Lucky to be black

Barack Obama is “lucky to be black”, Gerraldine Ferraro notoriously claimed:

If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. And if he was a woman (of any color) he would not be in this position.

Ferraro’s pro-Clinton bias aside, this is an interesting question. I think we can safely assume that there’s some reluctance to vote for a black candidate; likewise, that there’s some reluctance to vote for a female candidate. So is it a worse disadvantage to be black, or to be a woman?

Let’s consider some data about the impact of racism on Obama’s candidacy. Here’s a table adapted from Steven Waldman at

white voters who said race was important margin of victory or defeat
Oregon 7% Obama +16
North Carolina 8% Obama +14
Indiana 10% Obama -2
Kentucky 18% Obama -35
West Virginia 21% Obama -41

There’s a clear correlation, as Waldman observes:  “The more white voters who think the candidate’s race matters, the better Clinton does.” Correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation, but the data are nonetheless suggestive.

Then there’s the anecdotal evidence. For example, this video from al Jazeera (who knew that al Jazeera had English features?) :

Or this anecdote from George Packer:

I spoke with half a dozen men eating lunch at the Pigeon Roost Dairy Bar outside town [ Inez, Kentucky ]. … They announced their refusal to vote for a black man, without hesitation or apology. “He’s a Muslim, isn’t he?” an aging mine electrician asked. “I won’t vote for a colored man. He’ll put too many coloreds in jobs. Coloreds are O.K.—they’ve done well, good for them, look where they came from. But radical coloreds, no—like that Farrakhan, or that senator from New York, Rangel. There’d be riots in the streets, like the sixties.” … Here was one part of the white working class — maybe not representative, but at least significant.

Coloreds?! That expression turns the clock back about 50 years, don’t it?

What about the other scenario? How has sexism impacted the Clinton campaign?

A Clinton supporter itemizes the sexist slurs directed at Clinton in this campaign. She mentions, among other things:

  • T-shirts that bear the slogan “Bros before Hos”, with images of Obama and Clinton.
  • the Hillary Nutcracker — a Clinton figure that cracks nuts between its legs.
  • Citizens United Not Timid (note the acronym) — an anti-Clinton group founded by a Republican guru.
  • Mike Barnicle (MSNBC) claiming that Clinton looks “like everyone’s first wife standing outside a probate court”.
  • Jack Cafferty (CNN) comparing Clinton to “a scolding mother, talking down to a child”.

There are more items, but that’s enough to make the point.

Gratuitous smears from the like of magician Penn Jillette are bad enough. But presumably the slurs are more damaging when they come from a major TV personality like Jack Cafferty.

Still … where are the stats showing that 10% or 20% of the voters in a given state will vote for a man — any man, regardless of colour — rather than a woman?

Votes, not insults, are what count. Obama ran up large margins in caucus states where he out-campaigned Clinton. Clinton has just run up large margins in two states (West Virginia and Kentucky) on the back of racism. Arguably, she made a tacit appeal for the racist vote in advance of the West Virginia primary:  “Sen. Obama’s support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again.”

Meanwhile, Clinton claims victim status:

“It’s been deeply offensive to millions of women,” Clinton said. “I believe this campaign has been a groundbreaker in a lot of ways. But it certainly has been challenging given some of the attitudes in the press, and I regret that, because I think it’s been really not worthy of the seriousness of the campaign and the historical nature of the two candidacies we have here.”

Later, when asked if she thinks this campaign has been racist, she says she does not. And she circles back to the sexism. (emphasis added)

Clinton’s remarks are partly justified. But her refusal to acknowledge that Obama has been the victim of racism — that’s just sad.


16 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. McSwain
    May 25, 2008 @ 12:36:20

    Peggy Noonan wrote an excellent column, Sex and the Sissy, on this very subject.

    And what do you think of Clinton’s Kennedy assassination remark?


  2. Random
    May 25, 2008 @ 12:57:45

    “Barack Obama is “lucky to be black”, Gerraldine Ferraro notoriously claimed:

    If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. And if he was a woman (of any color) he would not be in this position.”

    But isn’t it at least possible that Ferraro is right? Consider for a moment – what would Obama have if not for the USP of being the first credible black candidate? He’d be a young, attractive, charismatic first term senator with a thin legislative record but a distinct knack for public speaking. In other words, he’d be John Edwards – who finished a poor second (to John Kerry!) last time and was lucky to make the VP slot and came nowhere this time round. As far as these things can be in politics Ferraro’s thesis has been tested experimentally and found to be valid. So why, if race has nothing to do with it, has Obama done so much better than Edwards?

