Saturday, June 7, 2008

White Women's Barack Bitterness

So the Democratic presidential primaries are finally over. Sen. Barack Obama is now the presumptive Democratic nominee and will face the GOP presumptive nominee Sen. John McCain this Fall in a battle for the White House. Given the tragedy of the Bush years--from illegal wars to a faltering economy to the erosion of civil liberties--there's alot at stake in this election, perhaps more so than in any previous time in US history. To this end the Democratic primaries saw record turn-outs, with many first-time voters becoming engaged in the political process. Whoever wins in November may well determine what course the country will take. So with so much in the balance, how can there be groups of Democrats claiming they will either sit out the presidential election, or--worse still--vote for the Republican candidate? And how are many of these people women (mostly white women)--claimed feminists at that? Other than on certain aspects of foreign policy after all, Sens. Clinton and Obama are quite similar. With regards to issues of gender--from reproductive rights to wage equality--they are identical. This is a far cry from Sen. McCain, who has taken a recent pro-life stance, and would most certainly stack the Supreme Court with justices hostile to womens' issues. So what gives?

Well, I know if I told these self-described feminists "their whiteness is showing," I'd get in trouble. So I'm glad Tim Wise said it for me: An Open Letter to Certain White Women Who Are Threatening to Withhold Support from Obama in November--Your Whiteness is Showing

First things first, I have nothing against feminism. I actually support the radical notion that women are equal human beings who should be treated as such. And I think gender, like race and class, is a useful tool of analysis with regards to history, social culture, politics, etc.

However, the sad truth is that feminism, like any other social movement, has its fault lines. One of these has been about race. Feminism from its inception to present day is hardly the sole domain of white women. Yet feminism has had a hard time dodging its perception as a "white woman's movement," by both supporters and detractors alike. For many women of color, it has been the perception--and some would argue the movement's self-perception--of itself as "white-led" that is most problematic. The feminist coalition has thus long had its issues with women of color--hence leading Alice Walker to coin the term "womanism," hoping to move beyond what was seen as feminism's inability to detatch itself from whiteness. This historic Democratic primary has exposed that rift rawly, as we saw early on in the battles between Gloria Steinem, a white feminist icon and Clinton supporter, and Dr. Melissa Harris-Lacewell, a black college professor of race and gender and an Obama supporter. After Steinem in a New York Times op-ed challenged the legitimacy of the Obama campaign in terms of gender-bias, Lacewell responded with a stinging rebuke that played out on a January episode of Democracy Now!. As Lacewell saw it, white feminists expected black women to rally around Clinton based on gender-solidarity, but paid scant attention to issues directly facing black women in terms of both race and gender. By Super Tuesday Lacewell was continuing to challenge the idea that Hillary Clinton represented "all" women in her blog piece Mammy Goes to Washington. The issue would rear its head again when Clinton campaign aide and former Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro made repeated assertions that Sen. Obama's success was due to his being black and male. Now that the primaries have ended, some die-hard supporters of Sen. Clinton are claiming much the same, asserting that Sen. Obama's victory was the product of sexism, going as far as to accuse the Democratic Party itself of being unfair to their candidate.

Yet, though there is some truth to these assertions, much of it bears scrutiny.

For one thing, when it comes to fairness, Sen. Obama won the primaries by following the given rules. Had he been "given" the nomination, the bitterness of his detractors might be warranted. If this were reversed, and Obama had somehow won by a sleight of hand or the like, they'd have a point. Had he run a campaign in which he played to issues of sexism and fanned the flames of gender bias, their anger could be justified. And might I add if he had run such a campaign, Sen. Obama would have had alot less supporters--including most likely myself. The truth was that Obama was never afforded the luxury of the option to play on gender bias. While Clinton's campaign threw the kitchen sink at Obama, he had to play defense, because had he ever gone on offense, he would have ruined his own campaign theme of "change."

Was there sexism towards Clinton? Certainly. I saw it by the boatloads from media pundits and from some Obama supporters on numerous blogs, where dislike of Clinton's campaign tactics would unfortunately turn into sexist vitrol. Yet none of this came out of the Obama campaign or from Sen. Obama himself. In fact, Obama endured heavy amounts of racism from those same media pundits and Clinton supporters. Though downplayed by his campaign, there have been death threats, verbal assault on his supporters and vandalism filled with racial epithets on some of his headquarters. A recent Project for Excellence in Journalism report in fact shows that contrary to Clinton supporters claims, Barack Obama actually received more negative press overall (much of it charged with race) throughout the campaign than did Hillary Clinton.

But what was worse, the Clintons and their campaign also engaged in petty acts of race-baiting, both blatant and subtle--a key reason they so dramatically lost the black vote, which they were leading in right up until mid January. These Rovian tactis were also a key reason so many long-time Clinton supporters of varied races crossed over to Obama. (In full disclosure, I crossed over from Edwards) Sure there were black people who were saying they would equally not vote for Sen. Clinton if she got the nomination, but that was only if the rules were suddenly changed to favor Clinton. It is ironic that her supporters are now claiming this same charge--but with absolutely no evidence. In fact, they ironically seem spiteful that the rules were *not* changed to favor Clinton!

People are free to vote for who they will, and for whatever reasons. But if there are groups of white feminists who will vote for Sen. McCain or sit this out over spite, knowing what is at stake, they don't deserve the title "feminist." And they should state plainly the real reasons behind their objection to Obama, rather than hiding behind easily dismantled claims. I think history will show in the end that whatever role gender played, the Clinton campaign mostly did itself in. And whatever legitimate issues of sexism her supporters have, these charges should be directed at the white male dominated media establishment not Barack Obama. Black people--men and women--have pulled levers for the white male presidential candidate for decades, even if he was not at all our ideal pick. White women have no monopoly on that harsh reality.

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