Geraldine Ferraro’s White Racial Frame—Again

In a Boston Globe article (HT, Mordy), “Healing … Democrats’ sexism,” Geraldine Ferraro, former vice-presidential candidate (I worked for her) and strong Senator Clinton supporter, has decided again that she should accent a white-framed perspective without much self-reflection. She begins with a view that many of us can agree with:

Here we are at the end of the primary season, and the effects of racism and sexism on the campaign have resulted in a split within the Democratic Party that will not be easy to heal before election day.

Then she moves into more troubling territory, trying to accent sexism and at the same time pander to racist white Democrats:

Perhaps it’s because neither the Barack Obama campaign nor the media seem to understand what is at the heart of the anger on the part of women who feel that Hillary Clinton was treated unfairly because she is a woman or what is fueling the concern of Reagan Democrats for whom sexism isn’t an issue, but reverse racism is.

She is right that the media and some in Senator Obama’s campaign do not see the importance and impact of the extensive, often vicious, sexism directed at Senator Clinton mainly by the same media and by lesser figures in Obama’s campaign. If she had pursued this very important theme, she would have been right on target. The research on everyday sexism is too limited, and US sexism certainly does not get enough public attention. (see here)

But Ferraro quickly moves into white-framed comments on “Reagan Democrats” concerns about “reverse racism.” “Reagan Democrats” is a codeword for “white Democrats” disproportionately from the South/rural areas, and working or lower middle class. And “reverse racism” is a racist-right term created by conservative whites to attack remedial programs after the 1960s that attempted to change the racially discriminatory barriers of this society. Is she saying it is OK for white Reagan Democrats to push the mythological racist frame of “reverse racism”? (To exist, so-called “reverse racism” would mean centuries of black-on-white oppression and disproportionate black power over whites in all major institutions today. A white fairy tale.)

Then Ferraro moves back to some good points about the sexism against Senator Clinton and what it means:

The truth is that tens of thousands of women have watched how Clinton has been treated and are not happy. We feel that if society can allow sexism to impact a woman’s candidacy to deny her the presidency, it sends a direct signal that sexism is OK in all of society. In response, a group of women – from corporate executives to academics to members of the media – have requested that the Shorenstein Center at Harvard University and others conduct a study . . . to determine . . . whether either the Clinton or Obama campaign engaged in sexism and racism; [and] second, whether the media treated Clinton fairly or unfairly.

Here is a major research strategy that makes sense. It is well past time for this society’s powerful white male elite—which, oddly, she does not name–to be pressured to pay attention to and eradicate sexism and racism in media and politics.

Ferraro also does not call out that white male elite for its racism and gendered racism (for example, against Michelle Obama) during this campaign. She never names whites as discriminators or racist actors once. “Whites” disappear by name except in two places as racial victims! And the unhappy “women” she seems to have in mind are white women. Reading her piece, one wants to ask about that overwhelming majority of black women (and other women of color) who are missinghere. They face racism and sexism every day, yet most probably do not share her views about “Reagan Democrats” or the Obama campaign.

Then Ferraro returns to “Reagan Democrats,” who in her view:

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.

Well, here are some white-framed clichés straight out of white racist frame. That phrase, “If you’re white you can’t open your mouth without being accused of being racist” is a classic extreme white exaggeration whites often use to take the focus off widespread racial discrimination and, often, to defend their openly racist comments. This racist framing tries to hide the empirical fact that a majority of whites still think and act in racist ways. The data are clear, and Ferraro needs to become better educated, perhaps in Racism 101 course, and learn that racial discrimination is a very serious problem.

Then Ferraro uses another racist-right code phrase, “playing the race card,” which racist whites invented to put down African Americans fighting the oppression whites created. Who does she think created the racial oppression on which this country was founded, and which has lasted now for four centuries? That line about they are not upset “because he’s black” is naïve. There is much evidence that many whites will not vote for a black person for state or national offices. She takes many whites off the hook for their racism and blames black Americans for creating “racial resentment.” This paragraph is so obviously white-framed that I can use it to illustrate in my classes the way in which many educated whites cannot think straight about racial matters in this still-racist country. It is a clear example of how normalized the white racial frame is.

And then Ferraro has an odd concluding critique of Obama for elitism and being a graduate of elite universities:

They [Reagan Democrats] don’t identify with someone who has gone to Columbia and Harvard Law School and is married to a Princeton-Harvard Law graduate.

One can put “Yale University” in key places in this sentence and she could be talking about Senator Clinton! I guess the elite position of the Clintons did not cross her mind when she wrote that “Reagan Democrats” are having trouble feeling a connection to such a presidential candidate. It is time for those in the white political elite, like Ferraro, to become better educated on matters of systemic racism and to try to move away from that old racist frame–and toward creating a society where there really is liberty and justice for all.


  1. Aaron P.

    The “Obama as elite” frame is particularly troubling to me. Since the vast majority of individuals within the white power elite attended Ivey League institutions, it is obvious that “Reagan Democrats” (which to me seems an almost impossible category to inhabit, as the core tenants of the Democratic Party seem to me to be diametrically opposed to nearly everything Reagan stood for… but I digress…) have NEVER had a problem voting for individuals from elite institutions or from elite backgrounds. Instead this is again coded language that is used to describe an African-American man that has rejected his assigned position of powerlessness or subjugation that has been assigned him by the white power structure. “Obama as elite” has nothing to do with Harvard, Columbia, nor any other potentially elite portions of his past, and everything to do with someone “forgettin’ their place.” If white working-class democrats really have a problem with voting for, or associating with individuals from elite backgrounds, we should expect these individuals to have NOT voted for Clinton, either Bush, Carter, Ford, Nixon, Kennedy, FDR, Hoover, Coolidge, or Wilson. Or if perhaps these democrats always found themselves on the losing side of the election, they also should not have voted for Kerry, or Gore. I guess the white working class vote must have gone for Nader in 2000…

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