Is America too Racist for Barack? Too Sexist for Hillary?

By Benjamin Wallace-Wells
Sunday, November 12, 2006

The 2006 elections were for the technocrats and the operatives, pitting the Democratic tacticians against the Karl Rove machine. But the next election is already beginning to look quite different: 2008 may be one for the novelists.

Viewers of the election returns late on Tuesday, after all, got an early start on the iconography of the next presidential race. The cable networks' cameras cut between Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, thanking her supporters for an overwhelming victory in the New York Senate race, her husband standing pointedly behind, and a smiling Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, giving cautious, professorial analysis to the television viewers. Nobody noted the significance, but it stared us all in the face: The two presumed leading contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination are a woman and an African American.

Their candidacies -- coming after elections resulting in the presumed first female speaker of the House and the second black governor since Reconstruction -- suggest that the next elections may play in ways that are more cultural and symbolic than tactical and political. Are Americans ready to put a black man or a woman in charge of the country? And does the hefty symbolism that Obama and Clinton would bring help one of them more than the other -- in other words, is the country more racist or more sexist?

Democracies are awkward like this. Despite incessant polling, we really get only one moment every two years, at best, to measure how Americans feel about things, and these elections must stand as imperfect proxies for a mess of subjects: what we think about religion, whether we like being included in the international conversation, whether Northeast bluebloods would tolerate a Texan as their leader.

But when it comes to race and sex, this seems a slightly more legitimate game: The question that remains for black Americans and women isn't whether prejudice has diffused to the point that they can participate in the United States, it's whether they can legitimately hope to lead it.

Today, they may have reasons to be optimistic. Poll numbers for Clinton and Obama are among the strongest of any presidential hopefuls. It now seems nearly as common for political leaders in television shows and movies to be women or racial minorities as white men. Recent polls have found that the percentages of Americans who say they would not vote for a hypothetical black or female presidential candidate, long formidable, have dwindled into the single digits. And last Tuesday's elections put House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on the brink of becoming speaker and Democrat Deval Patrick, who is black, in the Massachusetts governorship.

But as the two would-be presidential candidates grapple with how to manage the legacies of their own identities, Obama seems engaged with a more problematic political feeling. Even if race is more socially crippling than gender -- even if it was less likely that Obama would make it to Harvard Law than that Clinton would make it to Yale Law -- the symbolism of race can also be awfully empowering to individual politicians who learn to harness it. Most Americans want to believe that the culture has moved past its racial problems, and that the symbol of that progress would be widely cheered. Compared with Clinton, says George Lakoff, a linguistics professor and Democratic message guru, "Obama clearly has it better."

Whatever racism remains in this country, it coexists with a galloping desire to put that old race stuff behind us, to have a national Goodbye to All That moment. The most recent such occasion was Obama's much-publicized tour to promote his book of policy prescriptions, "The Audacity of Hope." The Denver Post called him a "rock star," the Seattle Times found him "electrifying," and even the Deseret News in Salt Lake City described the "raucous greeting" he received in Utah. This rapture wasn't only because of what Obama has said; most of his audiences had not heard much from him or read much of his book. It was because he symbolizes the possibility of a more modern America.

Clinton had a best-selling autobiography and a media-heavy book tour, too, but the coverage had less to do with the symbolism she carried as a woman than with her history as Bill Clinton's wife, and with the way she was positioning herself for the future. There are many reasons for this difference, but one critical one has to do with the legacies of oppression that each inherits. While many Americans have a sincere sense of sentimentality and nostalgia for what Clinton may consider outdated gender roles, a much smaller number have that kind of feeling for racial segregation. 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.

Obama's mixed-race heritage is rarely far from his political conversation. He writes of having a Kansan mother "as white as milk," and a Kenyan father "as black as pitch." He has used his race explicitly while speaking in Africa and urging politicians there to move beyond tribalism, and implicitly while speaking in southern Illinois to punctuate an address about the challenges of globalization. In his speeches, Obama uses his simple presence as an establishment national political figure who is black to serve as a metaphorical exclamation point -- a visual assurance that the country can work for everyone.

This is how he used it in his most famous speech, at the 2004 Democratic National Convention: "I stand here today, grateful for the diversity of my heritage, aware that my parents' dreams live on in my two precious daughters. I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story, that I owe a debt to all of those who came before me, and that, in no other country on Earth, is my story even possible."

