Monday, January 14, 2008

Race and Gender on the Campaign Trail

Gloria Steinem lit a minor firestorm a week ago when she argued in a New York Times op-ed piece that sexism is trumping racism in this season's primary campaign. True, she noted halfway through her piece:
I’m not advocating a competition for who has it toughest. The caste systems of sex and race are interdependent and can only be uprooted together.
But she also stated:

Gender is probably the most restricting force in American life, whether the question is who must be in the kitchen or who could be in the White House.

Steinem got plenty of richly deserved flak - even from her own goddaughter, Rebecca Walker - for playing the "I'm more oppressed than you" game. (Check out the links for some great critiques of her piece. They hash it out so thoroughly and well that I really can't add anything.)

In response to a piece on Alternet by Sally Kohn, Steinem did back off from her latter statement. But as Kohn and others pointed out, the rest of Steinem's op-ed built an argument for sexism being more pervasive, virulent, and persistent than racism, based on such evidence as African-Americans gaining suffrage 50 years before women. (Never mind that Jim Crow laws prevented many African-Americans from actually exercising the right to vote until a good 100 years after they won it.)

Arguing that sexism trumps racism is just plain stupid. For one thing, it doesn't describe the real world. Sometimes racism is obviously more salient than sexism. For example, very few women have been targeted as potential shoplifters and tailed by retail clerks or even store detectives just because they're women. This has happened to a great many African-Americans just because they're black - irrespective of how well-dressed they may appear, which says this is about race rather than social class.

Secondly, it's politically simpleminded to pit race against gender. If the Democrats want to retake the White House in the fall, they've got to ditch their traditional circular firing squad behavior. Why should the Republicans stoop to divide-and-conquer tactics when the Democrats are busy doing the job for them?

I think the reason Steinem's op-ed nonetheless resonated with some women - including some young feminists who really ought to know better - is that Hillary Clinton's gender really has been a liability in certain ways. This is particularly true if you look at some of her treatment by the media. Exhibit A: Maureen Dowd's latest column in the New York Times (which Jon Swift spoofed marvelously). Exhibit B: This cartoon, which appeared in the Washington Post last week:

Exhibit C: Washington Post Columnist Joel Achenbach, who suggested Clinton "needs a radio-controlled shock collar so that aides can zap her when she starts to get screechy" (via Feministing). Exhibit D: Any broadcast featuring über-blowhard Chris Matthews, who outdid himself last week when he attributed Clinton's New Hampshire primary win to sympathy she gained due to her husband's infidelity.

I think it's also fair to say that certain overtly sexist verbal slurs are still acceptable in a way that the "N" word is not. In fact, the term "bitch" is increasingly allowable in polite company, on TV, and in public places. The media have largely given this a pass. Sure, they reported on the incident where a McCain supporter asked the candidate, "How do we beat the bitch?" and both McCain and the crowd laughed in response. Now, maybe McCain laughed partly in embarrassment. Let's give him that much benefit of the doubt. But swap the N-word for the B-word and imagine the outcry had the same question been asked about Obama. You can be pretty sure McCain would've reacted much more soberly. And might the media have kept the story alive for more than 24 hours?

But racism is equally potent in this campaign. It's just expressed in somewhat different forms. We need to be able to acknowledge that racism and sexism don't need to look the same to be equally pernicious. And apart from overt racism on Fox News, it's less the media than Clinton's supporters who are playing the race card.

For the past few days, the Clinton-Obama mudslinging has occurred mostly on racial issues. While Obama's campaign has sought to make hay from Clinton's remarks that played down the importance of Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, it's Clinton's people who have really made race an issue, and not in any constructive way. Probably the most egregious example of this is their repeated references to Obama's self-confessed cocaine use as a teenager. This *not* about drugs, though, or even Obama's character. It's about race. It plays into all those familiar stereotypes about black men as drug users, dealers, and gangstas. That's still just as true even if the Clinton ally invoking it is himself black.

In fairness, it's unlikely that Clinton herself is directing these racist attacks, and her husband has denied her involvement. But she's tolerating them from her underlings, despite calls from Obama's campaign to renounce them. Also to be fair, Obama has not denounced the media's use of sexist stereotypes, and he should. But sins of omission are not as severe as sins of commission. And so far you don't see him or his people feeding the sexist media beast.

Who wins in the gender vs. race wars? Not Clinton. Not Obama. But maybe Huckabee, McCain, or Romney.

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