She brandished civil rights credentials as a license to speak her mind. She accused the Obama campaign of being divisive. At this point, I could no longer believe she had unwittingly committed a political faux pas. I saw her for what she was – a white woman who came of age during the heyday of Second Wave feminism. Hers is a world shaped by the “race or gender” politics of exclusion, in which simultaneous struggle on multiple fronts is impracticable, complicated and antithetical to white women’s progress.
But why was I surprised? Ferraro was not the first white feminist of this vintage to level misleading charges of racial divisiveness in the current campaign. In January, Gloria Steinem reminded readers of the New York Times of the parallels between the current Democratic contest and the Nineteenth Century struggles over the Fifteenth Amendment. Steinem warned, “the abolition and suffrage movements progressed when united and were damaged by division; we should remember that.”
But Steinem failed to name the fault line along which these parallel Nineteenth Century movements fractured. She left uninformed readers with the impression that gender and race were equally divisive. She chose not to acknowledge, let alone grapple with the fact that the racism of the white suffragettes was far more damaging than any sexism in a movement of people who, for the most part, saw the enfranchisement of black men as a step on the path to universal suffrage.
More than 130 years later, we are having essentially the same conversation about race and political participation. This time around, however, the stakes have changed. Race will remain an intractable, quintessentially American issue until more than the most enlightened whites fess up when they play their proverbial race card. I have too many other things to deal with to put the likes of Ferraro and Steinem on my “to do” list. Dorothy, Susan, Jerri, Jeanne, Suzanne, Dana, Lauri, Ali, Joy, and Adrian – this is your work, my friends, not mine.
Lisa Crooms is a professor at Howard University School of Law.