Saturday, January 26, 2008

Race and Gender in the Democratic Race

Were it not for George Bush, the worst President in American history, and a dismal array of Republican candidates, I would be somewhat fearful of the fact that H. Clinton and Obama continue to be the leading candidates for the Democratic party, for we have never elected a woman or an African-American President before. People are slaves to their habits and voting for white men for President has been our habit from the beginning.

Democrats do have a white male in the race but he has not been able to compete successfully. How much this has to do with him as a campaigner and how much it has to do with the qualities of H. Clinton and Obama I can't say with any assurance. Since Edwards is a quintessential Democrat, in fact a liberal Democrat by today's standard (as opposed to the standard in the 1960's), and is quite presentable, I have to assume that it is H. Clinton's star power (fame and notoriety) and Obama's novelty (the first African American to run who did not come out of the civil rights movement) that is forcing him into the shadows.

Obama's initial appeal to Whites, I believe, was that he has not been running primarily to advance the cause of African Americans or what the very tiresome Jesse Jackson has called the Rainbow Coalition. Rather, he has represented himself simply as running for the Democratic nomination, just as Hillary and Edwards have been. That was a real novelty. African Americans could expect that he would look after their interests, although he was not saying so, but so would the other candidates I imagine.

Then Hillary said, what seems to me to have been a quite innocuous point that it took politicians to enact Martin Luther King's dream and Obama took exception to that. That was, I think, a very stupid thing to do. Her remark would not have been questioned were neither running for President. Obama knows that activists all by themselves can't accomplish very much of anything besides winning the hearts and minds of the people. It takes politicians to realize or, much more commonly, almost realize the reforms of activists. Obama knows this.

Why Obama simply didn't leave this alone I can't say. It has clearly helped him in garnering Black votes and, I suspect, he will win in S. Carolina today thanks to stripping away Black voters (especially women) who might have supported Hillary. But this victory will I think be a Pyrrhic one.

Americans, in contrast to others, have sometimes been described as less racist than racially conscious. Of course both could be true. A symptom of one's being racially conscious is feeling the necessity of including the word "Black" (or whatever other word you use) in sentences like, "I saw this Black doctor yesterday who said I have a stress fracture in my foot." Clearly, the doctor's being Black is totally irrelevant. This verbal behavior is a clear sign that you are racially conscious. Men very commonly would include "female" as a descriptor in the same sentence evidencing clearly that they are gender conscious.

Even if Obama hadn't taken issue with Hillary's statement, race would have become an issue because the media would make it one. It wasn't an issue in the early caucuses and primaries. They all occurred in states in which Blacks were a small minority. But it is an issue in S. Carolina and inevitably the media in analyzing pre-election polls, and the exit polls taken on election day and in post-election analyzes, will break down the voting by race. Once that has happened Obama is doomed unless something unforseable now occurs.

Why do I say he isn't going to win? A continuing problem in America is that while White Americans are often or even usually perfectly comfortable with individual Blacks they are not, I think, all that comfortable with Blacks in general. And in my experience, African Americans are no different from Whites in this respect (except it is Whites in general they aren't comfortable with). I will never forget a Black friend of mine telling me that he would root for an African runner in an Olympics event over a White American. I was stunned. And, I saw Black college students cheering the O. J. Simpson murder trial verdict on TV. That came very close to breaking my heart. They were no different in my mind from the racist Whites that cheered when KKK murderers were found innocent by White juries.

All of this goes back to the fact that we are hard-wired to be suspicious of those who are different from us. During the period in which humans were quite primitive, one's survival depended making sound judgments as to who were and who were not a threat to us. Strangers would normally I think have been perceived as dangerous until they showed they were not. This provides the seed for racist feelings today.

Here is my prediction: Obama will win S. Carolina. (I have not turned the TV on to any news or information channel so I am not cheating here.) This victory will be due to the fact that some whites will vote for him and most Blacks will. Hillary and Edwards will split the rest of the votes. I have heard that Edwards might edge Hillary out. This victory due to Black solidarity -- as ugly a phenomenon as White solidarity or male solidarity -- will, I think, inspire Blacks to gravitate to him and this will lead Whites to move away from him and toward Hillary and Edwards. The net effect will be that Obama will not get the nomination.

Many years ago, I heard a paper at a conference at Georgetown concerning a class room experiment the speaker had run at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He raised a question for debate that he had earlier determined was one that did not break down as to the yeas and nays on racial lines. He picked a Black male and a White male and gave one the nay and the other they yea. By the time the hour was up, the entire class had polarized along racial lines. In a nutshell (the speaker gave a deeper analysis) the division in the class had more to do with debate style than the arguments that were given. The Black speaker was more aggressive than the White speaker and Whites began to see the Black male as hostile when he wasn't at all and the Blacks saw the White speaker as lame though his arguments were as robust as the Black guy's.

I fear there will be considerable racial polarization within the electorate as the campaign continues. It is hard to say whether gender polarization will also occur but it will be very hard to tell sexist attitudes from anti-Hillary attitudes in such a case. What I hope is that Clinton and Obama quit fighting and spend their time and energy on presenting their views on the issues. I think Bill may not let that happen. One benefactor could be Edwards.

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Blogger Bilbo said...

If race and gender continue to dominate the Democratic selection process, the party could be split so badly that the Democrats could implode and we'd be stuck with another Republican president. At that point, Australia would be looking pretty good as a place to live.

9:25 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

I hear you.

10:21 AM


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