The bigotry of worn-out stereotypes

Posted: Nov 16, 2006 12:01 AM
The bigotry of worn-out stereotypes

"Americans are too racist for Barack/Americans are too sexist for Hillary." Says who? So says Benjamin Wallace-Wells, an essayist prominently displayed in The Washington Post. The headline makes the case that rednecks, male chauvinists and secret segregationists in the suburbs are insurmountable obstacles blocking the path to the White House for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

The Post puts no question marks after his assertions that the American public may not be ready for either of them to lead because of his race and her sex. But, perhaps thinking better of it, the Post added question marks in its online edition. But even as questions, these ideas are remnants of an out-of-date bigotry. They clearly don't apply to the senators from New York and Illinois, and there's growing evidence that they don't apply to anyone else, either.

"Recent polls have found that the percentages of Americans who say they would not vote for a hypothetical black or female presidential candidate, long formidable, have dwindled into single digits," concedes Mr. Wallace-Wells. Indeed. Stereotypes provide shortcuts for bigots, who argue with exaggeration and simplification, but neither Barack nor Hillary -- to use the first name familiarity now afflicting public discourse -- suffers from public generalizations about race or "gender." They have been examined and tested in the public forum.

Barack talks about himself as a walking symbol of "diversity," with a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya, the triumphant example of American possibility. He's no Charlie Rangel or Jesse Jackson; it's easy to listen to him and never think of his color. He may suffer from lack of experience, but not his race.

Hillary suffered, literally and figuratively, as Bill Clinton's uppity wife in the White House, a moving political target, but she's been elected on her own in New York. It's not her sex that's a problem so much as the inconsistencies of her leaps from moderate to liberal to conservative and back again to liberal, and her obtrusive, obstreperous, philandering husband who has nothing to do now but talk, talk, talk. "Buy one, get one free" won't be a Clinton slogan for '08. Nor is Hillary a Geraldine Ferraro, who was fairly untested in the national eye when she ran for vice president on the Democratic ticket in 1984, and who was reduced to talking about her muffin recipes.

Jews are large stereotypical targets of bigots, and yet in his campaign as an independent for the Senate, Joe Lieberman suffered none of the public prejudice that often bedevils Jews. This wasn't a problem when he ran for vice president with Al Gore in 2004, either, not even among the devout secularists who thought he talked too much about God.

Mitch Romney, a Mormon, however, is one presidential possibility who might be vulnerable to stereotyping. The governor of Massachusetts (not Utah) could suffer the slings and arrows tossed around on "Big Love," the raunchy television drama on HBO about a Viagra-popping Mormon husband with three needy wives and lots of whining in-laws. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints no longer permits polygamy (nor does the law), though some "jack Mormons" in Arizona and Utah still practice it in remote places on the shady side of the law.

Romney ought to be able to finesse the religious issue with a Jack Kennedy-like statement: "I am not the Mormon candidate for president. I am the Republican Party's candidate for president who also happens to be a Mormon. I do not speak for my Church on public matters -- and the Church does not speak for me." But the jokes, some funnier than others, would be merciless.

Are there still racists and male chauvinists in our midst? You bet. (Borat is getting rich as a make-believe bigot.) But they don't have the impact they once did. Nancy Pelosi draws attention to the fact that she's a grandmother in the House, conjuring associations that run against type in discussions of leadership. Barack Obama gives strong voice to Bill Cosby's reminders that accepting personal responsibility and civil behavior is the short route out of the ghetto, that real men prove their manhood by taking care of the children they sire. His critics sneer at Mr. Cosby as part of the "Afristocracy," the black elite, playing to the stereotypes of the racists, but both he and Sen. Obama impress everyone else as confident, competent and ready for prime time.

Confident and competent blacks and women are no longer the exceptions on the landscape. They grew up from the grass roots that gave them legitimacy based on merit and accomplishment, not appeals to pity and charity for overcoming past prejudice. The old caricatures, like the soft bigotry of low expectations, are out. They've come a long way, baby. So have we all.