do that. Whatever Obama says, they will see him through the prism of their fears. There is no assurance he can give them, and nothing he can say that they will not be able to hear as threatening to leave them behind. (Really: anyone who can hear what Obama said in his South Carolina speech as “telling them that their time has passed” can project race onto anything.) There is nothing Obama can say that can reach them. And that is true just because he is black.

As I said, I have precisely no interest in debating whether or not this is racist. Personally, I think it is. But at this point, that question has become a distraction. Whether or not Reagan Democrats, as Ferraro imagines them, qualify as racists is, to my mind, much less important than convincing them that race is playing a role in their decisions that it ought not to play. Because the consequences of their decisions for all of us, black, white, Hispanic, Asian-American, native, whoever, could be enormous.

Ta-Nehisi again:

“Racism has tangible costs for blacks and whites. Deciding your president on something as stupid as race could mean (for instance) that you have less access to health care, that your children work in a stagnating economy, that your neighbors kids will die in a stupid war. Or maybe not. Maybe the white guy is completely right. But if you’re a racist, you will never know.

Let me be utterly candid her and speak for myself. I grew up in de facto segregation. I didn’t have a white classmate until I was in high school. I didn’t have any deep relationships with anyone who wasn’t black until I was in my early 20s. I also had some very retrograde views about gays (I’m probably most ashamed of that). When I started working in Washington, I had some truly beautiful colleagues, many of whom I’m friends with today. But when I started the gig, I wouldn’t hang out with them after work; I thought something might happen if I got drunk around them. That didn’t change until my job hired another brother and he informed me of how ignorant I was. A short time later, I moved to New York, and was shocked to live in a place where the black/white dichotomy didn’t really exist. I mean it’s here, but not in the same way.

My point is this–it’s quite likely that had I not been shaken out of my ignorance, had I not let go of my prejudice, you wouldn’t be reading this right now. It was not simply ethical for me to become a more open person–it was to my advantage. I know that the math isn’t the same for white people, but the point, I think, still stands. Let me end with a nod to America’s greatest past time. The Boston Red Sox were the last team in pro baseball to integrate. And for their belief in the grand purity of the Great White Race, they sacrificed a shot at Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, and probably a World Series or two. White racism rewarded them with decades of heartbreak. Not saying racism was the only factor. But it didn’t help.”

If we elect McCain because a majority of Americans decide, on the merits, that he is the best candidate, well and good. I would disagree, but, well, that happens. But if we elect McCain because some Americans cannot see past race — if we allow ourselves to become the political equivalent of the 1940s-50s Boston Red Sox — that would be a terrible, terrible thing.


* Footnote: this phrasing (“surely Reagan Democrats don’t have such a finely-grained view of the distinctions* between Ivy League law schools …”) deliberately chosen because it does not make any claim about whether it would actually be right to put Harvard Law ahead of Yale; just that it would not make sense to attribute the view that it is, and therefore that Obama is an out of touch elitist while Clinton is not, to Reagan Democrats. I have no view on the comparative merits of Ivy law schools. (Just trying to avoid needless arguments here …)

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