Politics of race and gender

A victory in Oregon, yes, but a 35-point thrashing in Kentucky on Tuesday for presumptive Democratic nominee Barack Obama. Although both states are populated predominantly by white voters, together they prove white comes in many different shades. Oregonians are progressive to a fare-thee-well (I know, I spent two years at Reed College in Portland, Ore.) Kentucky voters are less affluent, less well-educated and considerably more conservative.

The Kentucky results and the state’s impact on the Obama campaign were summed up most succinctly by this L.A. Times blog entry:

“Barack Obama, assuming that two consecutive primary thrashings don’t cause the pause among Democratic superdelegates Hillary Clinton is hoping for, will get within shouting distance of Kentucky later this year as the party’s presidential nominee. The key swing states of Ohio and Missouri border it. So do Virginia and Indiana, which Obama might be able to put in play … (West Virginia) exit poll data showed her (Clinton) voters feel none too kindly toward him. Those figures found that only a third of Clinton supporters would vote for Obama in November, while about 40 percent would cast their ballot for Republican John McCain and the rest — roughly a quarter — would stay home.”

It’s obvious both Democratic candidates have recognized this race is largely about race and gender. Why is Sen. Obama not leaning harder on Sen. Clinton to drop out? He knows he’d be accused of sexism if he did, whether those charges are warranted or not. Why is the African-American vote going so solidly for him and the white working class so heavily for her? To ascribe these divisions to anything but race is to mimic Nero while Rome burned.

Democrats’ strongest chance of bridging the racial chasm comes, ironically enough, from the lily-white GOP. As reported by the Politico, “the GOP is heading into the 2008 election without a single minority candidate with a plausible chance of winning a campaign for the House, the Senate or governor … Republicans are now on the verge of going six — and probably more — years without an African-American governor, senator or House member. That’s the longest such streak since the 1980s.”

John McCain has the chance to pick a running mate who could help exhume the GOP from its self-inflicted diversity rut. Oft-touted names are Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and her predecessor, Colin Powell.

But I believe a much smarter choice would be Republican governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana. Yes, he’s only been in office less than a year. But who is Sen. Obama to knock the opposition for lack of experience?

One Republican friend told me, “Gov. Jindal is our Barack Obama.”

He’s a fabulous speaker, a darling of Christian conservatives and at 36 years of age, would help inoculate Sen. McCain against the “age” or “ageist” argument. As the nation’s first Indian-American governor, he would have strong hereditary ties to an increasingly important ally (India) as its power, economic clout and influence in world affairs crescendos.

One thing I hope emerges from this messy primary season is that Americans can learn to discuss the politics of race without inferring racism and the politics of gender without inferring sexism. Each is distinct from the other, but I’ve seen the terms used almost interchangeably too many times. Any writer who dissects the white vote can expect to be accused by some readers of racism whether warranted or not.

Somewhat remarkably, discussing “the women’s vote” brings virtually no mention from readers of sexism.

As a nation, we have made tremendous strides toward ending race and gender bias. But we have not yet arrived at the point where we can have an honest, open discussion about the impact of race and gender in politics.

And that’s a shame.

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