Earlier this year, Gloria Steinem wrote a provocative and controversial op-ed piece where she asked readers to imagine an African American woman, trained as a lawyer, who spent two years in the Senate and then went on to run for the Presidency. Steinem’s point was that that “gender is probably the most restrictive force in American life,” and that a Black woman could never hope to achieve such lofty heights, while a Black man is currently doing so and may in fact be elected President.
I took exception to Steinem’s premise, but now I find myself wishing she would update it. Specifically, I’d like Americans to examine a few scenarios and imagine how these would play out.
Let’s start with this one. Imagine that Michelle Obama were not Barack’s first wife, but his second one. Imagine that Obama had been separated from his first wife due to some horrible trauma, and when they finally reunited, he learned that she had been disfigured by a car accident. Imagine then that Barack met Michelle Robinson, a much younger, wealthier woman, began an affair with her while still married to his first wife. And to put the finishing touch on it, imagine that Barack eventually left his first wife for Michelle and used her father’s wealth to launch his political career. Would he be the Democratic nominee today? Or would conservatives tear him apart for his multiple marriages, infidelity, and “moral failures”? Would he generate the same support from Democratic elites, or would he be a lesser version of Kwame Kilpatrick–another black male politician for whom a sex scandal proved his undoing?
Here’s another one. Imagine that Barack Obama ran for president when Malia and Sasha were 17 and 14 instead of 10 and 7. Imagine that in the early stages of his candidacy, news surfaced that Malia was pregnant by her boyfriend, but that they planned to wed. Would Democratic leaders and left-leaning news commentators rally around Obama and insist that his family’s lives are private and not for public consumption? Or would Malia immediately become used as a symbol of irresponsible teen mothers who are a drain on society?
Let’s keep going. Imagine that Barack Obama, in the early stages of his candidacy, simply decided that all the questions and innuendo about him being Muslim, tied to a member of the Weather Underground, and a secret terrorist plant were just too much, and opted not to talk to the media any more on the grounds that they were racist. Would anyone, anyone at all, consider this defensible behavior? Would he even have a candidacy if he did this?
I’m not suggesting that Obama should want to strive for these things, or that these are behaviors to be glorified. But I don’t believe that he could have McCain’s sordid marital history, Palin’s familial dynamics, or her arrogant hostility towards the press with the same consequences. The double standard has a name, and that name is white privilege. John Ridley writing at Huffington Post has even more examples of this sort of thing in his recent column.