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Politics of Sex and Race

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

When Al Gore chose Joe Lieberman as his running mate, Jews were elated -- and scared. Many worried that if he said or did anything wrong, everyone would blame the Jews. That never happened; there's little evidence that anti-Semitism played any role at all in the election of 2000.


Now there's a similar buzz among blacks, who fear the nomination of Barack Obama would unleash a racial backlash. Black reaction to certain of Bill and Hillary's remarks suggest just such fears. The most insulting remark, in the complaints of many blacks, was the question of emphasis in Hillary Clinton's remark that "Dr. [Martin Luther] King's dream began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act." Fair enough (although a reference to her old civics textbook would remind Hillary that Congress passes legislation; presidents sign legislation into law). Then she added that "it took a president to get it done." That wasn't exactly wrong, but it wasn't smart. It wasn't racist, but it was polarizing. She diminished Martin Luther King Jr. and elevated Lyndon B. Johnson.

Questioned about her remarks on "Meet the Press," she told interviewer Tim Russert that "this campaign is not about gender, and I sure hope it's not about race." That's disingenuous and she knows it. She and her husband appeal to considerations of both gender (i.e. sex) and race, and so do many of their supporters.

Race and gender issues are frequently discussed together, but racial politics and gender politics are very different, historically and politically. Rights and injustices differ in degree, most dramatically perceived in the antebellum South, where many white women lived in plantation luxury through the hard work of black slaves. Both blacks and women campaigned vigorously for the vote, but blacks got the right to vote 50 years before women did. Nevertheless, blacks continued to suffer painful discrimination.


Many early feminists were abolitionists and crusaders for civil rights for blacks, but there was competitive tension in their rhetoric over the urgency of getting the vote. "Before Obama and Clinton, there was Douglass and Stanton," writes one black blogger, referring to the acrimonious debate in 1869 between feminist leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton and black abolitionist Frederick Douglass, the year before blacks won the right to vote.

Frederick Douglass framed the issue from a black perspective: "When women, because they are women, are hunted down through the cities of New York and New Orleans; when they are dragged from their houses and hung from lampposts; when their children are torn from their arms and their brains dashed out upon the pavement; when they are objects of insult and rage at every turn; when they are in danger of having their homes burnt down ... then they will have an urgency to obtain the ballot equal to our own."

Gloria Steinem drew race and gender parallels in an op-ed in The New York Times, but her emphasis was on sex: "Gender is probably the most restricting force in American life, whether the question is who must be in the kitchen or who could be in the White House." She didn't include in her "restricting force" the matter of who goes to college: There are many more women than men, and more black women than black men, enrolled in college and graduate school. Proportionately, black children suffer more the lack of fathers than white sons and daughters. African-American boys are more likely to drop out of high school, commit crimes and land in prison.


It's fine for Hillary to inspire our daughters to aspire to the highest rungs of power, but it's true that the feminist revolution yielded greater access to success for young women than the Civil Rights Movement yielded for young black men. There are several complicated reasons why, and Barack Obama is such an attractive candidate because he's an example of "making it" without a focus on color. No small thing.

But certain women still wave the feminist flag. Erika Jong, an aging member of the sisterhood, writes on Huffington Post that she's sick of "pink men" as well as "brown men and tan men and wheaten men" who argue, blather and bloviate with wrongheaded predictions for the future while insisting that women shut up.

"I know there are bad mothers, bad women, bad sisters, bad aunts, and bad females of every stripe. But I have seen enough men in high office to last a lifetime. Let's give women a chance." This is the latest feminist rationale for Hillary.

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