“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.”
When former Vice Presidential candidate, Geraldine Ferraro made the remarks to which she refers in her May 30 Boston Globe op-ed, pundits and commentators across the ideological spectrum consistently fell all over themselves to avoid accusing her of racism. Seldom in political life has the sinner been granted so much immediate distance from her sin.
What Ferraro actually said bears little resemblance to the facile pseudo-summary she offers in her editorial. Her comments were not about “the influence of blacks” on the Obama campaign. Her exact words to a California newspaper were “If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position,” and she defended them by arguing that she, likewise, would not have been on the 1984 Democratic ticket if not for her gender.
Ferraro appeared not to recognize the obvious difference between being appointed to a ticket, as she was, and winning a record number of primary votes across the entire nation, as Obama has. In the days following her initial remarks, she claimed, as in her Boston Globe op-ed, that “Racism works in two different directions. I really think they’re attacking me because I’m white. How’s that?”
Ludicrous-and sad. Ferraro has officially ruined her own obituary by adding a crimson asterisk of aggressively divisive, ill-informed, race-baiting to her own trailblazing career in public service. More important than assessing the magnitude of her self-destruction, though, is examining the notion she puts forth: that whites in America have been rendered voiceless, that “you can’t open your mouth without being labeled a racist,” that to be black is to be ‘lucky’ (to paraphrase another of her comments about Obama).
I have no problem believing that people have been stopping Ferraro – although I suspect ‘sidling up to’ would be more accurate – to voice this ‘common sentiment.’ It is one that cuts to the heart of a crucial, under-examined aspect of America’s problem with race: the deeply-held conviction, on the part of many whites, that they have been marginalized, treated ‘unfairly,’ and cannot speak honestly about it. That they, despite all appearances to the contrary, represent the new racial underclass.
Obama himself, in his landmark address on race, noted that many whites do not feel significantly advantaged because of the color of their skin. In the single greatest misstep of that speech, he put this sentiment – the resentment, fueled by a lack of opportunity, felt by the critical Democratic voting block of working-class whites – on a par with the ravaging effects of institutional racism on people of color.
Implicit in the white resentment Obama identified, of course, is whites’ belief that they should be significantly advantaged because of their race. The entitlement they feel no longer squares with reality, and thus they feel cheated in a way they dare not articulate.
So, meanwhile, do their children. One of the most fascinating trends of the last thirty years is the way cultural capital and hard capital have diverged. American coolness is coded, more than ever, as American blackness, and young whites all over the country – many of them with little or no personal access to black people but with extensive cable TV packages – assume, based on the signifiers flashing on their screens, that blackness equals flashy, sexy wealth.
They feel locked out of the possibility of attaining that (imaginary) lifestyle, because of their skin color. This strikes them as oppressive, and fuels a silent resentment. They have no language with which to discuss it, and no interest in looking at the reams of evidence that would prove to them just how wrong they are – the inheritance of wealth, for instance, or the rates of home-ownership, traditional markers of prosperity that reveal just how privileged whites remain relative to blacks.
The supposed unfairness of affirmative action may be their parents’ signature racial issue; the difficulty of crafting a strong cultural identity as a young white person in this country is theirs.
Both are important to examine, but we can only do so against a backdrop of understanding the far more pernicious and persistent reality of institutional racism – a cancer metastasizing through the educational system, the justice and penal systems, law enforcement, and every other aspect of American life. It is this reality that Ferraro and her nameless common-sentiment-expressers fail to see – the essence of white privilege lies in not even realizing you have it – or to address honestly.
Instead, Ferraro rails against a racial gag order even as she proves unaffected by it, citing a silent-majority of whites able to muster outrage at their own ‘unfair treatment’ without acknowledging anyone else’s. She denies their ‘racism, but acknowledges and justifies their ‘racial resentment.’ Which is different how, exactly?
Adam Mansbach is the author of the novels The End of the Jews (Spiegel & Grau, 2008) and Angry Black White Boy (Crown, 2005).