Politico.com this week ran a story with an intriguing headline: In politics, does race trump gender?
The story continued as follows: "How come Roland Burris has had such an easy time getting to the U.S. Senate while Caroline Kennedy has had such a hard time? Could it be that the race card trumps the gender card in U.S. politics?…Once supporters of Roland Burris made his appointment to the Senate all about race, the deal was done, though it took a few days for Senate leaders to wake up to the fact. At a news conference in Chicago, Rep. Bobby Rush, who represents a district on the South Side of Chicago, said that the mere criticizing of Burris was akin to lynching."
One could go on forever parsing out differences, and they are many, between Roland Burris and Caroline Kennedy. First and foremost, she had the class not to play the gender card and Burris lacked the class to stay away from playing the race card. Second, Burris is replacing Barack Obama, the only African-American in the U.S. Senate. There are 17 female members of that exclusive club.
But in answer to the original question: whether being a member of a minority race is a bigger boost in politics than being female, the answer is an undeniable yes. Are Americans more racist or sexist when it comes to politics? If nothing else, the November election showed us with laser-like precision that sexism is still alive and well in politics, in business and in society at large while racism is, we all hope, breathing its last.
Hillary Clinton ran a flawed campaign and launched her campaign as a flawed candidate (with very high negative ratings from voters.) That said, however, the sexist derisions and insults hurled at her during her run (being called a she-goat, her laugh being called a cackle, etc.) if translated into racial slurs and used instead against Barack Obama would never have been tolerated. Yet, to this day, no one has been forced to apologize to Clinton for all the gender-based abuse she had to endure.
Right wing radio mouthpiece Rush Limbaugh made derogatory comments about Clinton, posing the question whether the nation wanted to watch her age in the White House (as if he could walk down a runway in Milan). I wrote last year that 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, for most blacks, the right was fleeting) and women were not.
White men still feel more comfortable sharing power with men of color than they do with white women or women of color. The 15th Amendment to the Constitution, granting black men the right to vote, was ratified in 1870. The 19th Amendment to the Constitution, granting women the right to vote on the federal level, came 50 years later.
The first black man elected to the U.S. House of Representatives was Joseph Rainey elected in 1870 during Reconstruction. The first woman was Jeanette Rankin in 1912.
Part of the reason for women’s latent progress is women ourselves: organizing women along political lines is like herding cats. African-Americans, on the other hand, stand up for members of their community.
Recall the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s boycotts in the 1980s of companies that did not promote enough African-Americans or franchises that discriminated against African-American owners. One could never get women to boycott a company because it refused to hire enough women. Until we get there, we need to accept responsibility for holding ourselves back.
I look forward to a time when racism and sexism are nonstarters in American politics as well as American society. But it is clear at this point in time that we have made more progress fighting racism than sexism.
(Bonnie Erbe is a TV host and columnist. E-mail bonnieerbe(at)CompuServe.com.)