    As for Clinton – you don’t have to want her to win to realise she may have a point. As well as the examples given above you missed the frequent comparisons of her to the Glenn Close character in Fatal Attraction or the wicked witch from the Wizard of Oz (there have been many occasions over the last few months when it looked like “Ding, dong! The witch is dead!” was the unofficial campaign song of the anti-Clinton blogosphere) – not to mention sweetiegate. For all the statistics (and it’s worth remembering what Churchill had to say on the subject) I think it’s incontrovertible that Obama has never had to deal with anything like the same volume of negative African-American stereotyping.

    Speaking as a cynical conservative, I always thought that this years Democrat primary would have less to do with the qualities of the candidates than about the Democrats deciding whether they were more squeamish about appearing sexist or racist. You don’t have to be an enthusiastic Hillary partisan to think that that question has now been answered.


  3. Stephen
    May 25, 2008 @ 17:57:34

    Hi, McSwain. Thanks for providing the link to that Noonan article, which I hadn’t seen:

    If Golda Meir, a woman of not only proclaimed but actual toughness, heard about Golda nutcrackers, she would have bought them by the case and given them away as party favors. …

    You want to say [to Clinton], “Girl, butch up, you are playing in the leagues, they get bruised in the leagues, they break each other’s bones, they like to hit you low and hear the crack, it’s like that for the boys and for the girls.” …

    Meir and Gandhi and Mrs. Thatcher suffered through the political downside of their sex and made the most of the upside. Fair enough.

    It’s difficult for me to make that argument, writing as a man. But I think Noonan is right.

    What do you think of Clinton’s Kennedy assassination remark?

    First, let me back up a couple of weeks. I was puzzled by the rumours that Clinton is interested in the Vice-President role. Why would she want that position, I wondered? — surely there’s more real power in remaining a Senator. And then it occurred to me to wonder: perhaps Clinton is calculating that Obama stands a good chance of being assassinated, which would make her President.

    “Surely that’s too cynical, even for Clinton” was my next thought. And then, a week or two after I had been musing along those lines, she came out with the “Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June” line.

    So this is what I think. It has been on her mind, the possibility that Obama would be assassinated. She let it slip out, which was a mistake. But I think she meant exactly what she said: “If Obama gets assassinated, that would make me the Democratic nominee / President.”

    Maybe it’s unfair to Clinton, to think she is that self-interested and calculating. But I was honestly wondering about it before she stuck her foot in her mouth.

    • Random:
    I’m shocked by your comment. You really think Obama has won the nomination because of liberal white guilt?

    First, consider all the serious mistakes Clinton made during the campaign. There have been various post mortems: see Glenn Thrush, for example.

    Second, consider the brilliant success of Obama’s campaign. He has made some unforced errors, I grant you. But remember how he suddenly blasted his way into the limelight in 2004. Remember that he has raised $30 million or so each month, from 1.5 million donors — something like that. Remember that he outcampaigned Clinton in Iowa, and outmanoeuvred her in a series of caucus states post “Super Tuesday”. Remember that he out-organized her on the ground, despite the advantage Clinton started with, of having contacts in every state dating back to the 90s. Remember that every state Obama went into, Clinton was ahead in the polls. And every time he campaigned in a state, he narrowed the gap. (For which reason, I think it was a mistake for him to essentially wash his hands of Kentucky and West Virginia.)

    To ascribe all of that success to “he’s black and he’s a charismatic speaker”, is extremely cynical of you. Obama has run a tremendous campaign — that’s the difference between him and Edwards (and Clinton).

    Blacks voted for Obama, of course, just as white women have voted for Clinton. (A smaller percentage, yes, but a smaller percentage of a much larger proportion of the population.)

    So Obama’s race advantage is cancelled out by Clinton’s gender advantage. Every other advantage, going into the campaign, was hers. And your analysis is, “The Democrats [were] deciding whether they were more squeamish about appearing sexist or racist”?

    All those voters, all that money, dismissed as so much liberal white guilt! It’s shamefully partisan of you to put such a ridiculous, ludicrous spin on things.

    You would do better to deal with the hard data I offered. Where are the data to demonstrate that Clinton lost any states because of her sex, akin to Obama massively losing West Virginia and Kentucky because of his race?


  4. McSwain
    May 26, 2008 @ 00:22:44

    Camille Paglia has written a good article, too. Regarding the assassination remark, it was one thing to read it. But when I watched the video? The callousness with which she said it was frightening. As the NY Daily News put it, “We have seen an X-Ray of a very dark soul.” That’s what many Americans have thought of Hillary for a long time, and precisely why so many (myself included) don’t like her.


