Race and gender in the 2008 elections: Obama, Clinton, and the illusion of change

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A serious Black contender for the Democratic Party nomination for president? A viable female campaigner? Just one election season ago, few people would have thought either was likely any time soon. But both? Astounding!

A great thing is happening as a result of this historic electoral contest: the unresolved issues of race and sex have come to the fore as main topics of national debate. But the tragedy is that this discussion is being used to pit women and African Americans against one another.

Logic says that people of color and women, who share a common second-class status and need for equality and liberation, should be allies. History shows that they often are. So why has this election turned into what sometimes looks like an all-out brawl between two oppressed groups?

Can it have anything to do with how well Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama actually represent the constituencies who place such hope in them?

Breakthroughs and contradictions. The hope is transparent and overflowing. Obama and Clinton have generated tremendous enthusiasm. At a time when dissatisfaction with Bush and the Iraq war is at an angry peak, the two candidates have inspired their followers with faith in the electoral process as an avenue of change.

African American parents speak of how a Black president would enlarge the future that their children can imagine for themselves. Young people see in Obama the possibility of breaking with dirty politics as usual. Women in their 50s and beyond look to a Clinton presidency as a validation and natural outcome of the women’s movement.

At the same time, the candidates are also the targets of sexist and racist smears and bias — coming from the other side’s campaign staffers, rightwing and mainstream media, and bigots with blogs.

And, at least according to the media, there is a disturbing tendency among Obama backers to see only the racism and to dismiss the sexism, and among Clinton backers to do the reverse. Pundits who fashion themselves spokespeople for Blacks and women are quoted arguing over which group is most oppressed. The strivings of Blacks and women are portrayed as in competition with each other.

So, while the spotlight on Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama shows how far women and African Americans have come, it also reveals how deeply social divisions still run.

Great expectations. As far as political program goes, there is little difference between Obama and Clinton; 90 percent of their votes during their overlapping two years in the Senate have been the same. And they have less to offer on burning issues like the war, healthcare, and workers’ rights than their former adversaries Dennis Kucinich and John Edwards.

Of course Clinton and Obama both advertise themselves as the best person for the job, regardless of sex or race. But the excitement they are generating has everything to do with exactly those characteristics. Their supporters expect something different of them — something better not only for Blacks and for women but for all people — because of who they are.

This is a testament to the defining role that race and sex play around the globe. In the U.S., mobilizations for gender and race liberation — going back to the plea of founding mother Abigail Adams to “remember the ladies” and the fights against slavery and for voting rights — have moved all of society forward. Free, universal public education, gained as a result of Southern Black struggle following the Civil War, is just one example.

Whether acknowledged or not, credit for the Obama and Clinton candidacies themselves belongs to the brave movements of earlier centuries. The way was paved by more radical souls, often women of color, who confronted more ferocious obstacles. Grass-roots African American organizers Fanny Lou Hamer and Ella Baker were two such souls.

In 1964, Hamer and Baker helped lead a challenge by the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) to the violent denial of Black voting rights by the Southern police state. In opposition to Mississippi’s all-white delegation to the Democratic Party national convention, the MFDP put forward its own delegates and chose three Black women, including Hamer, as candidates for U.S. Congress.

The national party refused to recognize the MFDP delegates but offered a shabby compromise: it would grant nonvoting seats to two members of its choosing. Said one of these two men, Aaron Henry: “This is typical white man picking Black folks’ leaders, and that day is just gone.” The MFDP rejected the deal.

Although the MFDP lost the battle, it helped turn the direction of the war. It exposed the illegal foundations of Southern white supremacy to a national audience and influenced passage of the highly important Voting Rights Act the next year.

Taking advantage of a crisis of leadership. It has to be said: Clinton and Obama are the leaders that the “white man” — the bankers and bosses, the powers-that-be — has picked for the oppressed today.

Both of them are backed to the hilt by Wall Street, which can only benefit from the divisions their colliding candidacies reinforce. Both say they are against the Iraq war, but accept the right of the U.S. government to play global cop on behalf of U.S. corporate interests.

Neither of them is promising anything like the return of welfare, or meaningful help for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, or amnesty for undocumented immigrants. Neither of them deserves the votes of working people. (For a discussion of socialist candidates, see this issue’s editorial.)

In 1972, Democrat Shirley Chisholm became the first African American to campaign for the presidential nomination of one of the major parties. A feminist, gay rights advocate, and war opponent, she was more progressive all those years ago than either Obama or Clinton today.

Why is it that candidates with so little to offer can attract so much support? Only because genuine feminist leaders and champions of race liberation are rare these days.

In 1971, a Radical Women position paper described how ambitious opportunists within the movements were selling the line that their personal successes were tantamount to movement successes. Today, Obama and Clinton supporters are being asked to accept a similar flawed logic.

Class: the “x” factor. People are fed up and insisting on change, but the ruling class can’t and won’t provide it. So the public gets the appearance of change — fresh faces that the abused and underpaid U.S. majority can relate to.

To paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., though, Obama and Clinton should be judged not by the color of their skin or the combination of their chromosomes, but by the content of their politics. And their politics have nothing to do with bringing Blacks and women together against their mutual exploiters.

Women and people of color will be the allies they are destined to be, and will win their connected battles for freedom and equality, when they are united by a radical, class-conscious program and represented by leaders that they themselves have chosen. And, count on it: these will not be leaders with the Wall Street stamp of approval!

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