Geraldine Ferraro’s Racism (unabridged version)

Geraldine Ferraro’s recent comments about Barack Obama underscore just how far we haven’t come in America in understanding issues of race and gender. Ferraro said:

“If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. And if he was a woman of any color he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept.”

Ferraro’s inference is quite clear: that sexism is a bigger problem in America than racism, and that as a Black man Obama “has it easier” than Hillary Clinton because racism is not quite as oppressive, fundamental, and entrenched in society as sexism. Ferraro is not alone in making this claim. These sorts of statements have been made recently by other white feminists such as Gloria Steinem, generally arguing that media coverage is biased in favor of Barack Obama and against Hillary Clinton, and that this is evidence of the primacy of sexism over other “isms.”

Feminists who are making these statements are rehashing the same tired, clichéd arguments that alienated working-class and racial minority women from the feminist movement back in the 1970s and 1980s. The debates over whether gender is more of an oppressive factor than race are self-defeating and miss the point. Privileged white women can be, and are, disadvantaged by virtue of being women in a patriarchal society. Simultaneously, they are also advantaged by virtue of being white in a racist society and because they are wealthy in a capitalist society. Attempting to pit gender against race sets up a false dichotomy between the two, and it draws attention away from the interlocking systems of inequality that exist in this country. Simplistically declaring that “sexism is worse than racism” obscures the way the two systems exist together in an interlocking, complementary fashion. And since both sexism and racism utilize the same basic tools—domination of others, oppression, stereotypes to legitimize unequal opportunity—feminists and other activists would all be better served by eradicating all forms of structural inequality rather than futilely attempting to rank them.

You would think Ferraro would know this. She’s no stranger to feminism and ought to be well aware of the numerous critiques that mainstream, liberal feminism undermines its cause when the attempt is made to address sexism without simultaneously denouncing—and working to end–racism, capitalism and heterosexism.

[edited at 1:42pmEST to add:] Making the case that sexism is worse than racism or even that it is the primary source of women’s oppression ignores the experiences of minority and working-class women (who simultaneously contend with racism and capitalist exploitation) and ultimately alienates these women from feminism and feminist causes. Ferraro’s statement that if “he were a woman of any color he wouldn’t be in this position” does not demonstrate an awareness of the particular challenges faced by minority women; in fact, it smacks of tokenistic attempts made by privileged white women to invite minority women to join “their” movement. Were Ferraro truly attentive to the ways racism and sexism doubly disadvantage minority women, she would recognize that suggesting that they can be hierarchically ranked marginalizes minority women’s experiences and continues to distance them from feminism by reinforcing the (erroneous) idea that feminism isn’t for them.

Further, Ferraro’s ludicrous response that “she is being attacked because she’s white,” demonstrates how completely out of touch she is with the racial realities of America as well as her unwillingness to come to grips with white privilege. She is quoted by a local reporter in Torrance, California (and later reported by CNN) saying:

“Any time anybody does anything that in any way pulls this campaign down and says, ‘Let’s address reality and the problems we’re facing in this world,’ you’re accused of being racist, so you have to shut up. Racism works in two different directions. I really think they’re attacking me because I’m white. How’s that?”

Contrary to Ferraro’s ridiculous claims, racism does not work in two different directions. Whites, as a group, are advantaged by virtue of racial privilege that affords them unjust enrichment in terms of housing, health, education, political power and representation, legal treatment, and many other areas that have been documented by a plethora of sociologists and other researchers. For racism to work both ways, racial minorities, at minimum, would have to be in the position of enjoying the accumulation of centuries of advantage in these areas, and they would enjoy these advantages as a consequence of centuries-old, institutionalized policies that deny the same opportunity to whites. Racism does not work both ways because Geraldine Ferraro gets criticized for minimizing its existence.

Geraldine Ferraro and many other women who make claims similar to hers have been involved with the feminist movement for longer than I’ve been alive. But it’s really sobering to realize that despite their lengthy commitment to the movement, they still haven’t learned that it can’t succeed when they deny their own racial privilege and narcissistically attempt to tailor feminist messages, rhetoric, and ideals only to their own experiences.


  1. mgs

    I agree with all of this. I would also argue that Obama’s popularity is predominantly due to the fact that he is a singularly inspirational and persuasive speaker. I think even opponents would have to admit that he is where he is because of his talent, not his race or gender.

  2. anonymous

    Adia Harvey’s inference–that Ferraro’s comments imply that she (Ferraro) thinks that “that sexism is a bigger problem in America than racism, and that as a Black man Obama “has it easier” than Hillary Clinton because racism is not quite as oppressive, fundamental, and entrenched in society as sexism”–is invalid. They imply merely that she thinks that, when it comes to presidential races, being female is a bigger obstacle than being Black (or, more accurately, bi-racial). (I take her phrase “in this position” to mean “in the position of being preferred as the Democratic nominee for president.”)