  5. McSwain
    May 26, 2008 @ 00:33:04

    BTW, I like Obama, and I’m a conservative. I like him so much that I will probably cross party lines and vote for him, even though I am diametrically opposed to many of his political beliefs. And it’s not because he’s black, or because he’s a man. It’s because I believe, despite the dirtiness of this campaign and his ex-pastor, that he’s a good man, and that he might just have what it takes to heal the division in this country.

    We need a fresh start, with a dynamic leader who isn’t “old guard.” Edwards isn’t dynamic. Obama IS charismatic. There’s nothing wrong with that. We NEED a charismatic, likable leader right now.


  6. Random
    May 26, 2008 @ 06:09:37


    I’m surprised you’re shocked. “You really think Obama has won the nomination because of liberal white guilt?”

    Of course not – as you go on to point out he is an excellent campaigner and fundraiser and his success so far has been earned. It is simply naive however to assume that race has not helped him in this campaign – for example as was pointed out a while ago, if a white candidate had as his spiritual advisor of 20 years standing a racist, hate-filled anti-American conspiracy theorist his candidacy would have been destroyed by the association. And yes, I do believe that liberal white guilt (a term I never used by the way, despite your enthusiasm for pinning it to me – I was making a much milder point) goes a long way to explaining why the media in particular where prepared to give him the breathing space he needed to talk his way out of that one.

    Please note, I’m not claiming that race is the only reason Obama has won. I am claiming it has helped however – especially in getting him airtime in the early days, when the field was crowded with not-very-well-known white guys and it was “obvious” the only woman in the race was going to win. To put it simply, being black is the reason he did better than somebody like John Edwards, but being Barack Obama is the reason he did better than Jesse Jackson.


  7. Stephen
    May 26, 2008 @ 06:34:07

    • Random:
    It seems that I misunderstood your comment, and took you as saying something more than you actually meant. I wasn’t trying to put words into your mouth with “liberal white guilt” — I honestly thought that was the gist of your first comment.

    If a white candidate had as his spiritual advisor of 20 years standing a racist, hate-filled anti-American conspiracy theorist his candidacy would have been destroyed by the association.

    I agree with you there. I think that’s the one and only way in which being black has helped Obama.

    OK, it’s also true that being black, combined with being such an effective speaker, initially got him some extra attention: “Hey, here’s a black candidate who might actually be a legitimate contender for the presidency!” But being the novelty candidate gets you consigned to second or third place very quickly, if you don’t have the substance to reward that initial attention.

    In particular, I don’t think the novelty factor explains why Obama left Edwards eating his dust. For one thing, Democrats haven’t forgotten how little Edwards as would-be Vice-President brought to the Kerry ticket.

    • McSwain:
    I think Paglia is a little harsh, although there’s definitely something to her point of view. Again, I’m happy to see a woman making those arguments!

    Clinton’s candidacy is parallel to Obama’s candidacy (i.e., the way I described Obama’s candidacy to Random). Being the husband of Bill Clinton put the spotlight on her. Being the first woman with a real shot at becoming President also put the spotlight on her. But pretty quickly she had to sink or swim based on her own (de)merits.

    Clinton has some strengths, but they are more than offset by her glaring weaknesses. Moreover, those weaknesses were compounded by mistakes in strategy. The story of her candidacy boils down to those three considerations (strengths, weaknesses, strategic errors). Blaming her loss on sexism is a poor-loser whine.


  8. juggling mother
    May 27, 2008 @ 16:06:51

    To answer the question is America more sexist or more racist (which is fundementally what you are asking), you need to look outside of the democratic candidacy and at the wider picture.

    Are there more ethnic minorities or more women in major political roles? On the boards of big businesses? etc proportional to their population….

    It does not take long to add up no of women vs no of ethnic minorities (I assume we are looking outside of afro-carribean-american here?) to see both are massively under-represented.

    But look at the bottom of those same politcal parties/big businesses & you will probably see that proportionately more women enter those fields and never get anywhere than black men. Which I think is very telling.

    The types of slurs that have been made about Hilary show an underlying sexism in the US, which is not there for many citizens when they think of black men. A black man can be just as good as a white man ifas long as he speaks without an accent and worships the right God. A woman can only ever be one of the stereotypes so loved by hollywood, whatever her accent or religion!

    BTW Thatcher did it by being playing the victorian matriarch/”iron lady” card – and she still had to put up with the papers discussing her hairstyle & handbags more than her policies – until we reached record levels of unemployment anyway, at which point the media decided she was actually the “mad old witch” and put a man in her place.


