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Race and Gender in the Democratic Primary

J. Martin Favor and Melinda Henneberger
Professor of English and African American Studies, Dartmouth College; Blogger, Slate's XX Factor
Monday, March 24, 2008 1:00 PM

Dartmouth College African American studies professor J. Martin Favor and Slate XX Factor blog participant Melinda Henneberger were online Monday, March 24 at 1 p.m. ET to examine the roles race and gender have played in the Democratic presidential primary, and their potential impact in the general election.

A Vote of Allegiance? (Post, March 24) | What if Hillary Clinton gave a speech about gender? (And why she won't.) (Slate, March 21)

The transcript follows.

When not contributing to Slate's XX Factor blog, Henneberger (author of " If They Only Listened to Us") writes columns for Commonweal, the Catholic opinion journal. Prior to that she was a reporter for the New York Times and contributed to Newsweek.

Favor, who is biracial, is the author of " Authentic Blackness: The Folk in the New Negro Renaissance."

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J. Martin Favor: Good day, everybody. Thank you for taking the time to submit your questions and be part of what I think if a very important, if sometimes difficult discussion. I look forward to an important exchange of views about matters -- race and gender -- that really matter quite a bit. Thank you, too, to the washingtonpost.com for hosting this.

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Melinda Henneberger: Hello, I'm Melinda Henneberger from Slate's XX Factor.

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Fairfax, Va.: I have been working in a civil rights agency, and as a white male I am grateful for the insights provided by African American co-workers. From that perspective, I find the tactics Hillary Clinton has been using against Barack Obama to be racist whether she delivers them herself or her surrogates do. Am I overreacting? I should add that when the campaign started I was for Hillary, but ever since South Carolina I have been amazed that she and Bill -- who I also had always admired -- apparently are willing to disrespect the decades of loyal support the party has had from African Americans, by employing what I had thought were right-wing tactics rather, than accepting the simple fact the Obama seems to be more popular than Hillary is. I guess the Democratic centrists like Hillary are a lot closer to the right than to the center.

Melinda Henneberger:

According to President Clinton, your reaction was wholly manufactured by the media. I don't agree, though. And I don't think it's the least bit unfair to wonder whether every Clinton surrogate who has raised race was just out there free-lancing, over the objections of the candidate.

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Conway, Ark.: While Sen. Clinton hasn't given a speech on gender, she certainly has made some analysis of it in her campaign. Is it so completely alien to ask why Sen. McCain doesn't "give a speech on race," or has the bar been set so low for him in terms of domestic policy and shedding America of past albatrosses that the press can accept his usual flawed pronouncements as sufficient for conducting a campaign?

Melinda Henneberger: That's a good question, but he will get his turn once these two are finished slugging it out.

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Since you have a Commonweal tie...: I'll ask this -- when the Catholic Church was exposed as an institution that protected child predators, I voted with my feet and left. I don't see why Sen. Obama stayed at his church for 20 years, but many articles have said Rev. Wright's sermons aren't "out of the mainstream" in black churches. Are we going to relive this problem, then, every time we have a viable African American candidate?

Melinda Henneberger: First, I understand your reaction to the sex scandals in the church but I also get Obama's decision to stay in an imperfect church that still gives him spiritual sustenance. And if we ruled out every candidate with ties to an institution with an unfortunate history, I don't know who we'd have left to run for any office.

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Oakton, Va.: As a Gen-Xer and a woman, I am very put off by Hillary and Ferraro's 1.0 feminism. Are we supposed to overlook everything else about Hillary just because she is a woman? That's insane.

Melinda Henneberger: I'm not sure that Ferraro's views mirror Hillary's -- or at least, I hope they don't. But I, too, am at a loss when friends say they're supporting Hillary because it's our turn. (Ladies first?) I really wonder, though, whether voters aren't actually assessing the candidates on the merits and then explaining their decision with shorthand: Oh, it's because I've gotta go with the woman or the African-American or the one who has green eyes like I do? Again, I hope that's the case.

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Anonymous: Sen. Obama nearly always is referred to as African American or black, yet his mother was white, and he spent far, far more time with her than with his Kenyan father. Obama's African heritage seems to be mentioned more often than the fact that his mother and father met in Hawaii, and that Obama spent much of his formative years there (plus some time in Indonesia). Would "mixed-race" be an indelicate term to use when describing Obama? I do recall one online Post chat where someone asked how Obama could be elected President given that he was born in Africa. I really wonder whether the U.S. is ready to elect someone who is even half African American.

