Janet Langhart Cohen is an author and chief executive of Langhart Communications.
As an African American woman, I find the 2016 campaign — and now the 2017 inauguration — doubly painful. Donald Trump’s victory revealed inconvenient and ugly truths about the United States and its political system, including the persistence of racial discrimination and the continuing sting of misogyny.
From D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” to the “ birther” effort championed by Trump to delegitimize President Obama’s citizenship, racial hatred has played an invidious role in this land of unequal rights and opportunities.
Once, it was possible to think that Obama’s presidency proved that the United States had entered a post-racial era in which color no longer defined one’s character or value. Trump shattered that illusion.
Trump’s campaign also exposed the degree to which all women, black and white, remain at risk of mistreatment — and the hypocrisy of the notion that white men hold white women in special reverence.
Since the day my ancestors arrived here in chains, we were told that white women were precious and pure. Their sanctity was never to be breached. White women were strictly off-limits to black men, who were instructed to never look a white woman in the eye and to step off the sidewalk whenever one approached. Refusal to obey these rules invited a lash or a lynching.
As a young girl, I will never forget witnessing my Uncle George, after working a full day to exhaustion, refuse to take the last open seat on a public bus in Indianapolis, because it would place him next to a white woman. I didn’t understand it then, but he feared his life might be in jeopardy if he took that seat.
White men had granted white women the power to order a black man’s execution just by pointing a finger at him. No trial was needed. Skin color was proof enough.
The Trump campaign illustrated the reverse: Unless there’s a black man in the room, white women are on their own.
Trump supporters were free to call Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton a “bitch” who should be put in jail. Some even solicited her assassination by superimposing a bull’s eye over her image with the words “Killary Rotten Clinton.”
The spine-chilling chants of “lock her up” were not mere expressions of political exuberance, but dark echoes from the era of the Salem witch trials.
Whatever Clinton’s failings, she conducted herself in a dignified and exemplary manner throughout her long career of public service.
But the man who measures women by the size of their breasts and not the content of their brains declared that the former first lady, U.S. senator and secretary of state was not worthy of respect. She was just another “nasty woman” to be loathed along with Rosie O’Donnell, Megyn Kelly, Alicia Machado and innumerable others.
Something is very wrong with this picture. Black men — and teens as young as 14-year-old Emmett Till — have been lynched for merely looking or whistling at a white woman. Yet a white man who brags about treating women as sexual playthings whose genitals he’s free to grab was given the keys to the Oval Office.
Just imagine what would have happened if Obama had been shown to have used such crude language and vulgar “locker room” bravado during his campaign against Clinton in 2008.
No imagination is necessary with Trump. Despite his misogynistic words and deeds, 53 percent of white women voted for him. Apparently, they dismissed any concern that his words might encourage or condone rape culture. And, as significantly for me, those women didn’t seem to care about the life-and-death consequences that Trump’s racist rhetoric would have for people of color. Being both black and female, I found their indifference disturbing.
What is equally troubling are reports that some white women may have canceled plans to attend Saturday’s Women’s March on Washington, because women of color expressed their disappointment that so many white women voted for Trump. Under the circumstances, they feel “alienated.” The march is not about feelings. It’s about rights.
When I was a young professional woman, I understood and sympathized with the feminist agenda that was led by Gloria Steinem and others in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I was unable to devote myself to breaking through glass ceilings because my burden was pushing against the iron gates of racism.
I take hope, though, in the undaunted courage of Sojourner Truth, a former slave who became a leader in the fight for women’s right to vote. When she asked if she could join the suffragettes in their movement, her white sisters said: Yes, but you have to go to the back of the line.
I will continue the effort to break through the barriers constructed to keep all women down. But I will not be going to the back of the line.
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