Friday, February 23, 2007

THE POLITICS OF ETHNICITY, GENDER AND ZIP CODE

Sam Smith

SOME readers may have noted that this journal is not particularly impressed by the fact that Barack Obama is black and Hillary Clinton is a woman. There are several reasons for this heresy.

It's happened already

The election of either Obama or Clinton would be fully predictable confirmation of a change in American attitudes that occurred a considerable while ago. That it happened later in the White House than in tennis, the Supreme Court or the House leadership more likely reflects the biases of campaign operatives, funders and media than it does that of the public as a whole. A recent Gallup poll, for example, found that 94% of Americans would vote for a black for president, 92% for a Jew, 88% for a woman, and 87% for a Hispanic. If you want a real cultural shift, you would have to elect a gay or an atheist who would get the support of only 55% and 45% respectively. But, with the help of the most manipulative media coverage of a presidential campaign that I can recall, Americans are being sold the myth that virtue lies in voting for a black or a woman and you can forget about all the other stuff. Obviously some extremely powerful interests - with little concern for either blacks or women - benefit from such an illusion.

Icons and issues

At the heart of the myth is the assumption that an icon is as good as an issue. To test this, name three issues of particularly concern to blacks or women on which Obama or Clinton would demonstrate a considerably more positive position than the other candidates.

The problem is that Obama and Clinton are not Jesse Jackson or Betty Freidan; they are conventional centrist Democrats being backed by extremely wealthy individuals and interests. One reason this is not generally understood is because we have so few examples of an ethnically oriented campaign really looks like. A rare case was Jesse Jackson's 1988 presidential run with a coalition that has been described as including "urban blacks and Hispanics, poor rural whites, farmers and factory workers, feminists and homosexuals, and white progressives." As Time reported, "In Iowa and New Hampshire, where blacks are less than 2% of the population, Jackson got about 10% of the vote. In . . . Minnesota, with a black population of about 1.3%, Jackson swept to an impressive second-place finish with 20%, ahead of all save Dukakis. Indeed, some whites in these states have had a remarkable experience: one of the few black men they had ever seen up close turned out to be running for President."

Obviously that was not good enough to win the White House. On the other hand it was two decades ago and the electability of blacks has improved considerably. Further, if Jackson had not abandoned the coalition he developed during that remarkable campaign, American history might be quite different.

Now we find ourselves with a black candidate who will obviously do much better than Jackson but if you care about the sort of issues he is meant to represent in the liberal mythology, you'd better go with Dennis Kucinich. In other words, consciously or unconsciously, voters will be choosing between the icon and the issues.

The downside of equality

While there is far less prejudice against blacks and women than twenty years go, the white liberal sense of noblesse oblige on matters of ethnicity and gender obscures a serious problem. True equality means that incompetence, corruption and other mortal and venal sins are just as fairly distributed by ethnicity and gender as is virtue.

This is taken for granted in some places like Washington DC where we have been electing nothing but black mayors since 1974, where two of the leading mayoral candidates in the last election were black women, and where two gays sit on the city council. History - unlike modern liberal sensibilities - suggest that in such situations choosing empirically is preferable to selecting by noble abstractions. In fact, a white city council chair was considerably more progressive than the black woman and man who followed him. Although it is obscured by legend, blacks, women and gays made their greatest headway under the drug-addicted Marion Barry. And one of our gay council members is such a prig he wants to severely limit the ability of teenagers to go to music clubs.

Race and ethnicity

One of the reasons this all becomes more complicated than it has to be is because of the myth of race, which is itself a racist idea - a definition of no scientific basis conceived in order to discriminate. It's why you will find the word 'ethnicity' above; it's a cultural rather than a scientific description.

Still the hold of race on our culture - even liberal culture - remains strong. Thus we have Obama constantly portrayed - yes, even above - as a black when, in fact, he is multicultural as is an ever increasing portion of America. We cling to definitions with which we are comfortable even when they do us harm.

Similarly, the new mayor of Washington, Adrian Fenty, is multi-cultural but this is not widely known even in the city. The media doesn't mention it; he doesn't talk about it much. A rare exception was an interview with CPAN in which Fenty said,

"It's been very healthy to me to see people grow and mature, and that friction evaporated over time and people realized that human beings are just human beings. And I tell people that I think kind of my tolerance and the racial tolerance I have individually, my just optimism about bringing people together, seeing my own family do that around my mother and father's marriage that has lasted, you know, some 40 years now. . . My Dad, again, born in Buffalo, New York, but his father's from Barbados and from Panama. He's the epitome of a - of a - of a person who's soft-spoken and who leads by example. My Mom was born in Buffalo, but from Italian heritage. She's the epitome of a mother who wears everything on her sleeve."

Obama, to his credit, has been quite open about all this and it may be part of his appeal to the young whose ethnic context is quite different from that of their parents. But once you define someone as multicultural, it makes it harder some people - both black and white - to vote for you. And so the myths continue.

The politics of zip codes

In the end, if you really care about the future of women, blacks, latinos and others who have come out the short side of the American dream, then finding sanctuary in a comfortable icon isn't going to do the trick. You have to ask the hard question: when it's all over, who's going to be better off?

One way to think about it is to put ethnicity and gender aside and consider the politics of zip codes. Under each candidate, which zip codes will do better and which will do worse? And who will do better: the white soccer mom or the black waitress mom? The answer doesn't necessarily lead you to the most comfortable icon.

Symbolism and rhetoric deceive easily. Toni Morrison, for example, was taken in by Bill Clinton, whom she called the first black president, even though he made life harder for those on welfare, increased economic disparities and substantially intensified the conflict against young black males, aka the war on drugs. She had forgotten Mahalia Jackson's warning that "you can't say one thing and then do another; be a saint in the church and a devil under cover. You've got to live the life you sing about in your song."

Those seeking salvation in an Obama or a Clinton are looking at the wrong end of things. It's not the color of gender of those at the top that we should be mainly considering but the state of those at the bottom. It's not as much fun and it doesn't leave you feeling quite as smug but, in the end, it's not the nature of the glass ceiling at the White House that counts as much as what goes on behind the doors that tens of millions enter each day in their struggle to survive.

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