Monday, June 23, 2008

Race and Sex

I've been a little concerned about what I've been hearing about Clinton supporters getting angry about losing, and about some of them going so far as to threaten to vote McCain. How could progressive women vote for a man who is openly anti-choice and calls his wife a cunt? Via Feministing, I've come across a great piece that helps to explain why some people are exactly that angry. And more specifically, why many of them are angry at not just the good old boys, but at the good guys too.

Here's an excerpt that particularly intrigues me:
Of course, the ease with which these kinds of stereotypes were bandied about suggests that it is women -- about to take your jobs and your college acceptance letters and your seat in the Oval Office and probably your penis! -- who are the most threatening to the established white male power structure.
Then I think back to the relative treatments of Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. In this case too, much more vitriol is spewed toward the woman than the man, and like the democratic primary, race is shown to be less flammable than sex. I think this is fundamentally related to what Immortal Technique--and others, but him most recently for me--have said regarding racism and economic class. He says, in The Poverty of Philosophy, that while racism is still clearly active in America, class repression is much stronger--which is why he doesn't hate the white kid down the street, but only the politicians, et al.

What we find in the Clinton/Obama race is the flip side of this. A black man running for president is not threatening to the sophisticated chauvinist because it does nearly nothing to change the precedent of oppression as it exists. With Obama's primary victory we can now say race won't keep black men out of political position, and we can simultaneously ignore the very real economic barriers that continue to prevent most African-Americans from even leaving the ghetto, much less aspiring to any position of power. In short, Obama is not threatening because he doesn't represent--Darstellung--the black man that racism fears. Electing him will not empower those black people that racists fear because it will not upset the economic imbalance that structures racism. We might say that racism is benefiting from a well-ingrained paradox: electing Obama would be declared historic, because he represents an disempowered minority; but electing Obama is not threatening--and in terms of "progress" might not really be so historic--because he doesn't represent a disempowered minority.

Clinton is quite a different story, because of the structural differences between sexism and racism. Women as a class (?) are oppressed not by economic fiat but by social convention. Women are not born to poorer families then are men, and don't grow up in more dangerous neighborhoods (excepting of course that, because of the epidemic of sexual violence, nearly all neighborhoods are more dangerous for women). The only thing that stands in the way of a woman and the presidency is sexism. Of course it's harder for women to land extremely high-paying jobs--to appease non-feminists, this could be toned down to "less likely"--and such jobs make running for office much easier to do, if for no other reason than the increase in assets and connections, but the restricted access to such a market too is a result of sexism, not economic class. So racism always acts in tandem with structural economic oppression, but sexism does not (I am finessing away, in unforgivable fashion, overlaps of sexism and racism). As a consequence, electing a woman would do a great deal to undermine the institution of sexism; it would alter precedent and preference, which are the only things keeping women from the highest office. Thus electing Clinton is threatening to chauvinism in a way that electing Obama is not. Electing Clinton--or any woman, but I am inclined to say any white woman--would, in a very real way, upset the position reserved for women as a support and background, rather than as a leader. And it would do so in relation to every bi-sexual encounter, where the only thing ensuring the subordinance of the woman is the precedent that she is by nature subordinate. In that respect, voting for Clinton--policies aside--would have done much more to upset white male dominance than voting for Obama can do. Policies aside.

What we have to hold on to is that another woman will come along, and that she'll actually be progressive. Clinton is a point of ambivalence for me. I want to vote for a woman, because sexism is habitual in ways that racism is not (because of the above), but Clinton demonstrated an impressive capacity to do things that made her completely unvoteforable. The two things that spring to mind are the "gas tax holiday" and her habit of calling Obama "elite" and dismissing things she didn't like as "elite opinion." (I'm irritated about anti-elitism and about conflating "elitism" and "elite." Doesn't elite just mean better? How can that be a bad thing?) Why did she have to be such a bad candidate? And will I ever be able to sort out her bad positions from the devil-mask painted for her by the sexist media?

I want to be sure, before I go, that it's clear that I'm not arguing that sexism is better or worse than racism, or that it's easier or more important to combat one or the other. Both are rancid cancers that we will all die with, and I don't mean to make the abolishionist mistake of putting one struggle ahead of the other. But exploring why the Man flamed Clinton in ways that He didn't flame Obama is important, especially since we all hope to go through this again very soon.


Jennifer said...

Policies aside, another thing that made Clinton unvoteforable to me was that her success was so obviously tied to that of her husband. What kind of precedent would that set? Women need to be subordinate to a man who has been successful before she herself can be successful? And how would her campaign have looked if she had dumped Bill? No chance. She is nothing without her man, and I think that casts a big shadow on the whole idea of setting a precedent.

One thing I didn't get from your post is why you don't think Obama represents poor blacks. Wasn't he raised in a single-parent household? And didn't he spend years doing pro bono work in Chicago? (Please correct me if I'm wrong.)

ThePeat said...

English poses a problem with "represent" because it houses multiple meanings. German has (and here you can correct me) vertreten--to stand in for--and darstellen--to provide an image for (this is all coming from Spivak, not my own experiences with the language). Obama represents poor blacks in that he will represent them politically--he'll stand up for them and do pro bono work for them. But he doesn't behave like a member of the black community that is feared by the chauvinistic majority. His parents got divorced, but were both college educated, so though his childhood may have been less than ideal, it doesn't seem to have had the crushing misery of growing up in the inner city. I guess what I'm getting after is that his story shows that race alone is only part of the story of racism--and given the anti-Muslim nonsense in circulation about Obama, race is clearly still at least a little scary to people--but that the intersection of race and class is where the greatest fear lies.

And ultimately all I want to argue in this bit is that class interacts with race on a general scale in a way that it does not interact with sex.

Jennifer said...

Now I see what you mean. Thanks for clearing that up.