July Issue 2008
Sex and the Race
“Iron my shirt!” Early on in the US primary season, hecklers at a Hillary Clinton rally invoked the distinctly pre-feminist notion that a woman’s place is doing the laundry, and had the gall to complement the pathetic slogan with placards. If it had any effect at all, it was to increase support among women for the Democratic candidate.
But as the race heated up, the level of sexism increased. One picture circulated on the Internet shows a man holding up a piece of cardboard with the profound opinion: “She couldn’t satisfy her husband. She won’t satisfy America.” That pair of sentences combines two separate misogynist misapprehensions: first that Bill Clinton’s sleazy promiscuity is somehow his wife’s fault; and, secondly, that her capabilities as a sexual partner are somehow related to her potential performance as a president.
The bumper sticker that announced “Monica Lewinsky’s X-Boyfriend’s Wife for President” was equally impertinent, albeit somewhat more amusing. The implication that Hillary was responsible for Bill’s peccadilloes is still there, although it’s also possible to read it as a reminder that evidence of the ex-president’s extra-curricular sexual activities failed to persuade his wife to go her separate way, quite conceivably for reasons that had more to do with political ambition than with personal loyalty.
As first lady, she once raised conservative hackles by saying that she wasn’t the sort of woman typified by the Tammy Wynette song ‘Stand By Your Man’ — in other words, that a straying husband wouldn’t be able to count on her support. However, when Bill faced impeachment for bald-faced lies about his relations with Lewinsky, amid a string of revelations about his apparently insatiable appetite for sex, particularly of the oral variety, Hillary defended him vociferously against what she described as a vast right-wing conspiracy. She wasn’t entirely wrong about this, but made little allowance, at least in public, for the fact that her husband had voluntarily walked into the trap.
It is conceivable that the marital truce at the time revolved around the quid pro quo that Bill, in his capacity as ex-president, would be as supportive of Hillary’s political career as she was of his. The formidable Clinton machinery came in very handy during her successful attempt to serve as the senator for New York. On the presidential campaign trail, however, it failed to do the trick. Or perhaps it wasn’t so much the machinery that came up short as Bill Clinton, who exhibited an alarming tendency to go red in the face and virtually explode with indignation whenever things seemed not to be going his wife’s way.
Whatever the impulse behind this tendency, it did not make a good impression, particularly on the occasions when Bill crossed the line. Among the shibboleths on which Hillary based her campaign, particularly after it became clear that the only rival she had to worry about was Barack Obama, was that the latter’s elevation to the presidency would be no big deal, as the US had already elected its first black president when Bill Clinton was voted in. What lent a hint of credence to this silly notion was the Clintons’ broad popularity among African-Americans, which remained intact well into the early stages of the primary season. Then, on the eve of the South Carolina primary, Bill Clinton publicly expressed the opinion that Obama would win the state — as Jesse Jackson had done before him — because of the racial composition of the electorate.
Until then there had been no clear-cut racial divide among the electorate. Thereafter, things were never the same. Earlier, questions had been raised whether Obama was “black enough,” in view of his Caucasian mother, plus the fact that his antecedents differed from those of the average African-American: his father was a Kenyan student rather than one descended from the slaves. Bill Clinton’s petulant remarks removed all such doubts, and Obama began attracting 90% or more support among black voters. The reciprocal effect was not so stark, but whites began flocking to Hillary Clinton in larger numbers. In some counties in the Deep South, there could be no question that Obama’s miserable showing was based mainly on racial considerations. In Pikeville, Kentucky, for instance, Stanley Little — whose family had a long history of voting for the Democrats — declared to a reporter that he would be voting for John McCain because “McCain is one of us. Obama ain’t.”
These were the sort of regions where it took no more than the barest of hints to convince folks that Obama was a closet Muslim, and quite possibly even the anti-Christ. The irrepressible TV comedian Jon Stewart had satire in mind when he asked Obama whether he intended to enslave the white race as soon as he became president. That was not the attitude of Johnny Telvor in Williamson, West Virginia. “We’ll end up slaves,” he piously informed a reporter. “We’ll be made slaves just like they was once slaves.” So, who would he vote for in November? Why, McCain, of course: “At least he’s an American.”
Fortunately for Obama, voters who betray this level of ignorance and prejudice constitute a relatively small minority. However, in a tight election their influence may well turn out to be disproportionate to their numerical strength. Obama did not endear himself to his compatriots in the rural southern backwaters when he said at a private gathering of Democrats that some folks in isolated communities, when embittered by economic circumstances, tended to turn to guns and God. As generalisations go, it was reasonably accurate. But the remarks were pounced upon by Republicans and the Clinton campaign alike, and cited as evidence of Obama’s elitism.
