Race, gender and the Presidency

It’s been debated for more than a century. But when this historical presidential campaign comes to a close next week, will we know the answer to the following question with any degree of certainty: which more fervently permeates the fabric of American society, racism or sexism?

I think we will and I think the answer will be sexism. The 2008 campaign has demonstrated it is more politically correct to be sexist than racist. American culture tolerates sexism to a degree it would never tolerate racism.

Clearly women have made tremendous strides in this presidential race. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) became the first woman ever to win a state primary, going on to win 19 states. Gov. Sarah Palin (R-Ak.) became the first female Vice Presidential running mate on the GOP ticket. No matter what you think of either woman, and most of us have strong feelings one way or the other about each of them, they’re both trailblazers, although in markedly different ways. Each has helped to bring the fantasy of a female president closer to reality.

Complaints about sexism or racism in the media and in public perceptions of the candidates by their various and sundry campaigns have been widespread this political season. Sen. Clinton endured volumes of insults from mainstream media commentators comparing her, for example, to a "she-goat."

One Fox News commentator whined that every time Sen. Clinton opened her mouth, all any man could think of was his wife telling him to take out the garbage. Talk show demon Rush Limbaugh made derogatory comments about Clinton posing the question whether the nation wanted to watch her age in the White House (as if it’s been fun watching him age, hardly an Adonis is Limbaugh.)

Sen. Obama’s recently been the target of disgusting video pranks showing him at the center of a food stamp surrounded by watermelon and fried chicken. A dead bear cub appeared at a prominent spot at Western Carolina University’s campus festooned with a pair of Obama campaign signs. Obama’s campaign has juiced up the skinheads and racists in unthinkable ways. Clearly he’s been attacked on the basis of his race.

Even Gov. Palin, who draws much more support, according to polls, from Republican men than GOP women, has been treated unfairly in the media, although not nearly to the extent Sen. Clinton had to endure. Reuters recently photographed the Governor from behind and between her legs, making it appear as though a young male supporter in the front row was peering up her dress. Have we seen Sen. McCain thusly portrayed? Not quite.

The debate on whether American society is more racist than sexist began more than a century ago, when freed slave, abolitionist, editor, orator and women’s suffragist Frederick Douglass and women’s rights activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton came to oratorical blows over it. Although both freedom fighters worked to advance the rights of women and freed slaves, Stanton was outraged that black men were able to vote after the Civil War (even though the right was fleeting) and women were not.

One Chicago blogger writes, "Stanton declared it to be a ‘serious question whether we (women) had better stand aside and see ‘Sambo’ walk into the kingdom (of civil rights) first.’ Douglass fired back arguing the horrifying treatment black men endured as slaves entitled them the right to vote before women."

By today’s standards both figures seem preposterously "ist". Douglass should have considered the equally horrid treatment of black women as slaves. Stanton used the racist term, ‘Sambo.’

A poll released in March of this year revealed, as described by the New York Times, "Americans think racism is a more serious problem than sexism in the United States today. In a CBS News poll taken last weekend, a plurality of Americans, 42 percent said racism was a more serious problem for the country compared to 10 percent who said sexism was the more serious problem."

I beg to differ, with the following explanation. White men still feel more comfortable sharing power with men of color than they do with white women or women of color. The Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution, granting black men the right to vote, was ratified in 1870. The Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, granting women the right to vote on the federal level, came 50 years later. Old habits die hard.

I look forward to a time when racism and sexism are nonstarters in American politics. But the legacy of 2008 will be we made more progress fighting racism than sexism.


(Bonnie Erbe is a TV host and writes this column for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail bonnieerbe(at)CompuServe.com.)