The apron versus the fire hose

The Washington Post asks the dubious question: Is America more racist or more sexist?

Published November 14, 2006 1:37AM (EST)

Is America more racist or more sexist? That's the question Benjamin Wallace-Wells posed this weekend in the Washington Post (via Feministing) when discussing Americans' readiness to see Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama as presidential candidates. Polls suggest that Americans are now comfortable with the idea of putting a hypothetical female or African-American candidate in the Oval Office. But when selecting between one or the other, which option would U.S. voters choose? (For the purposes of Wallace-Wells' essay, the voting public is more or less monolithic; he doesn't consider whether black or female voters would consider these issues differently.)

By way of a "Historical Social Movements for Dummies" approach, Wallace-Wells concludes that Americans have a greater desire to distance themselves from the taint of racism than they do from sexism. The civil rights movement thusly abridged: "Police dogs and fire hoses." The women's movement, by contrast, was "Quieter stuff: bras, aprons and constitutional amendments." Having reduced feminist protest to sartorial frills, Wallace-Wells slams the movement's leaders as unlikable, opining that "No political figure would dare deny the saintliness of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.; Betty Friedan's name is a political dirty word."

Troublesome indeed. This fluffy summary ignores a lot of the meat of feminist struggles, some of which -- domestic violence and rape, for starters -- occur less often in the public sphere and are less suited to political displays or iconography. But Wallace-Wells also treats civil rights and women's rights as disconnected, when the two have always been related. (Not to say relations were always friendly; who can forget Stokely Carmichael, leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee (SNCC), responding to attempts to elevate women in the civil rights movement by saying "The only position for women in SNCC is prone"? But if anything, that nasty remark demonstrates why women's rights were relevant to the civil rights movement, not separate from it.) Did Wallace-Wells entirely miss the chapter on black feminism? The women's rights movement has long been dogged by the perception that it's the pet project of privileged white women; by pitting the two causes against each other, Wallace-Wells helps perpetuate this sad myth.

Still, Wallace-Wells may be speaking to the different ways in which the two movements have taken hold in the popular consciousness. He's concerned with the ways that social pressure affects what people privately think. And he seems to be arguing here that fundamentally, racism is now less publicly acceptable than sexism.

Why? Sexism is akin to the white picket fences or home-baked apple pies of '50s sitcoms; Americans still reserve certain nostalgia for traditional gender roles, he argues. Racism, on the other hand, isn't so easily connected to cultural sentimentality. (Nor should it be; in the catalogue of abuses, state-sanctioned slavery remains in its own category.) For that reason, he argues, Americans might be especially eager to elect a black president: "There is the sense that, by electing a female president, the nation would be meeting a standard set by other liberal democracies; the election of a black man, by contrast, would be a particularly American achievement, an affirmation of American ideals and a celebration of American circumstances," Wallace-Wells writes. (He's conveniently overlooking black politicians like Nelson Mandela here, but his point that Americans have a unique legacy to answer for is reasonable enough.)

And while Wallace-Wells notes that Obama is frequently described as being appealingly "post-racial" -- the notion being that Americans appreciate his racially mixed heritage because it reflects the melting-pot ideal -- the problem for female politicians is that "there's no easy way to be post-gender." According to Fredrick Harris, a political scientist at the University of Rochester, the best example of a post-gender politico would be Condoleezza Rice, because "she's unmarried, has no children, is completely dedicated to her job, for pleasure she plays the piano and works and that's about it." The lesson here, as usual, seems to be that for women to succeed, they must become more like men, while maintaining a highly calculated level of femininity.

It's interesting, then, that Wallace-Wells ultimately concludes that Clinton's political maneuverings "are received as the tacks of a smart politician," whereas "for Obama, they are received as the arrival of his race." Wallace-Wells takes this to mean that Obama's chances are better than Clinton's: "The symbolism of race can also be awfully empowering to individual politicians who learn to harness it," he writes. This is a troubling conclusion, not because of what it means for Clinton's limitations, but because of what it means for voters' ability to see black candidates as individuals. If the options for minority candidates are being disliked on their merits or being tokenized, the first option still sounds better.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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