Talking about Race and Gender in the Democratic Primaries
March 20, 2008
All the Men Are Black, All the Women Are White, and Some of Us Vote: A Remix by Salamishah Tillet
I spent the better half of Tuesday afternoon, listening to and reading the transcript of Barack Obama’s speech on “race.” Obama’s address was thoughtful, progressive, eloquent, brilliant, moving, and insightful. He did all the things I wanted him to do, acknowledged the founding “sin” of American slavery, shifted the burden of racial reconciliation from the shoulders of African-Americans to the larger American citizenry, and spoke about the past and present consequences of white rage and black disillusionment.
What Obama did, is what President Bill Clinton did not do in 1993. When faced with the mounting pressure from conservatives about his nominating law professor Lani Guinier to be Assistant Attorney General of Civil Rights, Bill Clinton begrudgingly claimed he was unfamiliar with Guinier’s theories on proportional voting and affirmative action. Much like the recent caricaturing of Reverend Jeremiah Wright as a racial demagogue, mainstream media publications like the Wall Street Journal and Newsweek collapsed reigning stereotypes of black militancy and welfare recipients and labeled Guinier a “quota queen.” In response, Bill Clinton did not use this political brouhaha to initiate a conversation about the intersections of racism and sexism as experienced by Guinier and by the vast majority of African-American women. Instead, Bill Clinton “denounced and rejected” her and forestalled, as Guinier pointed out “a serious public debate or discussion about racial fairness and justice in a true democracy.”
But, by returning to Guinier, I not only recollect Bill Clinton’s own shortcomings on race and gender, but also remind myself that many Obama supporters (like me) seem unable to comment on the sexism from which Obama has benefited and that many Hillary Clinton voters positively respond to racist attacks and innuendos in order to support her. As such, through remembering Guinier, we must reckon with the fact that the Democratic presidential race (as presented by the mainstream media, as shaped by political talking-heads, and framed by the candidates themselves) has rendered racial progress as “male” and gender-progress as “white.” Even in the enlightening exchange between activist Gloria Steinem and political scientist Melissa Harris-Lacewell on Democracy Now, the camps divided themselves squarely: Steinem’s argument against the patriarchy underwriting Obama’s ascension was racially antagonistic and Harris-Lacewell’s critique of white female privilege over black disenfranchisement ignored how sexism and anti-female bias serve as a major determinant in how white and black (male) voters choose candidates.
As the nomination process continues to defy and reproduce certain identity politics and because I am a Black feminist who strongly supports Obama, I wonder what will happen to the issues particular to, but not exclusive to African-American women, if either Obama or Clinton is the nominee. Topics such as: sexual assault, domestic violence, doubly-thick glass-ceilings, disproportionate risks for breast and ovarian cancer, homophobia, high incarceration rates, obesity and eating disorders, unequal pay, reproductive justice, political under-representation, increasing rates of HIV/AIDS and STDs, and hyper-invisibility in the public and political spheres and the list continues.
Finally, I can’t help recall that we have been here before. Though wrong in her reading, Gloria Steinem was right in returning to the suffragist debate in 1866-1869 in her NYTimes Op-Ed piece. Then, like now, we have racial progress defined through the body of African-American man and feminism marked by the corporeality of a white woman. And while, we know, that Black women from Sojourner Truth to Francis Harper advocated full suffrage, because they felt compelled to choose sides, their voices were seen as marginal to the larger, more important issues of freedom as defined by black manhood and white womanhood. Even though African-American women now make up the majority of registered African-American voters, it would behoove us to forget the debate about suffrage between Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony and the failure of the American Equal Rights Association to achieve universal suffrage. For African-American women not only lie at the intersections of racism and sexism, we also constitute the most important site of coalition building and embody the possibilities of the democratic experiment. More than twenty-five years after Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell-Scott, and Barbara Smith published “All The Men Are Black, All The Women Are White, But Some of Us are Brave,” instead of ignoring the reality of how race and sex collide in America, let’s use these moments of convergence as the springboard to talk about race and gender in America. For it is only when we do this, when we include and perhaps make central the experiences of women of color, can Americans move past the sin of slavery and the perversion of patriarchy.
Dr. Salamishah Tillet is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania. She is also the co-founder of the non-profit organization, A Long Walk Home, Inc.Print This Post
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