Comment & analysis
Obama and Clinton: The Tightrope and the Needle
2008-03-20, Issue 355
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What happens when white feminism intersects with questions or race and class? How has Race and Gender being used to derail the Obama campaign? Linda Burham tackles these questions and much more
The Clinton campaign can do all the distancing it wants from Geraldine Ferraro’s chronic foot-in-mouth syndrome, but this is not the first time Obama has been cast as the beneficiary of affirmative action.
Here’s Erica Jong, more than a month ago, on the same issue. After allowing that “Obama is smart and attractive. Maybe he’ll be president some day,” she goes on to say: “Obama is also a token – of our incomplete progress toward an interracial society. I have nothing against him except his inexperience. Many black voters agree. They understand tokenism and condescension.”
Right now, black female voter that I am, I’m most definitely understanding the condescension – and righteous indignation – of white liberal feminists who believe Obama skipped ahead of them in line. I’m also understanding the sheer frustration of women who were headed towards an easy coronation, but then got sideswiped and stalled by an upstart prince.
It appears that all the mainstream, high-profile feminists got the same talking-points memo from the Clinton campaign. Ferraro, pit bull that she is, was just a little more raw in her delivery. If you didn’t get the memo, here are the talking points.
- Though the Democrats are blessed with an embarrassment of riches, with a black man and a woman contending for the nomination, Clinton is unequivocally the only one prepared for the rigors of the presidency.
- Obama is all fluff, no substance, glib and attractive, but also a cocksure, ageist upstart.
- Given the depths of Obama’s inexperience, his present popularity can only be explained by the reverse discrimination effect: he’s unfairly benefiting from his status as a black man.
- Older white women are supporting Clinton because they recognize bottom-line competence, know how to vote in their own best interests, grow more radical with age, and are ready to make history.
- White men are supporting Obama because of their latent or blatant sexism. They’re confused by the unfamiliar choices presented them, and more freaked out by the prospect of a woman in the White House than they are by the prospect of the first African American president.
- Maybe Obama will be a candidate to consider once he’s more politically seasoned, i.e., after eight years of Clinton.
- Sexism is the most pervasive and persistent form of discrimination.
- Racism is on the run, nearly vanquished save a few remnants.
From Gloria Steinem to Robin Morgan to Geraldine Ferraro to Erica Jong, they’re all playing the same tune. Now we can’t blame the women for fighting hard for their candidate, but it is disappointing, to say the very least, that in heralding Clinton as the proper choice for every feminist and all women they have also managed to dredge up some of the least attractive features of liberal feminism.
For nearly forty years feminists have wrangled over how to integrate issues of race, class, sexual orientation and other markers of inequality into a coherent, powerful gender analysis. Women of color insist on the complex relationship between racism and sexism and the central significance of racism in the lives of people of color. White feminists nod their heads, “Yes, of course, we understand, we’re with you on that.” Then comes the crunch, when the content of your feminism actually matters – as it does in this campaign – and they revert to the primacy of sexism over all other forms of discrimination and oppression. All the tendencies that got feminism tagged as a white, middle-class women’s thing are, brutally, back in play.
There’s a lot of twisting and turning going on in the effort to explain Obama’s viability. If he’s so completely inexperienced, why are people coming out to vote for him in record numbers? Must be that racism is dead but sexism isn’t. Must be that he’s an affirmative action baby. Must be that people are mesmerized, charmed and bewitched by his silver tongue. Must be that people are voting with their hearts for hope instead of with their heads for hard-headed competence.
In fact, it must be anything except that he’s knit together a coalition the existence of which most political actors could not have predicted, much less activated. Except that his politics and presentation of self have motivated millions of new voters and re-energized previously disaffected millions more in ways that her politics and presentation of self have not. Except that voters have weighed his experience and hers and concluded that she’s not bringing appreciably more to the table than he is. Except that she’s pegged her vaunted experience to her White House years and a fair share of voters (raise your hands y’all) were not enthralled with the policies of the Clinton presidency.
It’s just not such a terribly long walk from the Clinton campaign’s insistence on Obama’s lack of experience and complete unreadiness to lead to the notion that he’s gotten as far as he has not on his own merits, but as a result of the workings of some pro-brother bias. That is, to put it baldly, the playing field is tilted in favor of the minority candidate who, despite his thin resume, has managed to leapfrog over the more qualified white candidate. There’s a reason this reminds you of every reverse discrimination complainant from Allan Bakke forward. It undermines the legitimacy of affirmative remedies for identifiable, quantifiable discriminatory practices while simultaneously denigrating the qualifications of people of color in high places, whether they got there by means of affirmative action or not.
Then there’s the basic categorical confusion. Let’s go back to that historic juncture, wherein a black man and a woman are close contenders for their party’s nomination. If his race is noteworthy, Obama the black man (regardless of how many ways his blackness has been interpreted), then so too is hers. [For those of you who believe we’re living in a post-racialist society, if you haven’t tuned out already, you’ll probably want to skip the rest of this piece.] This is a contest between a black man and a white woman. Voters orient themselves toward Obama along a broad spectrum of racial attitudes ranging from, “Of course I’m voting for the brother” to “I’d never in a million years cast my vote for an African American.” And everything in between.
