Jeremiah and Geraldine
Barack Obama is a black man. Hillary Clinton is a white woman. I'm sorry to break this news, but it's true. Ask them.
In recent weeks, two figures affiliated with the rivals have engendered passionate denunciations for essentially stating the above uncontested truths. True, some of what has come out of Geraldine Ferraro's mouth has been appallingly insensitive to the realities of racism in the United States, and Pastor Jeremiah Wright's now infamous sermon about Obama and Clinton made it seem as if gender simply didn't exist. However, the controversial kernels of both of their controversial statements are unimpeachable.
First, let's take Ferraro's bitter complaints on behalf of Senator Clinton. There is a truckload of sexism at the core of the current election season, and no serious proponent of Obama's campaign could or should deny that his racial identity is crucial to his appeal, his experience, his soul and, yes, his success. I mean, come on. Duh. What's galling and blinkered about Ferraro's statements is that she implies that this is a bad thing, and that, somehow, Clinton's race and gender aren't also shaping her life in important ways. Clinton, in Ferraro's assessment, is primarily a victim of sexism, and isn't also a beneficiary of racial privilege. One strikingly honest thing that Ferraro did say, about herself and about Clinton, is that their gender played a huge role in their advancement to the top (or possible top) of the Democratic ticket. Clumsily, and with a blindness toward race that is sadly typical, Ferraro has said what a lot of people won't say. Hillary Clinton is a woman, and that accounts both for a measure of her success, but also for the particular and vicious attacks on her personal worth and character that have plagued her since she entered the race.
In many respects, Pastor Wright has done the same thing. Speaking in the language of black Christianity, Wright has worked to remind black congregants, and black voters in general of the simple truth that Barack Obama is also black, and that he has shared many of the experiences of other black people in America. The fact that this simple reminder has shocked and awed so many white pundits (and, anecdotally, potential voters) is distressing but predictable. Just as Clinton has had to be very careful in walking a line between being "too" or "insufficiently" feminine, Obama's got the same problem with his blackness. Wright's comments are a reminder that just because there is a mainstream black candidate for president does not mean that black people have forgotten about the realities of racism in the United States.
Of course, a lot of what Wright has said in his sermons sounds extreme to many Americans. "God Damn America" is not something I'd want ringing around my campaign. No doubt, it's a PR problem for Obama, and is part and parcel of the fact that as a liberal politician in Chicago, he's rubbed shoulders with parts of the left that have been effectively shuttered out of the mainstream. We can all look forward to more of such attacks based on Obama's "associations", something that Clinton doesn't have to worry about because she didn't have to move up from the grassroots of big city politics. Incidentally, there's nothing about Wright's sermons that is any more "radical" than what comes out of the Evangelical movement churches that Republican candidates frequent, but Obama's not going to be able to fix the ideological and discursive double standard in national American politics in the course of one campaign.
I don't envy either Obama or Clinton for having to walk these treacherous lines. At the same time, I'm pretty fed up with watching both of their campaigns pounce whenever there appears to be the potential of point-scoring.
We live today in the shadow of the reductive and destructive “debate” over “political correctness” that emerged in the 1990’s. That framework helped to reduce the realities of racialized and gendered inequalities to sparring over word choices and speech. The problem of racism, sexism or homophobia became one of hurtful, offensive statements, as the popular imagination merged concepts of bigotry and plain old rudeness together into a useless mishmash. In the end, simply mentioning the existence of race or gender, or class or sexuality as real factors in the real world experience of real people becomes a lightning rod. We can't talk about any of it in a serious way because the only way that people know how to talk about oppression is by denouncing someone's speech.
This is not to say that discourse isn’t important, or that words do not have power. However, actions by both the right and left during the “culture wars” over political correctness helped create an environment in which the stupid rantings of a comedian on stage was nearly as big a story as the horrific crimes of New Orleans.
Perhaps it is utopian folly to wish that mainstream public discourse around race, gender and class would be anything other than superficial in the
The Republicans are taking notes.