This is a campaign about gender and race

The Democratic candidates should stop all the whining over who said what about whom and understand that race and gender are playing key roles in presidential politics as never before.

Few people know more about receiving a position for reasons other than qualification than Geraldine Ferraro. As the first woman included on a major-party presidential ticket, she understands perfectly that the opportunity came about because of her gender. It didn’t stop her from making the best of it.

If her name had been Gerald Ferraro, she said, she wouldn’t have been selected as Walter Mondale’s running mate on the 1984 Democratic presidential ticket no matter what other attributes she might have brought to the campaign from her service as a member of Congress. Yet there was an immediate outcry of racial politics from Sen. Barack Obama’s campaign when she mentioned that his situation was similar to hers — that his success at this stage of his political development was due in part to his race.

Now Obama faces a potentially damaging setback from his own campaign. His longtime spiritual adviser consistently has made racially inflammatory statements that are far more explosive and pointed than anything heard on the campaign trail so far, forcing the Illinois senator to disavow him, stating that he had never seen that side of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright in all the years he had been associated with him.

It may be too late for Obama to claim he was unaware of Wright’s positions. That is very hard to believe considering that much of Wright’s virally anti-white rhetoric came in sermons at his Chicago church where Obama was a regular attendee. There was further indication that Obama realized Wright’s volatility when he did not invite him to give the prayer at the senator’s announcement that he was running for president. Wright was forced to step down as the campaign’s religious counselor last week.

On past occasions when it was noted that Wright had continuously made controversial remarks, Obama passed it off by saying that the man who married him and baptized his children was like a kindly old uncle one tolerated but didn’t agree with always. But Wright’s condemnations of America and its policies now have burst forth in videos on television and the Internet, and there is no escaping their racism. For a candidate who has repeatedly said he is seeking to represent all Americans to have relied even slightly on a man who urges people not to say “God bless America,” but to instead say, “God damn America,” the impact could be considerable.

That is particularly true among white voters, who have seen Obama as a chance to break the race taboo of presidential politics once and for all and to unify the nation. It almost seemed that Obama earlier was trying to avoid angering some black voters by dumping Wright.

This contest between Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton always has been about firsts — the first black versus the first woman, race versus gender, and the first real opportunity for the nation one way or the other to acknowledge the realities of a changing world. But nothing is to be accomplished by stepping backward into the far reaches of our past when the idea that a black man or a woman of any color could ever occupy the White House as anything but a servant or a wife was preposterous. It would be a shame if the hatred voiced by a close friend derailed this effort.

At the same time, Obama and his advisers need to realize that voters soon will grow weary of attempts to label every criticism — no matter how bland — as racially motivated. It does no one any good to hide behind race-card politics every time there is disagreement with him. He can’t contend that race has no place in his candidacy and then also claim he is being racially disrespected. An early primary opponent’s remark that he is brilliantly articulate was cited as a racist remark on the grounds it implied that those of his ethnicity are not usually so. Hogwash. Nor should Ferraro’s long support of equal rights be questioned for pointing out that Obama’s candidacy has received a boost from considerations other than experience and qualification. She has resigned her Clinton campaign place. It’s too bad.

It’s about time to acknowledge the elephants in the room — gender and race. The facts are quite simple, really, and what’s the use in pretending that they aren’t key elements in one of the most interesting campaigns of the last 50 years?

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)