About a month ago, I wrote a blog called “The Necessity of Obama,” in which I warned of the imminent appeals to racism sure to emerge once Barack Obama had the Democratic nomination, and the Republicans launched their slime machine. It turns out I was optimistic. The appeal to racism, somewhat covert in the Clinton’s initial slanders, has already gone overt—this time in the person of former vice-presidential candidate, Geraldine Ferraro. Last week Ferraro opined in an interview with the Torrance Daily Breeze that “If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position..” She expanded on this a couple of times, and then in the subsequent storm, resigned from Hillary’s campaign. The damage, of course, had already been done. Whites, especially white males, especially white working class males reminded of their grievances over affirmative action, have been switching their allegiance in droves. Some have gone to Clinton. Some have already expressed a preference for Republican nominee John McCain. If there is a nightmare for Democrats in the 2008 presidential election, this is it.
For me, the nightmare is doubly troubling. Geraldine Ferraro was a watershed candidate. Not only was she the first woman to have a run at the White House, she was the first Italian American to achieve that kind of prominence. A working class gal from Queens, a former teacher who rose to the halls of Congress, and then to the national ticket for President—this was the American dream made real, the antidote to the common stereotype of Italian Americans as bozos, criminals, prototypical working-class racists. Now, with one remark, she has reactivated all the stereotypes. Sadly, she has probably garnered a lot of sympathy as well. A woman unfairly targeted. A white woman only calling attention to the unfairness of affirmative action.
Sadder still is the dispiriting spectacle of a once-admired woman sinking to gutter level in an effort to help her “sister.” And the conjoined spectacle of the Clintons, once also admirable for their brilliance, their apparent zeal for reform, consistently demonstrating that to win, they have no qualms about sinking to the very same level.
And the saddest thing of all: America running true to form. A brilliant, charismatic black man is running for president, generating enormous energy and enthusiasm unseen in several generations. But the politicians, even those in his own party, cannot seem to bear it; cannot seem to bear losing, for one, but also cannot seem to bear forgoing the opportunity to appeal to racist fears. And so the fear machine has been rolled out, the race machine has been activated, and Obama and his campaign have been forced on the defensive. All the while the pundits, sensing blood in the water, have flocked to the controversy, and magnified it.
No one knows how this will eventually play out. But given this nation’s history, given its enduring commitment to the suppression of every aspiration entertained by its former slaves, the signs are not good. We can say “Ciao” to Geraldine Ferraro. The question is, will we ever ever be able to say “Ciao” to racism?