  9. juggling mother
    May 27, 2008 @ 16:09:40

    BTW – I actually have very little interest in which one wins – they both have pro’s and con’s from a foreigners PoV.

    as long as you lot have the sense to go democrat next time round, I’m not too bothered about which one it is, as I neither live in nor have much likelihood of visiting the USA and foriegn policy is decided far more on party lines than individual.


  10. Stephen
    May 27, 2008 @ 20:41:34

    Thanks, Juggling Mother, for arguing another point of view. You’ve got some important data on your side.

    Women don’t tend to make it to the top in a lot of fields — that’s a fact. But what’s the cause? — that’s harder to nail down.

    I think continuing sexism is part of the explanation. But I wonder if it’s also true that large numbers of women simply have different values. They aren’t prepared to make work their whole life, the way large numbers of men are.

    Maybe I just see it that way because I know I wouldn’t make that tradeoff. I don’t care how much money is in it, I wouldn’t make the personal sacrifices necessary to make it to the top of the corporate world, or the political world.

    Whether that’s right or wrong, I don’t really know. But in the specific instance I’ve mentioned, I’ll repeat: I”m not aware of any data supporting the thesis that sexism has caused Clinton to lose any state.


  11. juggling mother
    May 28, 2008 @ 03:59:17

    “I”m not aware of any data supporting the thesis that sexism has caused Clinton to lose any state”

    That’sbecause it is far more ingrained than racism, as beautifully shown by your assumption that “women simply have different values”

    either you are accepting that women are so different from men that they can not do things in the same way (and therefore as well) or you are accepting that sexism is so ingrained into society that females are brought up in a completely different way to males:)


  12. juggling mother
    May 28, 2008 @ 04:03:10

    Of course, i can not really speak for the uSA – have only been there once, and it was an awfully long time ago!

    But here in the UK racism is still rife – but the vast majority of people are not racist against “proper British blacks” (the ones that speak without an accent and worship the right Gods), whereas that ingrained sexism sems to be growing more and more prominent.


  13. Stephen
    May 28, 2008 @ 08:16:59

    I’m conceding your point, that sexism is at least part of the explanation. But your argument is that sexism is the sole, or at least primary, cause of women not advancing beyond the glass ceiling.

    And that may be right, but perhaps there is an alternative explanation(s). So I’m looking for hard data to put one of these explanations on a somewhat scientific foundation.

    I certainly didn’t say that women cannot do things the same way as men. Nuh uh! I’m talking about women’s values and the choices that women freely make, consistent with those values.

    And maybe values are entirely a matter of socialization — could be. I’m not ruling out any of these possibilities. But I’m in the camp that thinks the values traditionally ascribed to women are frequently superior to the values traditionally ascribed to men. Certainly from a Christian standpoint, they are.

    What I’d like to see happen is for society to begin to elevate traditionally female values like helping others to succeed, and confining work to 35-40 hours per week — to show as much regard for those values as the traditionally male way of ruthless cut-throatedness and sacrificing your personal life for the greater good of the company.

    And indeed, I think the younger generation gets this — or so some recent studies would seem to suggest. Let’s hope they retain those good priorities as they get a little older.


  14. juggling mother
    May 28, 2008 @ 11:52:51

    I know you do not believe women can not do things as well as men. But then again, you are not a minimally educated American:)

    “maybe values are entirely a matter of socialization — could be.” You know my opinion on that – where else could they come from?

    I am not arguing about which values are better/right or wrong, just that sexism is utterly ingrained in American society.

    And the younger generation – I didn’t believe in the glass ceiling when I was young. I was sure we were past that, what with Maggie as PM and everything.

    Then I hit it.

    Now, my choices have indeed put me well out of that league, but then, I was more focused than any of my male colleagues, and with no chance of a family getting in the way, that glass was still rock hard! And not terribly high up! The stats here certainly still bear that out. I am not optimistic that it will change with this generation – listen to the youth on the street and the sexes are further away from each other than ever.


  15. juggling mother
    May 30, 2008 @ 16:13:59

    BTW – how come your tags for this post are “Democrats, politics, social justice, women” but not “race”?

    Think carefully before you answer…..


  16. Stephen
    May 30, 2008 @ 18:47:28

    I don’t have to think carefully. Women’s issues are very important to me, and I’ve posted on them many times. As a result, I have “women” as one of my categories.

    Whereas, race is something I post on less often. So race gets subsumed in the general category, “social justice”.


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