Friday, March 14, 2008

Race, Politics, and the Workplace

This week, former Vice Presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro made controversial comments, which caused an uproar in the race for the White House. In an interview, Ferraro, a Hillary Clinton supporter, said that Sen. Barack Obama was “fortunate” to be Black because his race was the reason for his success in the presidential race. Ferraro said that if Obama was a White man, “he wouldn’t be in this position” and if he were a woman (of any color), “he wouldn’t be in this position.”

Members of the media, pundits, and some Obama supporters immediately denounced the comments and the suggestion that race and not merit was the sole reason behind Obama’s success. Ferraro responded to the criticism by saying that she didn’t say Obama’s success was “only” due to race. However, Ferraro explicitly left out mention of any other factors that she contributed to his success up to this point in the campaign. By default, her comments suggested that race was either “only” or “primarily” responsible for his success. She said, point blank, that he was fortunate to be Black and that the country was swept up in the concept.

In what concept?

The concept of a Black president?

Well, weren’t women swept up in the concept of her being the first female vice president? Aren’t women swept up in the concept of Sen. Clinton possibly being the first female president?

So, what’s the problem?

Why is she hating on Sen. Obama for the same “concept” (being the first) that has given her candidate many advantages? Sen. Clinton has gotten a majority of the female vote in many states. Sen. Clinton has mentioned, many times, that she looks forward to being the first female president. She is using her gender as a selling point, when we don’t see Sen. Obama using his race as a selling point.

Obama, when asked to respond to Ferraro’s comments said that he felt the comments were “divisive” and represented old-school politics.

This led to a response from Ferraro that is typical of responses that many Black workers hear in the workplace, when they inform a White coworker, supervisor, manager, etc. that something said was racially insensitive or offensive. Ferraro said, “I am not a racist.”

So, I ask…

Who called Geraldine Ferraro a racist?

Her comments were characterized as “ridiculous,” “absurd,” “divisive,” etc. But, at no point did anyone say she was a racist.

This is reminiscent of what happened in my former workplace, when a Black manager approached a White manager to discuss comments the White manager made that offended EVERY Black person in a departmental meeting. The Black manager said that she came to discuss the White manager’s comments at the meeting and the White manager immediately blurted out, “I am not a racist.”

The Black manager responded by telling her that she didn’t say she was a racist and wasn’t coming to do so. She just wanted to remind her that we all live in a diverse society and that we have to be mindful of the impact of what we say. Well, the White manager ended up in tears and used her friendship with the director of the department and the director of HR to make the Black manager’s life a living hell. The Black manager ended up resigning based on constructive termination (being forced out).

So, the second I heard Geraldine Ferraro go right to “I am not a racist,” I was immediately transported back to that time period in my career.

Why couldn’t Geraldine Ferraro simply restate what she intended to say, if she meant something different from what she actually said? Would that have been too difficult? No! It wouldn’t have been difficult. Instead, Ferraro upped the ante, as is done in the workplace, and said that Obama was playing the so-called “race-card,” that he had a pattern of playing the race card, that no one could criticize him without being called a racist (he and his campaign are sensitive), and that she was being attacked because “I’m White.” The next day, Ferraro said that she was “absolutely not sorry” for her comments.

Ferraro seems to have gone through the workplace checklist for Whites who want to spin a situation to make themselves the victim, when they are the ones who’ve offended someone.

When Black workers make a complaint of discrimination, harassment, retaliation, racial insensitivity, etc., all of a sudden we hear that we are playing the “race card.” This label is attached to us even when we’ve worked at a company for years and have never injected race into any dispute with a White coworker or if we’ve never made an informal or formal complaint of racism in the workplace. Even when we have no history of “playing race,” we are accused of being race-baiters!

Then we are often accused of being sensitive and/or defensive. We may be told something along the lines that people (White) feel like they have to walk on egg shells, when they work with us. In other words, they can’t say anything to us without us getting a so-called attitude or accusing them of targeting us based on race.

We are also often accused of misunderstanding what was said, such as the excuse used by Ferraro. Whenever a race incident jumps off, we suddenly can’t understand common English.

Many of us may also be falsely accused of having a problem working with Whites, even when we’ve been employed for years with no incidents involving race. We may be told that we have communication issues with Whites, even when we’ve worked with Whites without incident throughout our careers. In other words, we are being accused of making a complaint out of racial malice and with intentional disregard of Federal statutes! We are allegedly making complaints, not in good faith, but solely because the person in question is White.

After everything has exploded into a racially charged mess, we are often told by management that no one is going to apologize for the incident, including the person who made the offensive comments or engaged in potentially illegal activity.

It’s amazing, but Geraldine Ferraro hit all the points. To summarize, she went right to the workplace blueprint. She:

1. stated she wasn’t a racist, as if someone Black (Obama and/or his representatives) accused her of being one;
2. accused the person she intentionally marginalized and offended of using the “race card” against her;
3. stressed that the racial sensitivities of the person she targeted with her comments were the issue, not her remarks;
4. said that she was either misunderstood or that her comments were intentionally misconstrued;
5. made herself into the victim of reverse racism; and
6. refused to accept responsibility for the chain of events she set off.

I should add that Sen. Clinton, who insisted that Sen. Obama reject and denounce Rev. Louis Farrakhan for saying that Obama was good for the country, initially wouldn’t reject and denounce Geraldine Ferraro. She thought it was sufficient to simply “disagree” with comments. Again, this was after she tried to score political points against Obama based on the words of someone in favor of his candidacy.

Again, this is reflective of issues that Blacks face in the workplace. There is often a double-standard, in which Blacks are expected to follow one set of rules, when Whites aren’t expected to follow the same rules. Blacks are often asked to or are forced to apologize to White coworkers for any manner of often petty offenses, such as a White person simply declaring that they thought a Black coworker was rude to them. Yet, White workers often don’t have to apologize for serious/egregious offenses, which may violate Federal statutes.

Sen. Obama’s candidacy is definitely giving the world a front-row view of issues that all Blacks face on a daily basis. If someone makes a racially-loaded remark, it becomes his fault for criticizing the remark and he’s characterized as being unable to take criticism. It doesn’t matter if the criticism is false because it is based on distortions or outright lies. Sen. Obama is treated as though he has no right to clarify what he feels are misrepresentations and lies. That makes him sensitive!

I think we will see many more similarities between political tactics and workplace tactics during the remainder of this campaign. Sen. Clinton and her surrogates are desperate. Since so many of Sen. Obama and Sen. Clinton’s policies are very similar, Sen. Clinton has nothing but racial polarization to fall back on in order to divide the vote in her favor. It is not an accident that we keep coming back to race (and gender) in this election. And, it's no accident that Sen. Clinton's campaign staff are upset that they can't use outright racially charged language, racially coded language, etc. against her rival.

Stay tuned!

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Anonymous FRANCENA TURNER, CRT RCP said...

Were it that I could repost and repost and repost this blog. Wow. So accurate!

7:29 AM  

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