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Race and sex in ’08

Published: February 15, 2008
Section: Opinions


Either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama will appear at the top of the Democratic Party’s ticket in 2008, and either one stands a good chance of defeating their Republican opponent. The Republican nominee will probably be someone whose plan of action will consist of war, starving the social-spending beast of present and future funds, beating the drum for limitless executive authority, piling up debt, and relying upon massively misplaced public trust to overcome the massively manifest cognitive dissonance that arises whenever a convenient lie is told. In other words, the Republican nominee will be a “four more years” sort of candidate. In those circumstances, then– and forgive me if, as I suspect, I’ve just preached to the choir– either Democratic candidate is likely to be a less harmful choice.

So, if you’re eligible to vote in a Democratic primary somewhere, how should you go about choosing between them? There are some notable differences in the positions they have staked out: Clinton, for example, seems to envision a relatively longer American stay in Iraq, while Obama appears to view universal health care for adults as well as children as more of an aspiration than a plan. But differences such as these are not the ones being emphasized by either the media or by many of the candidates’ supporters. Instead, certain very important characteristics of the candidates have come to the fore. In case you haven’t heard the buzz, Obama has darker skin pigmentation than most Americans, while Clinton has female reproductive organs.

The media speaks of these apparently critical distinctions as matters of “race” and “gender.” While these terms when used in the academic discourse have to do with a good deal more than mere physical characteristics, their meanings for purposes of this campaign have been much cruder. So, too, has been their use. Never mind the widespread pessimism about the economy, the war, the climate and environment, or any of the other wellsprings of bad tidings that will need capping when the current regime clicks the heels of its jackboots together for the last time. All that can wait. Let’s talk about “race” and “gender” instead.

In some ways, the course the campaign has taken is unsurprising. Stories of race and gender make for spunky headlines, and they resonate loudly with many Democratic voters. And the positions the candidates have staked out are often similar– sometimes worryingly so.

But does that justify a vote based on characteristics with which the candidates were born? I think not. First, neither skin nor genitalia will go very far toward solving the country’s problems. What will be needed are good ideas, charisma, courage, character, a conscience recognizable as such– the stuff so sorely lacking in the current leadership, the stuff of what I will smile and wince and refer to as statespersonship. These are qualities of which a person may possess more or less, irrespective of whether one is black, white, or blue, male, female or both.

In truth, for being what passes in this country for the party of the left, the Democrats are behaving in a profoundly illiberal way. Many Democrats have or will set aside the merits of the candidates’ respective ideas and the content of their respective characters and make their choice based on inborn characteristics. It’s helpful here to assume for the sake of argument that John Edwards had stayed in the race and espoused many positions similar to those of his rivals. Would many Democrats then be heard to assert with pride that they were backing him because he was a white male?

But the preoccupation with race and gender points to a still more damning indictment of the party and the party system. It has to do with a characteristic that today divides Americans far more cruelly and significantly than the physical attributes on which Obama and Clinton have staked so much. Race and gender are familiar and comfortable masks for economic inequality and the distinction of class. As both Clinton and Obama themselves show, race and gender do not do a sufficiently good job of approximating this inequality. The so-called “race” and “gender” distinctions that have been made to matter so much in this campaign can be boiled down to superficial distinctions of color and anatomy; neither candidate’s association with a particular race or gender is nearly as important as their shared association with privilege and wealth. Were the pair not campaigning, both would likely travel in circles that excluded practically everyone whose votes they now seek; gone would be the universally extended handshakes and fake smiles and visits to the kinds of workplaces and communities where money is not to be found. Indeed, even if both candidates, whose respective supporters tout their champions as “firsts,” could take the prize, America would still have to wait for its “first” president of less-than-privileged socioeconomic status.

Merely electing an unmonied leader would do little more to change the monstrous fact of inequality than electing an unwhite or unpenised president would do to end racism or sexism. Pretty figureheads have adorned filthy ships. But issues of race and gender receive a great deal of attention in the law, in the policies of businesses and organizations, in the academy, and in the news media– with Democrats and their allies often the most attentive of all.

By contrast, the law and the monied interests who tend to get laws made have little to offer those who would like to take concrete action to alleviate the maldistribution of wealth. Class issues are often either recast– by members of both parties and members of neither– into issues of race and gender, or are dismissed as noble but unrealizable aspirations or as somehow inconsistent with American practice or ideals.

The media dutifully exposes this conservative ideology of deflection and denial to the eyes and ears of the public. Or it focuses attention on narrow and especially desperate segments of the population, such as the homeless. Certainly, they deserve help, but their terrible plight and heightened visibility make it more difficult to comprehend and seek to tackle the much broader problem of inequality.

And what of the academy? Race and gender figure very prominently– as they ought to– with whole departments dedicated to their study. Study of inequality, by contrast, is fragmented. And it must often take place in a hostile intellectual climate clouded over by what is aptly called orthodox economics, a system of generally good ideas, the clear shortcomings of which one speaks of at his or her reputational peril.

Where racism and sexism are still to be found, no one should hesitate to attack them. Today, most Americans would probably agree with that. But where the real problem has to do with the fact that certain people have gobs of money while most must live in fear for their tomorrows (or even their todays), the pretense that the real issue centers on race and gender is a political tool. It is a hatchet used to chop into manageable segments the broad constituency that might stand to benefit from policies designed to alleviate inequality.

The Obama-Clinton race-gender focus keeps the existing party most likely to take action against economic inequality focused on issues that obscure it. This is especially troubling at a time when that inequality is as pronounced as it has ever been in this country and continues to grow. Hopefully, when the Democratic Party settles on a candidate, he or she will appeal for policies to deal with inequality, rather than rely on his or her “first”-ness.

The recent past leaves little room for doubt that either President Obama or President Clinton will do otherwise than oppose both racism and sexism where they exist. But the willingness of either to fight economic inequality as such cannot be taken for granted, and warrants more attention and assurances than have been forthcoming thus far. And, indeed, given the breadth of the constituency that might benefit from the right policies to tackle inequality, one would think that espousing them would be a matter of self-interest for a candidate. Whether Clinton or Obama does so in the end will therefore go a long way towards answering the question whether the Democratic Party– rather than, say, a new party, or angry mobs– is the vehicle that will spearhead the drive against a social problem that cannot forever be forced to sit in the back of the political bus.