The point is, most sane people recognize that Obama’s race matters. Well then, how is it that Clinton’s doesn’t? If Obama’s blackness is a positive incentive for some voters, a liability for others and a source of confusion and ambivalence for still others, how is it that Clinton’s whiteness is a big fat neutral. Is it not at least theoretically possible that some voters are positively inclined toward Clinton because she is white?
There is a brand of feminism, amply critiqued but still very much alive, that focuses on gender bias while consistently downplaying the salience of race. And the easiest way to avoid acknowledging that whiteness comes with its privileges is to avoid acknowledging it at all. Whiteness as default, normative, unworthy of note. Clinton the woman; Obama the black man. In fact, Obama as doubly favored, as a man and, with reverse discrimination and tokenism in play, as an African American. Clinton, meanwhile, is hobbled by her gender and, since her whiteness is unacknowledged, neither advantaged nor disadvantaged by her race. This is the topsy-turvy world we’re being asked to accept as reality.
I, for one, am going to take a pass on delusion. In Mississippi, though Obama took the state, 70 percent of white Democatic voters chose Clinton over Obama. In South Carolina, Obama took over 75 percent of the black vote but only 15 percent of the over-60 white vote, with similar results in Alabama. Isn’t is possible that at least some of those white voters would prefer to see a white person in the White House, regardless of gender, than an African American? And isn’t it possible that whiteness is an element of Clinton’s appeal in Ohio, Texas and, potentially, Pennsylvania, states in which Reagan Democrats (and Nixon Democrats before them) were won over to the Republican Party, at least in part, on the basis of frankly racist appeals? As long as Clinton’s whiteness is unacknowledged, so too are the dynamics that work to her advantage in this campaign.
The deep disappointment in the voting behavior of Obama-supporting men (read white men; see above) while officially chalked up to misogyny, has, in the argument of some feminists, crept uncomfortably close to a howl of anger at racial betrayal. In a Chicago Tribune article entitled “Sexism, not Racism, Thriving,” a clearly frustrated Frida Ghitis claims “We may be winning the war against racism, but sexism is putting up quite a fight….Women are voting for Clinton and blacks are voting for Obama…. If we look for someone who looks like us, for whom should a white man vote?... White men are giving their vote to Obama over Clinton [i].”
Let us grant without argument that many men, and a good number of women as well, would prefer to see a man in the White House than a woman. Is this evidence that sexism is alive and well? Indeed it is. But, as our own political processes constantly remind us, voting behavior is more than a little complex. Perhaps white men should be excoriated for their persistent sexism; perhaps we should be celebrating their transcendence of a century’s-long resistance to placing African Americans, men or women, in positions of power.
Would it be better, and for whom, if white men were to line up with white women and, as the saying goes, “vote their race?” Could this be what liberal feminists are advocating? Is Elizabeth Cady Stanton in the house?
It ought to be possible to point to the prevalence of sexism and misogyny, and their impact on Clinton’s campaign, without downplaying the longstanding, ongoing, pervasive impact of racism in the U.S. But this is not the path they have chosen. In order to bolster their case for Clinton’s relative disadvantage in the primary campaign, explain the white male vote in places like Iowa, Virginia, and Utah, and encourage white women to seize the historic moment, they impose a ranking order between racism and sexism, with sexism at the top, and insist on the declining significance of race.
Gloria Steinem: “Gender is probably the most restricting force in American life…. Black men were given the vote a half-century before women of any race were allowed to mark a ballot, and generally have ascended to positions of power, from the military to the boardroom, before any women [ii].”
Those of us who witnessed the response to Hurricane Katrina; who check in occasionally on the racial demographics of the incarcerated; who are aware of the racial divide in income and, more significantly, wealth; who recognize that the public schools grow ever more segregated while the push-out rate for Black and Latino students rises ever higher; who track the relative scarcity of African Americans in professional schools, as well as in a whole range of professions; who know that the infant mortality rate for black babies outstrips the rate for white babies by two to one; who watch the dynamics of gentrification, dislocation and homelessness – we are not convinced that racism is an insignificant remnant. And we’re hard pressed to understand why this argument should be any more tolerated when it comes from liberal feminists than when it comes from the more frankly racist right wing. Since I’m not running for president I can be blunt. The denial of the significance of racism is a deep and abiding form of the thing itself.
Much has been made of the gender tightrope Clinton must walk. She can’t seem too soft or too hard. She has to look attractive and expect that her hairdo, pantsuits, cleavage and ankles are all fair game for commentary. Tears will be relentlessly analyzed. She will be judged in ways that men never are. All of this is true, and an indication of how very far we have to go.
But, interestingly, Clinton can and does directly associate her campaign with a potential blow against gender discrimination. Obama cannot do the same with regard to race. Clinton regularly posits winning the presidency, breaking through that highest and hardest glass ceiling, as she puts it, as an historic win for women, more than 50 percent of the population.
