Speaking on MSNBC this morning, Peggy Noonan issued a broad accusation against the Clinton campaign: “In their race-baiting,” she said, “they’re unsettling the country.”

Noonan was referring, in this instance, to the tenacious little comment-that-could made by Clinton campaign supporter and fundraiser Geraldine Ferraro—“if Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position”—published in a local California paper two weeks ago and, in a series of events as frustrating as they were utterly predictable, siphoned up into the narrow end of the media’s meta-megaphone and spat out on the other end both expanded and warped.

Noonan’s characterization of the Ferraro affair as “unsettling” is appropriate on several levels. Here was one instance in which a pundit’s use of a murky term actually made sense: Ferraro’s comments—or, more specifically, the media reaction to them—were unsettling in every sense of the word. Unsettling, in that they dredged up tensions we’d thought had settled themselves after the initial bout with race-based politics in the run-up to the South Carolina primaries. But unsettling, as well, in the questions they raised about the media’s ability to discuss, frankly and objectively, matters of race.

Take Chris Matthews, coming onscreen minutes after Noonan this morning to talk about the latest episode of Campaign Supporters Gone Wild. Asked whether Obama should denounce—again—his pastor Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s sometimes inflammatory comments about September 11 and American foreign policy, Matthews responded:

Well, you know, I don’t like being in a position of, as a white person, of asking black people to further divide, or divide. I mean, I don’t like this kind of conversation. But I guess we have to do it because Pastor Wright’s comments, especially after 9/11, are impossible to defend.

Matthews isn’t known for mincing words; he’s known, in fact, for the opposite. So to see him so obviously uncomfortable—to see him unsettled—is unsettling in itself. And, more to the point, it’s telling: the fact is that most of us—in the media, not to mention in the culture at large—share Matthews’s discomfort with “this kind of conversation” about race. The conversation is painful, a reminder of a past whose ghosts we like to congratulate ourselves for having exorcized but which reveal their continued presence when society’s shadows occasionally come to light. And, in that, it’s fraught: “this kind of conversation” operates, often, on two levels: What We Say (society has transcended racism) and What We Know (no, it hasn’t). And the cords of those two levels of discourse, text and subtext, are woven together at such a high tension, and are so mutually constrained, that bending either of them ceases to be an option: the text we’ve woven ourselves into is so tight as to lack flexibility. The lines of permission when it comes to talk of race are so taut right now that any attempt to bend them threatens simply to snap the strings of discourse altogether.

This week, snap they did. Ferraro’s comments about Barack Obama were far beyond the constraints of acceptability when it comes to the text of our racial discourse. And yet, say what else you will about them, they conveyed a kernel of truth: that part of Obama’s appeal, as a politician and as an agent of change, is the fact that he personally embodies transcendence of the country’s racist past. Obama has suggested that point himself; Dreams from My Father is expressly about the future candidate’s struggle with his own racial identity. And the media have echoed it—so often, in fact, that Obama’s symbolism as a post-racial figure has become something of a clich√©. His race, in that sense, matters. That’s obvious. Which is what Ferraro was saying. But she made her point outside of the prescribed lines of analysis—she defined Obama’s race in a negative sense, as a limiting factor rather than a liberating one—and, because of that, felt the media’s fury.

Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.