It was delightful, those early days when Republicans were in fractious disarray and the Democratic field bloomed with interesting candidates like a pasture full of daffodils — any of them! All of them! Bluebirds sang. We were rolling in good will.
Now, however, John McCain has unified the right with a lizardy, smothering oil of “my friend,” “my friends” and “hey listen, pal.” And Democrats are chewing each other’s legs off.
Instead of discussion about substantive positions, a distressingly large proportion of the debate is epitomized by an e-mail I received from a good friend: “In my state, a black man trumps a white woman and that’s that. So what do you suggest?”
Here’s what I suggest:
1. Black Jack does not always trump White Queen and vice versa. The problem with the formulation of race-gender “trumping” is that it flattens Obama’s and Clinton’s complexities — their relative eloquence, her vote on the war, whether some voters love him because he’s “so un-black a black man,” their stances on civil liberties. It’s the kind of bad logic that led some people to expect that then-nominee Clarence Thomas wouldn’t be all that conservative because he’s a black man. It’s just bad algebra. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are black men, but it’s hard to imagine them “trumping” Clinton. Similarly, it’s not at all clear that Obama would fare as well against a more nimble and oratorically endowed female opponent, like the late Ann Richards, for example.
2. There is no profit in styling a competition of oppression. One ubiquitous subtext of the black man-trumps-white-woman calculus is that it’s easier to be a black man than it is to be a white woman or, even more reductively, that sexism is worse than racism. It works alongside right-wing claims that racism isn’t a problem anymore. That in turn fuels the not-so-coded diminishments asserting that Obama is getting “preferential” treatment in the media; that he’s simultaneously “entitled” and “elite” yet “unqualified” and “not ready.”
Here’s an alternative way to think about it. Take the unnecessarily polarizing comparative out and stop this inanity of ranking. We can all acknowledge that Clinton has been drubbed with the foulest sexist stereotypes since Anita Hill. It is true that Hillary nutcrackers are sold in airports and that there is not yet an accompanying Stepin Fetchit version of a Barack Obama doll. But that hardly means we live a country in which racist imagery is ipso facto kinder and gentler than gender stereotypes. Turn on the TV and watch Flavor Flav perform goggle-eyed minstrelsy more demeaning than in the Jim Crow era. Pick up the newspaper and read that one in every fifteen black adults is incarcerated. So cheer up: from sex trafficking to the disaster in New Orleans, there’s sufficient suffering to go around.
3. There are multiple narratives of sexism and racism. Stereotypes are malleable. They can be hybridized, coded, shifted across demographics, conjoined with other isms like class or ethnic prejudice, foregrounded or backgrounded. The “trumped white woman” version of sexism, for example, ignores the degree to which Michelle Obama is often described in terms depressingly similar to those of Hillary Clinton: she’s too outspoken, not domestic enough, going to tank her husband’s candidacy by not knowing her place. Similarly, if few are openly hurling the N-word at Obama, what to make of Bill O’Reilly’s hankering to “lynch” the missus instead?
And why would anyone think that Barack Hussein “Osama — oops, I mean Obama” is getting a free pass from our new-age profiles in prejudice?
There’s also the complication of how we inject class into narratives of race and sex. Any black person not categorizable as “underclass” has historically been sorted into one of two categories: (a) an upper-class person whose blackness is eliminated or (b) an uppity black whose personhood is eliminated. A large shadow of that anxiety-provoking split hangs over Obama: He’s the “articulate, clean” exception washed of all relation to race. And he’s also the daring “race man,” the opener-of-doors for whose physical safety the community prays.
4. “If he were/if she were” has become the new “he said/she said.” Recently, Geraldine Ferraro declared that “if Barack Obama were a woman, we’d be saying, Are you kidding?” By that she apparently meant that we wouldn’t be taking him seriously. It made me sag with utter dejection — even without trying to imagine what kind of silly, unserious woman she was imagining him to be: Indonesian-raised white? Harvard Law Review-credentialed black? Or perhaps she was speaking out of pure transference, so that he-as-a-she would look a lot like her. That same day Newsweek published a cover story asking if Obama might become our first woman President. By that it meant he listens, he negotiates, he plays well with others. Again my head began to throb: Bill Clinton is cast as our first black President because he’s such a bad boy, while Obama has to be our first female President because he’s too nice to be a black man?
If we are going to play this pernicious game of projection, why not pull out all the vulgar stops: If John McCain were a woman, we’d call him a girly-man. If John Edwards were Latina, we’d love his healthy head of hair. But this is patent nonsense.
Why don’t we try “he is/she is” for a change? Both Democratic candidates represent diversely layered demographics — ones that describe our future. Clinton is a strong, determined, immensely resilient woman; Obama is a culturally amalgamous, quietly brilliant, elegantly intellectual man. They are both tremendously well educated, making all of us the lucky beneficiaries of affirmative action policies that have reconfigured the playing field to include the two of them.
Now we need to direct our attention where it belongs. As President, McCain would do away with what’s left of affirmative action, Roe, and habeas corpus. He has been schooled for war and more war. He is committed to and implicated in almost all the domestic and economic lunacies of the Bush Administration. It would be tragic if he strolled in for a touchdown while the rest of us were playing card games in the end zone.
Patricia J. Williams, a professor of law at Columbia University and a member of the State Bar of California, writes The Nation column “Diary of a Mad Law Professor.” Her most recent book is “Open House: On Family Food, Friends, Piano Lessons and The Search for a Room of My Own”; (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2004).