  3. Joe

    Sadly, Ferraro made clear that she is clueless about the systemic reality of racism in her follow-up comment about two racisms. “Racism” was coined in its modern sense by Magnus Hirschfeld in the 1930s to mean institutionalized and systemic racism, like in Nazi Germany against Jewish Germans. Here for Ferraro, as for most whites, it means criticism of or negative views of whites. This is a serious weakening of the concept, and shows that a privileged white woman does not understand the daily death-threatening reality of being a black man of any class today in the US. Whites of both genders need some education on contemporary racism…..Harvey is right on target here.

  4. I agree with everything that Dr. Harvey has stated in her post. I also think that this is widely public event provides an opportunity for individuals whether faculty, students, or non-academics to witness the lack of a critical lens we have on issues of race, class, and gender. Witnessing this event alone will not enlighten, but rather a critical analysis in our classrooms of this and other racial events. Our critical lens has been fogged over by a detrimental socialization process that is compounded our parents, but especially the school system at all levels. I am not surprised that such a thing was said by an educated person. Such statements are said on campuses and in the public (frontstage and backstage) all the time. Assuming nothing will change at home, it appears to be up educators to fight for social justice and any divergent process of socialization.

  5. bev

    I am new to posting on this blog, but have been reading it for a while. Thank you for posting on this! You speak truth and it isn’t shocking that Ferraro said what she said but I still can’t help but be saddened. Also, the way the Clinton-camp immediatly responded to the comments further demonstrated the cluelessness, or denial rather, of the white majority in power, male or female. Thank you again!

  6. mgs

    It looks like I cosigned a little too early. I just don’t understand why people would attack capitalism in the same sentence with racism and heterosexism. You unnecessarily turn off a large portion of intelligent people with this kind of rhetoric.

    Also, racism is only unidirectional from white to everyone else? Under your definition, is it possible to be racist against Jews or Asians in America? They certainly aren’t underprivileged in education, legal treatment, etc. This seems like a semantic attempt to avoid talking about bidirectional prejudice.

    Any open conversation about race is impossible if you won’t face an argument head on. Whites are privileged in America. We are given systematic advantage. But there is atleast one area in which we are disadvantaged: we cannot talk openly about race and receive the same treatment as other racial groups. Atleast that is the argument.

  7. adia

    msg: I have no problem whatsoever facing any argument head-on and am happy to clarify any points that you misunderstood or were unclear to you. According to my definition of racism (which is not mine alone but shared by other social scientists–see Feagin and Vera (1996), Gallagher (1999), Hacker(2003) and Bonilla-Silva (2001)), Asian Americans and other racial minority groups definitely encounter racism in America. While Asians aren’t underprivileged in terms of education if we measure it only by educational attainment, they still are disadvantaged in the labor market in terms of returns on education, and in the educational arena itself with regards to teachers’ expectations. See Stacy Lee’s (1996) excellent work in this area, as well as that of legal scholar Frank Wu (2003) for empirical research that documents this. I would agree with you completely that bidirectional prejudice exists, but there is a vast difference between bidirectional prejudice and bidirectional systemic racism, which does not exist in the US for the reasons I stated in my second to last paragraph. I also get the sense, perhaps mistakenly, that you are interpreting my latent critique of capitalism as some sort of secret pro-socialist agenda, which is not what I am communicating. But capitalism as it is practiced in the US intersects with systems of racism and sexism in ways that facilitate unequal opportunties for minorities/women (see Feagin 2000, Marable 1983). Thus, feminist arguments and platforms that ignore the ways American capitalism generates specific disadvantages for working-class women miss an opportunity to create a movement that appeals to and includes all women, and ultimately end up reproducing some women’s inequalities (which was my overall point). As to whether whites can talk openly about race and receive the same treatment as other racial groups, I think to some extent this depends on what’s said and in what public sphere they are speaking. Bonilla-Silva’s (2001, 2003) and Houts Picca and Feagin’s (2007) recent work actually suggests that in certain public and private spheres, whites are free to make extremely racist statements as long as they are couched in the “appropriate” language. I would argue that Ferraro’s statements reflect the beliefs of many whites (and some minorities), and that these statements–and worse ones–are likely voiced in certain public settings with no rebuke, so I’m inclined to think that whites actually have a certain freedom in speaking about race in certain public spaces, as long as the statements are “appropriately coded” and conform to the racial status quo.

  8. mgs

    I appreciate the thoughtful reply. Honestly, I don’t really feel that whites have a much more difficult time talking about race than other groups. Talking publicly and openly about race is a minefield for anyone. But I do feel that it is an argument worth having.
    The authors of this blog understandably want to clarify their community’s conceptual definition of racism whenever they see it used in a different fashion (usually to mean individual racial bias). This makes perfect sense considering the fact that racism is in the title of the blog. But it should not be used to end a fruitful debate. Rejecting someone else’s definition of racism does not invalidate their points. Good post.


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