Racism vs. sexism, Part 2

Are Americans more ready for a black president, or a female president?

By Page Rockwell
Published December 12, 2006 1:41AM (EST)

With the midterm elections over, everyone's getting a jump on '08 speculation (especially after Sen. Barack Obama's recent New Hampshire visit and nudge-wink announcement earlier today) -- and already, an unfortunate sex-vs.-race meme is emerging in early election coverage. A month ago, the Washington Post framed the highly anticipated Clinton-Obama battle for the Democratic nomination as a referendum on old biases, asking, "Is America too racist for Barack? Too sexist for Hillary?" Ultimately, writer Benjamin Wallace-Wells favored Obama over Clinton, on the troublingly tokenizing theory that "the symbolism of race can... be awfully empowering to individual politicians who learn to harness it."

This weekend, the New York Times Week in Review took up the same question (along with some seriously silly story art, which earnestly identified every past president as a white male) and came to the opposite conclusion. Adam Nagourney touched on the same signal events that Wallace-Wells referenced last month -- Massachusetts' recent election of a black governor, Deval Patrick; the House getting its first female speaker, Nancy Pelosi; the new Congress comprising more female lawmakers than ever before; and polls indicating that Americans are increasingly OK with the idea of voting for a black or female presidential candidate -- but argued that enduring racism gives female candidates the edge.

But as much as I'd have liked to read a persuasive refutation of Wallace-Wells' cynical thesis, Nagourney's piece was pretty watery. First of all, any analysis that pits female candidates against black candidates overlooks black female candidates, which politicos like Rep. Barbara Lee and prospective Republican nominee Condoleezza Rice probably don't appreciate. Of course, there's no escaping the basic point that racism, whether unspoken or overt, is likely to be a factor in any African-American candidate's political fortunes, and entrenched lack of opportunity probably limits the number of blacks who become political candidates in the first place. And Nagourney reasonably noted that black Americans tend to live in 25 traditionally blue states, suggesting that "in states without big black populations, the candidate's crossover appeal must be huge." Still, I'm not sure those facts necessarily mean that a female presidential candidate has a better shot. And it's especially hard to assess how voter racism might compare to voter sexism based on this piece, since neither the word "sexism" nor any real mention of women's political and professional struggles appears in the story. Nagourney pretty much just quotes Sen. Elizabeth Dole opining that "the country is ready" for a female president, as though that makes it a done deal.

The other prong of Nagourney's argument seems to be that "not as many blacks have been elected to prominent positions as women." This is indisputably true, and Nagourney notes that analysts find the country's ratio of nine female governors to one black governor especially meaningful. But this observation doesn't necessarily tell the whole story, since women also outnumber blacks in the general population. That doesn't mean women's greater government representation isn't meaningful, but it's hard to tell how meaningful -- and if we infer racism from the small number of prominent black politicians, what should we take from the fact that women comprise 51 percent of the population but only 16.45 percent of Congress?

Calculations like these are only limitedly useful, anyway, because the whole race-vs.-gender question is limitedly useful at best. I don't know whether race or gender is the bigger factor for American voters, and while opinions abound, no one else really does either. And no matter who nabs the Democratic nomination or the Oval Office, the '08 election is unlikely to provide a conclusive answer, since most analysts seem to agree the prospective faceoff between charismatic Obama and flinty Clinton would be as much about personality, message control, fundraising and voting records as it would be about long-standing prejudices. Which raises the question not only of why we keep seeing false-choice election analysis pieces like this one but of why it seems important to raise the "Is America more racist or more sexist" question at all. Pitting one historically disadvantaged group against another may make for catchy pre-pre-pre-election headlines, but it's unlikely to produce any real victors.

Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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