That wasn’t a particularly sensible angle of attack, given that the Clintons and McCain are at least equally elitist. Besides, the perception that Obama is unpopular among the white working class isn’t entirely accurate: opinion polls suggest that his approval rating among this segment of the population is higher than that of Al Gore and John Kerry at equivalent stages of the 2000 and 2004 campaigns. Of course, opinion polls in the US are frequently way off the mark, partly because they are invariably based on tiny samples. However, the greater danger for Obama lies in the tendency of such opinions and projections becoming self-fulfilling prophecies.
That did not happen in the case of Obama’s effort to cast his presidential run as a post-racial campaign, chiefly because the US is clearly not a post-racial society, nor will it be transformed into one in the event of Obama entering the White House next January. His successes thus far are, nonetheless, a measure of the progress that has been made since the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
Equal rights in every sphere remain an unfulfilled dream, alienation still abounds in urban ghettoes, and blacks continue to constitute a disproportionately large segment of the American prison population. At the same time, many African-Americans still find it hard to believe that one of their kind is on the verge of being catapulted into the highest office in the land. In the initial stages of the campaign, it seems some of them were reluctant to embrace Obama because of the fear that too much love would literally kill him: that overwhelming black support would increase the likelihood of a racist bullet finding its mark.
That fear remains, and it was reinforced during the fuss over remarks made by the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, the former pastor at the church Obama attended in Chicago, who belongs to a long line of black liberation theologists that included Martin Luther King Jr. Arguably, the gauntlet thrown by the Clintons propelled African-Americans towards publicly demonstrating their support. In this context, it is important to note that no one associated with the Obama campaign contributed to the notion that Hillary Clinton was somehow unworthy of being president on account of her gender.
During the campaign, some Clinton supporters — including a feminist icon or two — contended that the former first lady deserved precedence in the Democratic stakes because the gender divide was deeper and more insidious than racial disparities. Their claims weren’t altogether baseless: after all, North America is the only continent, apart from Australia, that has no experience of a female head of government, and women are grossly underrepresented in Congress. Women CEOs are hardly commonplace. Nearly 40 years after the first wave of sisterhood, the dominance of brothers remains intact.
However, when Gloria Steinem pointed out back in January that black men were enfranchised long before women, she failed to supplement that fact with how it panned out: unlike women, blacks were routinely not allowed to vote for close to 100 years after they were enfranchised, and even now there are instances of arbitrary disenfranchisement in parts of the country. Besides, while it could very well be argued that women were for ages chained to the stove, the kitchen sink and the bed, in the case of slaves the chains weren’t metaphorical. Nor, more generally, has the maltreatment of women ever approached the lynchings that were far from uncommon in parts of the US until 60 years ago.
None of the foregoing is intended to trivialise women’s suffering in the US (or anywhere else), but in view of all the evidence it takes a great deal of audacity to suggest that somehow electing a woman as president would be a bigger leap, psychologically and sociologically, than catapulting a black person into that position. This is not to suggest, however, that on historical grounds Barack Obama somehow has a greater moral claim to the White House than Hillary Clinton. The two candidates cannot reasonably be considered on the basis of gender or race alone. After all, there are a million reasons why Condoleezza Rice wouldn’t be an ideal candidate for either party, and none of them has anything to do with the arrangement of her chromosomes or the colour of her skin.
In her concession speech last month, long after it became clear that her chances of beating Obama’s numerical advantage in delegates were all but non-existent, Clinton endorsed her rival while implying that she had failed mainly because she is a woman. A segment of the opposition to her is undoubtedly rooted in sexism and misogyny, but it is perfectly possible to mistrust or dislike her on grounds unrelated to her gender. By the same token, it would be absurd to argue that racism constitutes the only possible grounds for opposing Obama’s bid for the presidency. Gender and racial barriers have obviously played a part in the campaign, but it’s important to recognise that they are only part of the story.
Unfortunately, many of the people who take particular umbrage at one barrier or the other tend to be partisan. As noted above, the Obama campaign made no effort to reinforce sexist stereotypes — but it didn’t exactly go out of its way to condemn them either. And many of the venerable feminists, who leapt to Clinton’s defense when they considered her under male chauvinist siege, have remained silent in the face of equally gratuitous attacks on Michelle Obama.
To Clinton and her tenacity can the likelihood be credited that women will henceforth be less reluctant to put themselves forward as candidates for political office. Obama has arguably made an even bigger difference where perceptions are concerned. But what if he doesn’t make it? What if a young, intelligent, engaging and honey-tongued candidate loses to an ageing war veteran with anger-management issues who intends in some ways to extend the disastrous and almost universally reviled Bush presidency? Would that be seen as conclusive proof that America is not ready for a black commander-in-chief?
Perhaps. But let us hope the question does not arise.
Mahir Ali is an Australia-based journalist. He writes regularly for several Pakistani publications, including Newsline.