Image: Barack Obama
Alex Brandon  /  AP
Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama D-Ill., walks between two American Flags in Chicago, Wednesday, March 12, 2008.
NBC News
By Ron Allen Correspondent
NBC News
updated 3/13/2008 7:18:01 PM ET 2008-03-13T23:18:01
Commentary

While the debate rages on about whether Geraldine Ferraro's comments about Barack Obama were racist, there's no doubt that what she said was ignorant.

Or to be kinder, perhaps just uniformed.

To recap, Ferraro told a reporter, "If Obama was a white man he wouldn't be in this position. And if he was a woman (of any color) he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept."

Essentially, Ferraro said being African American gives Obama an advantage. Either that or he's getting preferential treatment because he's black.

As a result of the ensuing uproar, Ferraro resigned as a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton. Clinton "rejected," "repudiated" and "regretted" Ferraro's comment. Obama called what Ferraro said "absurd."

Even though Ferraro now says she's no longer a member of Clinton's finance committee, she has refused to apologize. At one point she lashed back at the Obama campaign, saying, "every time that campaign is upset about something, they call it racist."

Leaving the racism part aside for a few minutes, let's look at some facts, and some math.

Even if Obama doesn't win another vote in another primary, he has already shattered an enduring historic barrier – a barrier that has blocked black candidates, men and women alike, from winning statewide elections in America.

Obama has won some 30 state primaries. It's obvious that no African American candidate has come anywhere near that. But consider the fact that since the 1960s, only 37 black officials have served in federal or administrative elected statewide positions. That's including judicial posts and university boards.

Video: Ferraro firestorm Since Reconstruction, only five black candidates – including Obama – have ever won a statewide election for governor or U.S. senator. You can add eight lieutenant governors to the total. Four were elected independently. The rest of the list is made up of attorneys general, treasurers, auditors, comptrollers, and secretaries of state.

David Paterson is about to become New York's first black governor , and just the third nationwide. Meanwhile, Eliot Spitzer will become the 22nd governor to leave office because of a scandal.

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If you do a bit more math, you can perhaps estimate the total number of statewide elections over the past two centuries. Look at that figure versus the five black candidates and you begin to get a feel for just how far off the mark Ferraro's comments really were.

African Americans have made significant progress winning elective office since the Civil Rights Movement, but most of that progress has been in congressional districts or cities with smaller constituencies. The problem is in winning "crossover" elections.

Video: Tearing the Dems apart? Ferraro's comments are also odd considering she is from New York. She must know that in some urban areas, like New York City, black men can have unemployment rates that hover near 50 percent. Across the country, the number of black men in prison rivals the number that graduate from college.

At a recent editorial meeting at our offices, a group of African American pastors was asked to name their biggest concern. Several said their No. 1 concern was the negative portrayals of black men on TV and in the movies.

That's the kind of "luck" Sen. Obama and other black men running for office have on their side.

So it is true, as Ferraro said, that "if Obama was a white man, he wouldn't be in this position." He wouldn't be battling an entrenched ceiling. He wouldn't be battling the math. And while black voters have certainly turned out in great numbers for him, white voters ultimately are deciding the outcome of this election. It is hard to see how being black gives Obama an edge in this race.

So was it "racist" for Ferraro to suggest being black gives Obama an advantage? Perhaps that is in the eye of the beholder.

What is more important to understand is the history, the facts and the context that show she was quite wrong.

Ron Allen is a correspondent for NBC News.

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