For decades, critics of affirmative action on both sides of the aisle have argued that the policy calls into question the talents and qualifications of the minorities who benefit from it. They insisted that it generates a cloud of suspicion around the successful black or Latino student or professional. It makes whites wonder whether their minority colleagues really "earned" their positions.
It turns out those critics are right about the suspicion part. And evidently you don't even have to be an actual beneficiary of affirmative action to be accused of having an unfair advantage. Geraldine Ferraro's remark that "if [Barack] Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position" was not racist per se; it did not presume racial inferiority on the part of any person or group. But it was remarkably arrogant, ignorant and, unfortunately, reflective of an all too common and growing sentiment in the post-Civil Rights era.
In 1999, the Seattle Times commissioned a survey that found 75% of whites agreed with the statement that "unqualified minorities get hired over qualified whites" most or some of the time. Two-thirds felt the same when asked about promotions and college admissions. Whether white disadvantage is real or imagined, the poll showed that a considerable number of whites feel threatened not only by the means of ascent but by minority advancement itself. Clearly, most minorities who advance up the professional ladder are not unqualified. (If you think that last sentence is incorrect, you probably are a true-blue racist.)
But what's most troubling about Ferraro's comment was that she seemed blind to its implications and absurdities. In retrospect, Ferraro's own claim to fame -- being tapped by a white male party "elder" to be the Democrats' vice presidential candidate -- clearly had the whiff of tokenism about it. Unlike Ferraro in 1984, Obama has built his run for high national office over many, many months, from the ground up, raising money and voter awareness on his own. Where then is the affirmative action?
If Ferraro had clarified her remarks (and she had oh so many television minutes last week to do so) -- perhaps explaining that what she meant was that Obama's blackness has played a role in his appeal -- she might have saved her role in the Clinton campaign, but she still would have been only partly right.
Because what's impressive about Obama is not so much his African American identity as the way he wields it. He uses both the language of group pride and national unity. Unlike so many -- often media-created -- black leaders, Obama doesn't use a parochial message of victimhood or the zero-sum logic of "us versus them." Rather than spend a lot of time talking about racism, historical or otherwise, he preaches a form of collective can-doism. He sells himself as a symbol of reconciliation and knows that at this point in history, cries of racism are the quickest way to turn off white voters who are tired of being made to feel guilty for racial injustice.
But, of course, after Obama's campaign rightly complained about Ferraro's rhetoric (calling it "absurd" and "wrongheaded"), the indignant Ferraro inaccurately accused them of accusing her of being a racist. So there you go, despite all his efforts, the lucky-to-be-a-black-male presidential candidate can't escape the stereotype. In the end, she still sought to paint him as that much-maligned "black civil rights leader" who never stops whining about racism: Barack Obama as the Rev. Al Sharpton.
Now, none of this would matter much if these had been the utterances of a small-time Clinton campaign worker. But Ferraro has a legacy in Democratic politics. Her remarks, coupled with those of former President Clinton comparing Obama's win in South Carolina to Jesse Jackson's victory there in 1984, reveal a reckless disregard for blacks in the higher echelons of the Democratic Party. Yes, it'll all be forgotten if Obama wins the nomination. But it'll fester if he doesn't.
Nor should Republicans gloat too much. Ferraro's implicit leveraging of white resentment over affirmative action was essentially an ad-hoc version of Richard Nixon's infamous "Southern strategy."
And what happens if black voters do become disaffected with the Democratic Party? Because the GOP isn't likely to embrace them, those voters would probably abstain from the process. And as even someone with the slightest knowledge of history should know, having large numbers of African Americans feeling alienated from the political system and with no place to turn isn't just bad for blacks but for the entire body politic. Now is as good a time as any for Hillary Clinton's supporters to realize that there are more important things than winning.