When former Rep. Geraldine Ferraro (D-N.Y.) asserted that “if Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position,” she caused a mini media frenzy and was forced to step down from the Clinton campaign’s finance committee.
I found the comment slightly unsettling but not for the same reason that most did. Since Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) is half white and half black, calling him black reminded me of those Nazi-era Nuremberg laws that classified Germans on the percentage of their Jewish blood, as well as of America’s Jim Crow laws, which distinguished between blacks, whites and often those of mixed ancestry.
Given his parentage, Obama is neither entirely black nor white. But since his skin color is closer to most African-Americans, it isn’t surprising that he’s generally classified as a black American. Indeed, that’s what he calls himself.
Actually, the question of whether Obama’s skin color has helped or hurt him during his presidential bid is an interesting one. (How his skin color affected his entire life is a very different question, and certainly one far beyond my own expertise.)
Assume, for argument’s sake, that the white Obama still graduated from Columbia and Harvard Law School, served six years in the Illinois state Senate, lost a Congressional bid but won a U.S. Senate seat. Also assume that he’s a terrific orator and has run the same high-quality campaign with the same consultants that he has.
Under that scenario, would he likely be even with or ahead of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.)? I’m inclined to believe not. That means Ferraro probably was correct that, all things being equal (though they rarely are), Obama would not now be leading the Democratic contest if he were white.
Part of the excitement about Obama flows from his story, and the candidacy of a white politician from Chicago isn’t nearly as interesting a story. What makes him unique are his mixed-race background and the uplifting narrative of black kid who succeeded and who promises to bring Americans together. In a time when voters want change, Obama doesn’t look like your average politician.
Any candidate can promise change and try to tap Americans’ desire for a better country, but Obama’s race is very much part of his appeal. That’s especially the case in the Democratic Party, which is filled with idealists looking for a new messenger of hope.
For Democrats, many of whom celebrate diversity and multiculturalism and would feel good about making a statement about their values and their wishes for America, Obama’s race and background are clear assets.
But if Obama’s race is an important part of who he is as a candidate, it has been an even bigger tactical advantage for him in his fight for the Democratic nomination.