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When Disadvantages Collide

By Shankar Vedantam
Monday, June 2, 2008

One hundred forty-three years ago, women's suffrage advocate Elizabeth Cady Stanton faced a conundrum: With the Civil War over, Stanton had to decide whether to support the 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution, which enabled black men to vote -- at a time when white women such as herself still did not have that right.

Stanton decided to oppose the amendments: "As the celestial gate to civil rights is slowly moving on its hinges, it becomes a serious question whether we had better stand aside and see Sambo walk into the kingdom first."

The question of what to do when the interests of two groups that had long suffered discrimination clashed with each other split the feminist movement. In order to gain passage of the 19th Amendment, which in 1920 gave women the right to vote, leading feminists jettisoned issues important to African Americans to win support from women and politicians who would have nothing to do with people of color. Without the support of the racists, the amendment might have failed, said Kimberle Crenshaw, professor of constitutional and civil rights law at Columbia University and UCLA.

There were two ironies in this: Stanton, like many other suffragists, was a passionate abolitionist. And in the years before she made her derogatory remark about "Sambo," abolitionists had treated women in exactly the same manner -- excluding them from equal participation in the movement merely because they were female.

The political alliance that the suffragists built helped pass the 19th Amendment, but it drove a wedge into the women's movement. Over the long term, just as relegating women to second-class citizens weakened the campaign for civil rights, abandoning solidarity with people of color weakened the women's movement.

"At the end of the day, what is winning and what is losing?" asked Crenshaw. "Yes, the 19th Amendment happened, but feminism lost its soul in the process."

The resonance of that long-ago predicament is still with us today, as a bitter Democratic presidential primary battle has caused many supporters of Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton to feel that the campaign has pitted race against gender. Many Clinton supporters, men included, cite openly sexist criticism targeting their candidate -- conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh asked, "Will this country want to actually watch a woman get older before their eyes on a daily basis?" -- and feel that a political defeat would be an unconscionable victory for sexism itself.

Obama's supporters, the majority of whom are white, cite the racism their candidate has faced -- large numbers of voters have openly told pollsters they would never vote for a black man. Should Democratic superdelegates hand the race to Clinton, many of these voters would feel racism has won.

As with century-old debates between suffragettes and abolitionists, the debate has veered toward which disadvantaged group has suffered more. And resentment has grown between them.

Clinton supporter and Bethesda psychologist Lynette Long, for example, described herself as a liberal white woman who has always reached out to help disadvantaged black men. But she now sees these potential Obama supporters as an "impediment" to her own dreams. She wrote, "In this election cycle, they symbolize an impediment to something I want more than anything in the world, a chance to see one of my own win the highest office in the land."

Crenshaw and Patricia Hill Collins, a University of Maryland sociologist who is to be the next president of the American Sociological Association, said the error being made by many Clinton and Obama supporters is to see race and gender in unidimensional terms: "Obama represents race and Clinton represents gender -- this is a flawed model," Collins said. "Why does Obama not represent gender? He has a race and a gender. Hillary has a race and a gender."

The reason for our selective focus, the scholars said, is that people are keenly aware of unfair disadvantages but spend no time dwelling on unfair advantages.

Supporters of Clinton and the presumptive Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain, for example, do not forcefully disavow the support of voters who say they will never vote for a black man. Obama does not systematically try to kick out misogynists -- and turn away voters who say they will not vote for someone as old as McCain.

Our focus on unfair disadvantages rather than unfair advantages may be understandable, but it causes us make our own group's disadvantages the problem -- when the problem is actually unfairness itself.

Right from the time of the suffragettes, the simplest way to see the problem with thinking about race, gender, age and social class in unidimensional terms is to consider what happens to people at the intersection of competing disadvantages: In the case of race and gender, women of color have invariably found themselves in a bind.

In 1851, Sojourner Truth's "Ain't I a Woman?" speech was a call to think about the effects of racism and sexism at the same time. In 1913, black suffragette Ida B. Wells-Barnett had to crash a march in Washington aimed at winning women the right to vote -- she had been asked to stay out or stay in the back after organizers decided to allow the march to be segregated.

In the Democratic nomination battle, black women have found themselves in a less tragic but similar bind. Whether you are talking about Obama supporters such as Oprah Winfrey, or Clinton supporters such as Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.), Crenshaw said, black women are accused of treachery: Clinton supporters are accused of being race traitors and Obama supporters are accused of being traitors to their sex.

The real question, with the suffragettes or with those in the current political race, comes down to whether groups that face discrimination focus their disappointment and resentment at discrimination -- or at each other.

"Who do you blame, who are you angry at?" Crenshaw asked. "When you have a feminist who says, 'I will be damned if Sambo gets in before me,' she is mad at him."

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