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Gender, race do matter

Susan Estrich

Susan Estrich

Would Barack Obama be where he is if he weren’t black?

Would Hillary Clinton be where she is if she weren’t a woman?

Would Geraldine Ferraro be where she is if her name had been Gerald?

I’m not even going to touch the first two, lest I be forced to resign from a position I don’t have or given one so I can resign from it.

I’ll stick with the third question, which Gerry Ferraro, who is my former boss and longtime friend, has answered thousands of times herself.

Walter Mondale picked her over Michael Dukakis (yes, he was the other choice) in 1984, because he wanted to shuffle the deck, change the dynamic, bring excitement and a sense of making history to what was already seen as a long-shot effort to unseat the very popular incumbent, Ronald Reagan.

In other words, he picked her because she was a woman. Gerald wouldn’t have gotten it. Is there something wrong with that?

That doesn’t mean she didn’t deserve it. It doesn’t mean she wasn’t qualified. It just means gender matters. In her case, unlike every election before or since, it mattered in a way that resulted in a qualified woman getting the nod instead of a qualified man. And I don’t think it’s sexist to say that.

Geraldine Ferraro is many things – outspoken, spontaneous, sometimes outrageous, but always courageous, loyal and loving. I adore her. But that’s not my point. One thing she isn’t – I know this, and I think Barack Obama does, as well – is racist.

I don’t think she in any way meant to put Obama down by pointing to his race as an essential element of his appeal. It is an essential element of his appeal. That doesn’t mean he’s the affirmative action candidate. It doesn’t mean he’s unqualified or undeserving. Recognizing that race matters is exactly what critical race theorists have been arguing for years to those who have claimed that we can or should be colorblind. Impossible, they’ve said all along. Is it now racist to recognize that they’re right?

We need to be able to talk about race without forcing whoever brings it up to resign from whatever honorary position they may hold. It’s the white elephant in the room that you’re not supposed to acknowledge, but at which everyone stares, as it grows larger due to the forced silence. Guess what? There’s a white elephant in the room. Or, to be politically correct, an elephant of some color, which we will not mention. A large, colorless elephant. Is it better if we leave it at that?

Calling someone a racist, accusing someone of racism, those are ways to end the conversation, not begin it. Simply denouncing someone that way doesn’t tell us anything about why they’re wrong, if they’re wrong.

Somebody should have asked Geraldine Ferraro what she meant, and why, instead of denouncing her for saying it. Maybe she’s right. Maybe she’s wrong. But it’s important to discuss it, and not outdo ourselves condemning her.

This is a unique and unprecedented campaign. A black man is running against a woman for the nomination of one of the two major parties. It’s down to the two of them. Whoever wins is making history. Voters will confront a choice they have never before faced. It’s a big deal. It does matter. Saying that is neither racist nor sexist. Letting people actually discuss what they mean, what it means to them, and why and how both race and gender do matter might actually help us move forward to the point where both matter less.

©2008 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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