J. Martin Favor: We still hearken back in this country to what is known as the "one drop rule." This is if you have "one drop" of African blood in you, that one drop makes you black. We can debate whether or not this a fair way to categorize people, but it goes back hundreds of years, and I think it's very much stuck someplace in the American psyche.

It's worth noting that most African Americans have at least SOME admixture of "white" blood in them, but we tend to overlook that in our everyday discussions. Frederick Douglass, for instance, had a white father, but that didn't save him from being a slave. W.E.B. DuBois clearly acknowledged his European ancestry, but he felt both compelled and honored to identify as black.

It's not indelicate to describe Obama as mixed-race, but how we categorize a person isn't necessarily how they identify themselves. Those are two distinct propositions. And, to get back to where I began, being mixed race still makes a person, in the minds of many others, "Black."

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Minnesota: Would you please tell the real story why black men were allowed to vote before white women?

J. Martin Favor: The real story gets pretty complicated pretty fast, but let me try to be brief.

The original criteria to be able to vote in much of the early US was bring male and property owner; in most states, race didn't matter. But in the early 19th century things started to change. As politicians wanted to expand voting franchise to those without property, they sought a way not to "upset" a balance of power, and one way that was achieved was to disenfranchise African American men. What is ironic is that non-slave states such as New York also adopted this policy.

Reconstruction wanted to extend voting rights back to all MEN, and yet there were those who argued during that period women should also get the right to vote. In fact, and number of people who still supported the defeated Confederacy argued that one way to dilute the newly enfranchised African American man would be to allow white women the vote as well. The post-Reconstruction South, however, found other ways of dealing with the black vote (poll taxes, literacy tests, even lynching) without allowing white women to take up a political voice.

Perhaps part of the controversy we see today still extends back to those kinds of struggles over who deserves a political voice. Reconstruction didn't give women the right to vote, but neither did women's suffrage allow African Americans of either gender to vote unfettered until the 1960's.

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Gainesville, Fla.: It is my understanding that racism and sexism stem from the larger system of white supremacy. Why must the discussions of race and gender focus on the victims of this system, and not on those who benefit by maintaining white supremacy?

J. Martin Favor: That's actually a very provocative and, indeed, even "radical" question. I would agree that some of our discussions of race and gender too easily dissolve into a rather sad kind of study of "comparative oppressions" rather than asking how and why such systems of oppression might be maintained and what it might take, especially in terms of coalition politics across simplistic identity lines, to change those systems.

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Washington: Hi there. I have been an Obama supporter from the start, but was agreeable to Clinton, if need be. At this point (actually about a month ago) I have determined I would not vote for Clinton because of her and her campaign's efforts to tear Obama down, and the quite obvious racial lines she and they have been willing to cross. That said, a male friend of mine said he thought that there had been a lot of sexism in this campaign. I just don't see it ... and as white woman, this is not a typical blind spot for me. I thought the crying narrative was pretty sexist, but that wasn't an Obama-generated story. Have I missed something because of my definite Obama bias?

Melinda Henneberger: Sexism has definitely been on display -- as, for example, when that (female, alas) McCain supporter called Hillary the b-word and he answered the question without stopping to tell the woman not to talk like that. However, I don't see the pervasive sexism that Clinton's campaign complains about, so I guess I am missing something, too. I just don't think every negative reaction to her boils down to hatred for women.

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Nashville, Tenn.: When the media has been speaking of the Rev. Wright's comments, I didn't hear many persons who actually attend Protestant black churches speak on the historical relationship between the black church and its main constituency. I am wondering if you believe that the mainstream media's lack of personal knowledge with the "politics" of the black church has skewed the coverage of the statements by Rev. Wright?

J. Martin Favor: What is always important to keep in mind is that the Back church has virtually always been explicitly political. African American spirituals themselves aren't simply hymns of praise, but explicit metaphors for the Black experience under slavery. Indeed, it was frequently illegal, in the Ante-Bellum South, for more than a handful of African Americans to gather in public place UNLESS it was for religious services. This was to keep slave "plotting" and political exchange to a minimum. And because churches themselves became segregated, the African American church developed into an important site that held out Christianity as a deeply political way of looking at the world.