Obama, meanwhile, does not have the latitude to explicitly associate his campaign with the interests of African Americans or an anti-racist agenda. Part of this is simply about the numbers. But there’s much more at work here. While Clinton has been walking her tightrope, Obama has been busy threading the very narrowest of needles. There may be dozens of ways for a white man to campaign for the presidency and, if our common history, both recent and remote, is any guide, just about any kind of white man can become president, as long as he has the cash and the connections.
Not so for the black man. At issue are not only his politics and his campaign craft, but also, crucially, how he inhabits his black manhood. (Now, up until a few months ago I couldn’t have imagined that there was any way for a Black man to become a serious contender – to thread the needle – so we’re all learning as we go here.) White folks, in general, don’t want to see any chips on the shoulders or any psychic scars on the soul. There isn’t a black male in America over the age of 10 who doesn’t have a few chips and scars, but letting them show is a major deal breaker in the halls of power. So props to Obama for a fine acting job.
There’s a bargain that white voters have struck with Obama, and here, in brief, is what it is:
“You can be black, and we’re happy to congratulate ourselves on voting for a black man, as long as you’re black in a way that doesn’t upset us, scare us, make us feel guilty, or make us feel too white.” Obama is holding up his side of the bargain, either because he’s temperamentally inclined to do so or because he’s carefully calculated what it takes to win over white voters, or some combination of the two. But the quality of his blackness is nonetheless an issue. This is the meaning of the insistence that Obama distance himself from his pastor, Reverend Wright, and from Minister Farrakhan. Way too many chips and scars. Way too little regard for what white folks think. And way too much attachment to the African American community. So, if Obama himself can’t be tagged as too black for prime time, maybe he’s too black by association.
Further, while Obama has assiduously courted the black vote, he hasn’t done so with an explicitly anti-racist message and he certainly hasn’t posited the African-American community as the core of his coalition. Why? Because to do so would sink his campaign like a hundred weight stone. This, in part, is the difference between the Jackson campaign, which built a disruptive, progressive coalition with Black voters and anti-racist politics at its core, and Obama’s liberal coalition that is inclusive of and reliant upon black voters without centralizing their concerns in a way that would scare off white voters. Jackson ran as a direct challenge to the status quo, implementing an inside-outside strategy without the burden of expecting a win. Obama’s first principle is viability, and he threads his needle accordingly.
It’s more than a little interesting that liberal feminists, so highly attuned to the ways in which gender frames how Clinton can run, are blissfully (willfully?) ignorant of how race and racism shape the Obama campaign. Black racial solidarity still reads as a threat in a way that gender solidarity does not.
One last talking point before we close: the voting behavior of white women. Every national election cycle we’re treated to lots of commentary about the gender gap and its meaning. More eligible women vote than do eligible men and women are somewhat more likely to cast their votes for Democrats than for Republicans. Clinton is undeniably running strongly among white women Democrats, especially those over the age of 50. Should we be reading this as further evidence that the older women voters get, the more radical they become, as Morgan and Steinem contend? [Steinem: “Iowa women over 50 and 60, who disproportionately supported Senator Clinton, proved once again that women are the one group that grows more radical with age.” Robin Morgan: “Older women are the one group that doesn’t grow more conservative with age…”]
The two party lockdown ensures that there’s no real way to register radicalism in presidential primaries or national elections. So let’s assume that those voting Democratic are somewhat more radical than those voting Republican. In the 2004 presidential election 55 percent of white women gave their votes to George W. Bush; 62 percent of white men did the same. A significant gender gap.
Meanwhile, 90 percent of African American women and a slightly smaller proportion of African American men voted for John Kerry. In the 2000 presidential election an astounding 94 percent of African American women voted Democratic. I can’t do the math, but I suspect that if you were to subtract the overwhelmingly Democratic votes of African American women the gender gap would narrow considerably.
Younger voters from 18-29 years old cast 54 percent of their votes for the Democratic candidate in 2004. Exactly the same percentage of voters 60 and over cast them for Bush.
I just don’t see the evidence that older white women constitute a hotbed of radicalism, or even consistent liberalism. Had they followed the lead of African American women in 2000 and 2004 we all would have been spared a whole lot of grief.
Liberal feminists have every right to spend down their political capital on behalf of Hillary Rodham Clinton. Hard choices have to made; political debts have to be paid. But it will not count as progress if a Clinton win is purchased at the cost of deepening the racial divide. It is inexcusable to support a candidate in the name of feminism while deploying racist argumentation, minimizing the existence and impact of racism, and denying the advantages of inhabiting the racial space called “white.” It will not be excused. Nor will it be forgotten.
*Linda Burnham is the co-founder and former Executive Director of the Women of Color Resource Center.
**Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at www.pambazuka.org
I] A whole other article could be written about the disappearance of Black women in this rumble. And we have the title already at hand, the 1982 classic All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave.
II] And yet another article on the black folks who died trying to exercise the right to vote, right up into the 1960s, and ongoing black disfranchisement, down to today. The struggle for women’s suffrage was a valiant and protracted one, as is the struggle for black political enfranchisement. The distinction in the character (and timing) of those struggles speaks to distinctions in the character and quality of racism and sexism, not to the primacy of one over the other.
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