Wednesday, February 20, 2008

On All Fronts: Black Women and the Vote

Throughout the primaries much has been made about where black female voters stand. There have been endless debates about whether race trumps sex, cringe-worthy interviews of black women in beauty salons and old wounds reopened between white feminists and black feminists. Now that Sen. Obama has won his tenth consecutive contest, it’s safe to say that the overwhelming majority of black women have opted to vote for him rather than his white female competitor. This has led some to conclude that black women are more invested in their race than in their sex.

For weeks now I’ve been questioning myself about where my loyalties lie. Am I rooting for Obama primarily because he could be the first U.S. president of African descent? I believe that Obama’s blackness is only part of the equation for me. I am drawn to him because, like me and countless other post-Baby Boomer African Americans, his blackness has been called into question simply because of his upbringing. The Illinois senator has blacks and whites, alike, in his family. He grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia rather than on the mean streets of the inner city or in the rural, poverty-stricken South as the black leaders before him did. His father wasn’t American but Kenyan and raised in the Muslim tradition rather than in the Christian faith. When, in 2006, I first heard the charges that Sen. Obama was not authentically black because of the circumstances of his birth, a maternal feeling rose inside of me. I wanted to protect him. How many similar charges had I heard leveled against myself and others simply because our narratives diverged from the ones America has come to most commonly link with blacks? Why was it that those blacks who told tales infused with poverty, violence and virulent racism were the only among us considered to be authentically black, especially when large numbers of African Americans don’t have such tales to tell? It seemed a strange kind of racism to suggest that those of us fortunate enough to enjoy the fruits of Martin Luther King’s dream were somehow non-black.

So, all in all, it wasn’t Obama himself that drew me to him but his detractors. In support of the senator, I began to read excerpts from his speeches and track his appearances, ultimately attending a rally of his in South Central Los Angeles. The location was a strategic move to boost his black cred. Also strategic was the senator’s decision to grant his sole interview during this visit to Los Angeles’ most prominent black newspaper, the L.A. Sentinel. At the rally, during which Obama spoke with a distinctly black cadence, he made sure to draw attention to those in the audience from Occidental College, the school that he attended for two years before transferring to Columbia and my alma mater. Occidental isn’t the only place my path has crossed Obama’s. When I was a child and Obama was a young community organizer on Chicago’s South Side, we both attended Trinity United Church of Christ. Two years ago, I was most impressed when the senator stressed to liberals how important it was that they include matters of faith in their political discourse.

Of course, none of what I have in common with Sen. Obama—a college, a church, a city, African Muslim heritage—indicates that he would make a good commander-in-chief. However, when his rival’s platform varies little from his—the exceptions being their positions on the Iraq war and the discrepancies in their health care plans—the personal easily becomes political.

While I personally connect with Obama in several ways, it is more difficult for me to connect with Sen. Clinton on such a level. We are women from Illinois. That essentially sums up what I have in common with her. In recent days, Clinton has tried to align herself with regular working folk by suggesting that she, too, works the night shift. The suggestion rang false to me, the black daughter, niece and cousin of such folk. While I can connect with the Erin Brockovichs of this country, I am hard pressed to pinpoint what I have in common with white women of Sen. Clinton’s ilk, those who have led privileged lives because of their husbands’ accomplishments. None of the editorials I read about the predicament of black women in this election have mentioned how white female privilege figures into the votes that black women cast. Then, I happened upon an essay by Melissa Harris-Lacewell, which addressed this issue with flair.

“Black women voters are rejecting Hillary Clinton because her ascendance is not a liberating symbol,” Harris-Lacewell writes. “Throughout history, privileged white women, attached at the hip to their husband’s power and influence, have been complicit in black women’s oppression.”

Harris-Lacewell goes on to remark that black women who choose not to vote for Clinton aren’t ignoring gender issues. Black feminist identity politics is complex, she asserts. “It is not about letting brothers handle the race stuff or about letting white women dominate the gender stuff. The black women’s fight is on all fronts,” she said.

Thus, black women resist male leaders who attempt to silence them or white women who desire the allegiance of black women without acknowledging racism. In short, Harris-Lacewell concludes, “They will not be drawn into any simple allegiance that refuses to account [for] their full humanity and citizenship.”

While I’m not arguing that Hillary Clinton has oppressed black women, in recent weeks, she and her husband have alienated blacks with comments that belied an undeniable racial callousness. I gave Sen. Clinton a pass when she said that it took President Lyndon Johnson to realize Martin Luther King’s dream. However, when she was criticized for the remark and blamed the controversy on Obama playing “the race card,” she began to lose me. Sen. Clinton may be privileged enough to invoke “the gender card”—announcing in debate after debate how having a female president constitutes change—but Obama does not have the privilege of playing “the race card,” for fear of turning off non-black voters. Obama, in fact, has been criticized for not discussing race enough. Accordingly, he did not initiate the commentary on Hillary Clinton’s Martin Luther King gaffe. Newspaper columnists, on the other hand, did.

Weeks after that remark Sen. Clinton and her husband would continue to come under fire for trying to paint Obama as “the black candidate” rather than a president for the people. Hillary Clinton also was dismissive of the fact that the black electorate of Louisiana and the Potomac Primary voted overwhelmingly for Sen. Obama. She implied that it was a given that black females and males, alike, would vote for Obama, that race indeed trumps gender.

In this instance Sen. Clinton not only perpetuated a kind of stereotype but downplayed Sen. Obama’s personal appeal. She suggested that there was nothing unique about the Illinois senator that made African Americans rally around him, that we have only done so because of a shared ancestry. If that were the case, wouldn’t we have rallied around past black presidential candidates with the same amount of zeal? Dismissing the black electorate on those grounds certainly doesn’t earn Sen. Clinton any points with blacks. In fact, she has so alienated the African American community that many have vowed not to vote at all if she is the Democratic nominee.

And why should they? Until white women navigate race in a way that is as just as meaningful as the way they navigate gender, they shouldn’t count on the support of women, or men, of color.

1 comment:

Mina said...

Thank you for that. It was well written (as everything of yours is) and highlights a lot of what I believe as far as gender politics and Sen. Clinton much better than I could ever say.