I'm not sure sure that the media's apparent lack of understanding is a personal misunderstand as it is a historical one. It's also a misunderstanding, or forgetting, that religion and politics frequently mix in this country. We simply have to go back to the Puritans to remind ourselves of that.

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San Diego: Someone writing in to Howard Kurtz's chat today said, "I must say that I feel completely frustrated by the tone and coverage of this campaign -- I know now that sexism definitely trumps racism (I learned that once again reading the "ism" article in The Washington Post as black women state their contempt for white women thus adding to the sexism pool)."

This was a very different reading of your article than mine. One of the points that I took away was that it is precisely because of this forced choice between gender and race that so many black women felt excluded from the feminist movement. Anyway, just wanted to share my thought (and let you defend the piece, in case the commenter is reading this chat, too).

Melinda Henneberger: Again, I just do not see sexism in the Post's coverage, which doesn't mean it isn't there; we're all perfectly entitled to our different perceptions. But as for seeing "black women state their contempt for white women,'' in today's article, wow, that is an awfully broad brush you're whipping around there.

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Brigham, Utah: Melinda, the question about sexism in the campaign clearly was questioning Clinton whining about it re: Obama. The only example you came up with was McCain. What things have the Obama campaign said, even through "surrogates," to warrant a charge of playing the sexism card?

Melinda Henneberger: I can't think of any examples; even when Samantha Power called Clinton a "monster,' there was no woman-hating involved.

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Terre Haute, Ind.: I am a white grandmother of a biracial (black father and white mother) grandson. He is only 5 years old, so he hasn't experienced any racism, and ordinarily I would not be worried except for the racism I have encountered on various Internet blog sites as a consequence of my being a Barack Obama supporter. Can you assuage my fears at all for my grandson? Are we any closer to a post-racial world, or was I just living in a dream? I have started to really worry lately for him. Thanks.

J. Martin Favor: My own experience has been this: that younger people, and I mean now people who are under 30, are, in my experience as a teacher, LESS interested in creating dividing lines along questions of race, gender and sexuality, than they were when I began teaching 15 years ago. That doesn't mean that we are going to achieve post-race any time son, and it doesn't mean that issues of racism will be forever banished. It does give me some hope, however.

I would add that I think being post-racial means that we should be comfortable about acknowledging the differences between us that the difference that might make. Post-racial doesn't mean that we IGNORE, color but that we can talk freely about how color has been, an remains, an important issue in this country and around the world.

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Kensington, Md.: One huge difference I see between the two candidates' respective "ism" battles is that Hillary Clinton isn't being asked to single-handedly resolve all of our (meaning men's and women's) outstanding gender issues, while I increasingly get the feeling that people (the media, the voters, black, brown and white) are looking to Barack Obama to "once and for all" heal what remains of our color divide.

It's a bit ironic that some Clinton supporters have fun casting Obama supporters as starry-eyed deity-worshippers, when in effect they themselves are putting superhuman requirements upon Obama. They -- all of us -- expect Obama to summarize our racial beefs fairly (covering all sides, mind you), root out what's behind them, prescribe a solution and then see to it that it's carried out (gently and painlessly, please). He is to play not only politician, statesman and orator, but sociologist, professor, therapist and family systems social worker. Seems a bit of a tall order when you've already got a day job, if you ask me.

All that said, without overstating my own expectations, I'm reminded of another figure in American history who was asked to take on a seemingly unreasonable burden. In 1947 a young athlete named Jackie Robinson was tasked to not only break baseball's color barrier, but to do it in such a way that he didn't make wary white people feel any smaller.

He spent the next six months dodging insults, thrown objects and death threats -- all the while trying to hit 90 mph pitches. He managed it with the requisite dignity and respect toward his detractors. I see enough Jackie Robinson qualities in this man that if anyone can take a decent stab at this outrageous request, perhaps it is him. Thanks. (Oh, I'm a white male, by the way, if anyone needs that for context or to dismiss my point of view.)

