In an article at Salon.com, Joe Conason suggests that Hilary Clinton’s latest remarks about the role of race in the campaign was a case of “channeling George Wallace.” (photo credit: Kevin Lamarque, Reuters via Salon.com) In case you missed it, here’s what she said:
“… Senator Obama’s support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again, and how whites in both states who had not completed college were supporting me. There’s a pattern emerging here.”
Conason bends over backwards to give her the benefit of the doubt here, writing:
While I still cannot believe she actually intended any such nefarious meaning, she seemed to be equating “hard-working Americans” with “white Americans.” Which is precisely what Wallace and his cohort used to do with their drawling refrain about welfare and affirmative action.
I think that Conason is too forgiving of Hilary and should, by all rights, call out her racism. And, while the reference to George Wallace here sort of fits, it’s not the best or most appropriate historical referrent. Indeed, there’s a long history of white feminists who have deployed similar strategies when the terms of the political game are set up as “gender” versus “race” with white women standing in as the gendered subjects while black men signify race. A more apt comparison would be to Susan B. Anthony. Early in her activism Anthony was committed to the abolition of slavery, in favor of equal rights for blacks and was an ally with Frederick Douglass through the Equal Rights Association. But Anthony abandoned the fight for racial justice after the passage of the 15th Amendment granted voting rights to black men, but not to women – neither black nor white. Faced with the sexism of a constitutional amendment that specifically granted voting rights to some men and not to women, she retaliated by arguing that educated white women would make better voters than “ignorant” black or immigrant men.
Hilary Clinton is faced with a dilemma similar to the one Susan B. Anthony faced. Clinton faces a deeply sexist political system that not only doesn’t take women seriously and demeans their accomplishments. At the same time that the mainstream media has been swept up in a (new) discussion of race and racism in the current election, yet there has been relatively less recognition of gender and sexism in the election. And, the mainstream media has guilty of perpetuating some pretty heinous misogyny, as Besty Reed points out:
she has been likened to Lorena Bobbitt (by Tucker Carlson); a “hellish housewife” (Leon Wieseltier); and described as “witchy,” a “she-devil,” “anti-male” and “a stripteaser” (Chris Matthews). Her loud and hearty laugh has been labeled “the cackle,” her voice compared to “fingernails on a blackboard” and her posture said to look “like everyone’s first wife standing outside a probate court.” As one Fox News commentator put it, “When Hillary Clinton speaks, men hear, take out the garbage.” Rush Limbaugh, who has no qualms about subjecting audiences to the spectacle of his own bloated physique, asked his listeners, “Will this country want to actually watch a woman get older before their eyes on a daily basis?” Perhaps most damaging of all to her electoral prospects, very early on Clinton was deemed “unlikable.” Although other factors also account for that dislike, much of the venom she elicits (“Iron my shirt,” “How do we beat the bitch?”) is clearly gender-specific.
Unfortunately, in the face of such bold misogyny Clinton has responded much like Susan B. Anthony. Rather than reaching out and trying to recognize commonalities of racism and sexism, Clinton has time and again used Obama’s race — and the racism of white voters — to her advantage. It’s not quite the same as saying that a white woman “deserves” the vote (or in this case, the presidency) more than a black man, but it comes from the same tradition of white feminist racism.