By Imani Perry
Geraldine Ferraro's formulation that Barack Obama wouldn't have the success he's experiencing if he were a white man is troubling. She obviously was trying to apply an affirmative action image to Obama, an image of unmerited acclaim and achievement. Leaving aside the race-baiting and incorrect information that enters almost all discussions of affirmative action, I just have to say: C'mon, Geraldine. Get real.
To begin with, at best this would be the pot calling the kettle black. When Ferraro was a mere 43 years old and had spent six years in Congress, she became the Democratic party vice presidential nominee. Despite the experience at the top of the ticket, Ferraro with her relative inexperience undoubtedly helped the campaign. She was a better candidate than Mondale. But I wonder if she considered herself just an unqualified woman candidate, a female novelty disrupting the legitimate meritocracy of American politics.
See how offensive such formulations are?
But let's return to the question raised by Ferraro. What if Barack Obama were a white man? If Barack Obama were a white man with his extraordinary intellect, commitment to excellence and charisma, people would be far less likely to raise questions about his "funny name" (he calls it that) and unpreparedness. (JFK anyone?)
No one gets to be president of the Harvard Law Review by being an "unqualified minority". He's the frontrunner on the Democratic side because he is a superb politician and because more people have voted for him than for Hillary Clinton.
But we can look at this another way: If Barack Obama were a white man, these gifts he possesses might not have developed in the way they did. Each person comes into the world with a unique spirit. The interface of that spirit with the body into which he or she is born and the society and family in which he or she lives and grows, creates the human personality. Perhaps Obama's encounters with bigotry and the diversity of his experiences shaped many of the qualities we admire in him. Perhaps being born on American soil as Barack Hussein Obama, a biracial second generation American in a body that is always perceived as a "Black man", gifted him with a second sight that voters are looking to in troubled times.
I often think of the experience with inequality and adversity as one that cuts at least two ways. It can be demoralizing, devastating and wounding. On the other hand it can build extraordinary character, insight and strength. I have taken great pains in my own life to channel it to the latter kind of development and perhaps I have chosen to support Barack Obama because I see that in him as well. I never denounce those who buckle under the pressure of inequality, but I believe we must also champion those who thrive in spite of it.
All that to say: It is perverse and dishonest to present Barack Obama as the privileged one in this equation. We know why Hillary Clinton doesn't want to reveal her tax returns. The image of her as a working class champion will suffer with the revelation that her power is not simply a product of being a political insider and public servant. She also has enormous personal wealth.
There is no affirmative action in politics besides that which comes from nepotism, wealth, and inside connections. If there is an affirmative action candidate in this election it is Hillary Clinton. And if there is a bootstraps candidate, it is Barack Obama.
Imani Perry, Ph.D., J.D. is a professor at the Rutgers School of Law-Camden and visiting professor at the Princeton University Center for African American Studies.