Melinda Henneberger: Last year, I was in Selma for the Bloody Sunday commemoration where both Clinton and Obama spoke. At one point, somebody standing behind me in the crowd said, "Well, if Obama can get through this campaign without making any mistakes, he might be OK.'' And I thought gosh, nothing like setting the bar high. Why not just see if he can recite the Gettysburg Address backwards while solving world hunger and doing the Friday crossword puzzle? To me, Obama has been held to a higher standard for a bunch of reasons, one of which is that Clinton has been around longer and, rightly or not, does tend to get partial credit for her husband's accomplishments.

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Sexism: As far as the sexism, don't forget that a (well-connected) McCain supporter and Republican operative started an anti-Clinton organization with a charming c-word acronym.

Melinda Henneberger: I was trying to forget!

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Anonymous: How many hours of sermons has Rev. Wright given? We could take a 30-second sound bite from anyone's life and frame them as unpatriotic.

Melinda Henneberger: Beliefnet's Steve Waldman did an interesting piece on some of John Adams's God damn America moments. A lot of true patriots do have such moments.

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Washington: I am a 36 year old Black woman. I can count on one hand the times I've been discriminated against because I was a woman. There are too many times to count the times I've been discriminated against because of my skin color. In short, I have more in common with Black men than I do with white women. Sometimes there is a bond that can emerge between black and white women regarding inherently female issues like pregnancy, but those are few and far between.

J. Martin Favor: You own biography point out something interesting: we are all made up of multiple identities that don't always fit neatly with each other. There are times when we feel compelled to choose one or another, and that choice can be painful. We can for example, criticize certain strains of feminism for being racist, and yet we might have to concede at the same time that certain parts of black empowerment movements have been overtly sexist in their outlook. We shouldn't excuse any kind of discrimination, but certainly our social contexts make us feel very clearly which identity category we need to advocate at any given moment.

We may emphasize any of our categories, yet being a woman shouldn't make one "less" black just as being black shouldn't preclude anybody from being interested in women's issues. In fact, sometimes those issues might be more interrelated than we sometimes think them to be, at first glance.

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Why is this even an issue?: Why can't Democrats just vote for the person with whom they agree the most? Isn't it ironic that a party that has built itself on identity politics is being rent asunder by those same needs to vote for someone based on matching skin color or private parts?

J. Martin Favor: It's an issue because race and gender do matter, as much as we might want to be "over" them. Many of us have learned to look at life through those prisms, and even if we -- ourselves -- tend to thing that those are categories that don't really matter, other people still look at us through them. For example, it's out of my control when somebody else wants to see me as an African American, wants to color my responses through the lens of race, so therefore, I can't ever really get past that race issue simply on my own.

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Alpharetta, Ga.: I do think you have to consider these factors in the context of the broader race. In the past, candidates like Eugene McCarthy, Gary Hart, Paul Tsongas and Bill Bradley were able to make a splash. Obama bears resemblance to them in his opposition to the war in Iraq and his desire to do things differently in Washington, but they couldn't translate that into a path to the White House. His strong, enthusiastic support from African Americans probably has been a big part of that differing trajectory.

Melinda Henneberger: Early in the campaign, there was a lot of skepticism about whether Obama would do very well with African-American voters, who did not automatically flock to his side. I don't think a public servant with his skills comes along very often -- which is why I was so embarrassed for Geraldine Ferraro when she made comments casting him as this underwhelming affirmative action slacker; if only my kids grow up to become half so accomplished!

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Newark, N.J.: Ageism: Clinton is only 12 years older than Obama, so why is she "old" and he "young"? Anne Bancroft's famous line to Dustin Hoffman, in "The Graduate" ("I'm old enough to be your mother") was delivered through gritted teeth. In Hollywood, she was old enough to be his mother, as she was a 38-year-old playing a 45-year-old, and he was about 30, playing a 22-year-old. The jump from ingenue to hag in Hollywood time is about eight years for a woman.

The voters who tout Obama's "youth" and denigrate Clinton as "so yesterday" seem to be plying the same warped math, abetted by the candidates' gulf of career experience. If he hadn't spent so long finding himself and delaying adulthood and the start of his career, he might not be stuck with the resume of a 38-year old. If Clinton hadn't had to fight public political battles for decades, maybe she wouldn't seem so world-weary at 60. But to dismiss her as an old has-been while hailing him as a young, new hope is both deeply sexist and unconscionably age-ist.

