Saturday, May 12, 2007

candidate talk

Last night I went to a gathering of friends, all of them white, in their thirties, and ranging in political persuasion from mainstream liberal to more progressive. We discussed politics and the upcoming presidential elections. What I found unsettling when the conversation centered on who my friends will most likely vote for in the fall, was the following statement one of my friends made: "Unfortunately, America is not ready for a black or a woman president." And then he went on to justify why his white male Democratic candidate seemed to him like the best choice.

I grew quiet, thinking about his words. I have a hard time believing that sentiment. Of course, I am not blind to the fact that, as recently reported by a variety of press outlets, including the Guardian, Barrack Obama requested secret service protection "far earlier in the campaign than any previous candidate following worries about racist threats." I am not blind to the racism expressed all around the internet and on shows like Rush Limbaugh, or to the masogynistic bashing of Hillary on personality traits and looks, but I stil don't buy the idea that a candidate couldn't win just because of his or her race or gender. It's not the public that's not ready, I think; it's the establishment - the powerful white males in control of most institutions and others who benefit from and are unwilling to challenge white supremacy that feel threatened by someone "outside the status quo."

Imgagine if Oprah ran, for example. Don't you think she would get the vote? I am convinced of it. Just this week, Oprah endorsed Obama. With an estimated audience of 14 million a day, this might have impact beyond what we can imagine. I know I'm just using Oprah as not a very representative example of the personalities out there who could very well defy my friend's theory, but a part of what disturbs me about his statement is that he seemed to be using this unsupported theory to justify his own choice for not voting for a woman or a black candidate. He would have probably said to that that he is only being realistic. I heard that argument many times during the last two elections for why people voted for Kerry as opposed to one of the other more progressive candidates. But maybe behind that "I'm just being realistic" mask hides the fact that my friend is himself not ready for a black or female president. But saying that straight out would, of course, have made him sound like a sexist and racist...

All I said at the gathering was that I don't believe America isn't ready, but it took me some time after the party to sort out why I felt strange about the statement and the context in which it was said. What do you think?

6 comments:

Scott said...

Hmmmm...an interesting question...my instincts are torn...

One thing that occurs to me is that whatever role "the establishment" might play in gatekeeping more generally, I don't think that there is a blanket establishment rejection of Obama or Clinton. Far from it, in fact. Both have raised huge amounts of money from very establishment sources, something that you just can't do if you don't have approval from at least a portion of the establishment interests/capitalist class. Both are firmly in the Democratic Leadership Council wing of the party, which is as establishment as it gets. I guess one way to approach the question of electability is to assume that both they and power brokers within the party would have done plenty of unreleased polling by now, and if there wasn't significant elite Dem agreement that they could well be electable, they wouldn't have made it this far.

Another interesting way to approach the question is to think about what politics around race and gender oppression render a candidate electable vs. unelectable, both in terms of establishment gatekeeping and response from the electorate more generally. And how do the constraints on race/gender politics that are considered acceptable by elites and voters vary depending on whether or not a candidate is racialized and whether or not s/he is gendered a woman?

A statistic that seems generally relevant to this issue is the fact that the majority of white voters, and I believe more markedly among white men, have not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1964, and that the shift after that year had everything to do with race politics.

Tereza said...

Scott, you're right. Judging by the amount of money Clinton and Obama have raised, they are as establishment as it gets.

I didn't know that about the majority of white voters not voting for a Democrat since 1964. I found the same written about here.

So, how would you respond to someone like my friend saying: "America isn't ready for a black or woman president?"

Scott said...

Hmmm...

Well, it would depend on the person, of course. I might just take it as an opportunity to start a more general conversation about how racism and sexism work, by asking questions about what s/he meant by that statement, talking about barriers that a Black man or white woman might face in electoral politics, and so on. I suspect it might also uncover some class prejudice -- I know that a certain kind of not-too-critical consciousness of racism among privileged white liberals can at times serve as progressive-seeming cover for contempt for white working-class people. Often that contempt serves as a strategy to perform innocence of any white liberal middle-class complicitly in racism by implicitly blaming it exclusively on white conservatives and/or white working-class people.

Or I might start out by making the point I made above. Such significant establishment acceptance and support is not going to be happening for sentimental reasons, it is going to be happening because people who stand to gain or lose a lot, and who are likely to be much more in touch with the empirical data, actually think Obama or Clinton can win. And, again depending on how the conversation went, I might use that to lead into talking about how, yes, there does seem to be greater openness for non-white-male bodies to occupy the presidency, and that is certainly important, but then go on to talk about the very real limitations to bringing anti-racist, anti-sexist, and anti-imperial politics to a presidential candidacy if it wants even a slim hope of getting past all the institutional gatekeeping that designates who is a "serious" contender.

What have you come up with in your reflections on what you would say given another chance?

Tereza said...

I guess I'm not as sophisticated as you on the topic of race, gender and politics. I would just ask him why he thinks so and then what it would take for him to vote for a black candidate or a woman. That's all that comes to mind right now. For me, personally, I'm not very thrilled about either Obama or Clinton- too much corporate agenda, their politics are not progressive enough, and neither are anti-war. Anyways, I've got the flu now, so I'm not sure how coherent I am...

Scott said...

And to be honest, in that kind of moment of engagement, having too elaborate an idea of where you think the conversation should go is often more of a trap and a distraction than anything else...it is often much more effective to do as you suggest, and just ask a couple of questions and see where things end up.

Hope you feel better soon!

Tereza said...

I just came across an interesting piece today, addressing the topic of racism and electability. The author believes that America is ready for a female or black president, citing a February Gallup Poll, however, he says, people still attribute race and gender as factors to candidates losing when the situation is usually much more complex. Check the piece out here.