When Clinton gives a speech, her gender is just as evident, but she doesn't give it nearly the same kind of rhetorical prominence. She is as likely to talk about handing out buttons for Republican Barry Goldwater as a child as about what her presence as a political woman means for the country. Her most famous speech during the current political cycle dealt with a topic close to her own identity: In January 2005, she gave a widely praised talk to a group of New York state family-planning providers, telling them that the pro-choice movement had failed to acknowledge the great emotional cost involved in having an abortion. For Clinton, a hero to many women who support abortion rights, this was regarded as a particularly brave stance.

But in a speech about such a personal topic, what is most noteworthy is its impersonality. Clinton didn't mention her own experiences as a wife or a mother, but seized upon a trip she took to Romania as first lady, where she learned about the policies of the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu, who tried to force every woman to have five children for the glory of the state, subjecting them to monthly roundups and reproductive exams attended by the secret police. It's a striking story, but what's even more striking is the way Clinton introduced it: "My own views of family planning and reproductive rights are heavily influenced by my travels as first lady," she said. This is not only the kind of thing that Sen. Joe Biden might say, but it also sounds suspicious: Were Clinton's views on these issues not fully formed before she began traveling as first lady?

The contrast is vivid in the two senators' autobiographies. Obama's, "Dreams From My Father," is an attempt to explain his evolving political awareness as a direct articulation of his roots. Here is the way Clinton begins her life story, "Living History": "I wasn't born a first lady or a senator. I wasn't born a Democrat. I wasn't born a lawyer or an advocate for women's rights and human rights. I wasn't born a wife or a mother."

Part of this difference is simple personal style. And there's also the matter of learned political behavior: Clinton has spent a decade and a half being beaten up, often personally and viciously, for the intersection of her gender and her politics, and it would make sense if she were trying to disconnect the two. But there is something else here.

The political progress of women and African Americans has long been intertwined; the suffragette movement gained huge momentum from the complaint that black men had received the right to vote before women of any race. But when it comes to modern political leadership, women have become more present. In January, the Senate will have 16 women and one African American, while eight women and one African American will be governors. Geraldine Ferraro was a vice presidential running mate more than 20 years ago, and still no black politician has reached that plateau.

Gender, meanwhile, may have become part of the political wallpaper. When Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr. and Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele ran for Senate this fall, their race was mentioned in virtually every story; when Sen. Debbie Stabenow and Claire McCaskill ran, their gender was barely noted. The ferocity of national feelings about race can still be threatening; this election cycle saw the widely condemned race-baiting ads run against Ford in Tennessee. But if the nation feels its racial sins more clearly, it also has a more urgent desire to get past them. "I think gender has become more normal in leadership," said Marie Wilson, president of the White House Project, a New York nonprofit that works to develop female leaders with the goal of having a woman in the White House. "Race is a much more troubling, sadder, unresolved part of our history than the issue of gender, so it certainly looms larger."

Of course, the civil rights and women's rights movements of the 1960s have left vastly different legacies. No political figure would dare deny the saintliness of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.; Betty Friedan's name is a political dirty word. Repression of blacks was the stuff of massive state-leveraged cruelty -- the police dogs and fire hoses -- while repression of women in this country was made of quieter stuff: bras, aprons and constitutional amendments.

Obama is frequently called post-racial, the suggestion being that because he has an exotic background, Americans are looking at a newer model of a human. The metaphor works for Obama politically, because it contains the idea that his youth lets him create a more modern and inclusive brand of politics than the rhetoric of civil rights-era politicians such as Jesse Jackson. Clinton's Jesse Jacksons are Ferraro, who bombed, and Pelosi, who is still hanging around.

This is the ultimate imbalance between the would-be presidential contenders, and it's both rough on Clinton and helps explain why Obama's public presentation is so much more closely linked to his identity: There's a model for being post-racial, but there's no easy way to be post-gender.

Fredrick Harris, a political scientist at the University of Rochester, sees a post-gender future out there, and its name is Condoleezza Rice. The secretary of state, he notes, "is unmarried, has no children, is completely dedicated to her job, for pleasure she plays the piano and works and that's about it."

Clinton has made different choices, but they have their limits. Politically, she has done everything that Obama has done: She has become a serious policy professional, moved toward the center and renounced the excesses of 1960s-style identity politics. And yet these moves are received as the tacks of a smart politician. For Obama, they are received as the arrival of his race.

Benjamin Wallace-Wells writes on national affairs for Rolling Stone.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company