Melinda Henneberger: Excellent point. But I think his age works against him more than it helps -- because even though he is drawing many new voters into the system, older voters turn out in even greater numbers.

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Philadelphia: What determines who is white or black? If it is African American ancestry, than wasn't Warren Harding, whose grandfather is listed as a mulatto, the first black president?

J. Martin Favor: Sometimes it's history; sometimes it's law; sometimes it's "common sense." Some states maintain actually laws on the books that determine who is considered to be black. Others rely on on other means, and the federal government, so far as I know, doesn't take an explicit stand on the question (although it does, in fact, have standards for those who claim native American identity). F. James Davis has an excellent book on this subject entitled "Who Is Black?" if you would like to look at this question in greater detail.

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Richmond, Va.: I think it is extraordinary that both a woman and an African American are running as "firsts" together. I feel like it is a bit of a double whammy for the electorate, and would have been much less divisive (i.e. the electorate would not be so passionately split) had it been one at a time.

J. Martin Favor: Is it, indeed, extraordinary. It's historically unprecedented. Perhaps historians will get to look back soon as analyze whether it was "too much" for the American public to handle at this moment in our history. I'm not sure, however, whether we would move closer to "solving" questions of identity politics back taking them one at a time, so to speak. I'm positive that the election of either Clinton or Obama to the Presidency will not put questions of gender or race, respectively, to an end.

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Chicago: I have heard a number of very interesting -- and in some cases provocative -- reactions to the Obama speech. Perhaps the most astounding was from Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. He was interviewed on a Chicago radio station the next day and said that Sen. Obama was approaching the status of a "deity." That's his quote. This is a duly elected congressman talking about a political candidate -- and assigning god-like attributes to him. (A clip is available in Rachel Sklar's "Media" section of Huffington Post.) Am I correct in assuming that this takes political discourse to a new level?

J. Martin Favor: I haven't actually see Rep. Jackson response to Obama's speech, but if his response is that Obama is approaching "deity" there might be some historical precedent for him saying so. The historian Wilson J. Moses has written that one of the most common ways of categorizing African American leaders is a "messiah" figure, someone who will lead American out of the racial desert and into the promised land. Obviously this is unfair baggage to hang on anyone, but it doesn't stop us from doing so. We only need to stop and think about the way that MLK has been apotheosized over the last number of years in order to see that this isn't a new phenomenon. Perhaps what is even more important is to think about what we might gain from making such comparisons. One, somewhat cynical, suggestion might be that we want a leader to "save" us from things rather than all pulling together to do the difficult and messy work of working out our own difficulties with one another.

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Laurel, Md.: What troubles me about both Democratic candidates, as your linked pieces touch on, is that these two individuals are not to any great extent the victims of their groups' identities. Sen. Obama is not descended from slaves or Jim Crow victims. Polling data suggest that black immigrants and their children have a very different view of "America as oppressor" than do those whose families have been here long enough to have lived under segregation. Sen. Clinton is a perfect example of the kind of woman who got to hold high political office on the back of her husband, before women started getting elected in their own right. I personally think that if either of them is elected, it will set progress on their "-ism" back at least a decade.

Melinda Henneberger: I personally would see the election of either a black man or a woman as progress for all of us. Some people, I know, hold the view that it's easier for Obama to transcend racial barriers because his father was African rather than African-American. But if he is elected, I don't see how anyone will make a serious case that anything about his heritage or skin color or middle name, for that matter, put him on the glide path to the White House.

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Washington: "It's an issue because race and gender do matter." Obama may or may not be post-racial, but for this Democratic primary voter, neither race nor gender played a role -- for me, it was a post-racial primary.

J. Martin Favor: I hope I didn't sounds as though I was suggesting that one cannot vote simply based on issues. Rather, what I wanted to suggest is that, for many voters, these categories are rather weighty factors in determining how they might decide. It's clear to me that many people are more than willing to vote for someone "outside" their own racial or gender category. I live in NH, so pretty much all Obama votes here would represent that kind of willingness.

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Melinda Henneberger: Thanks, Marty, and thanks everybody for all the great questions. Signing off now.

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J. Martin Favor: Thanks for the excellent questions! I hope this is a discussion that keeps on going.

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