Sarah Palin and White Women’s Racism

There’s a lot of talk about how McCain’s running mate, Sarah Palin, is energizing conservative voters, but the real “base” that she energizes is white women Go, Sarah!(
Creative Commons License photo credit: GrodsCorp ). And, it’s very likely that white women will be the ones to decide this election.   While many news analysts continue to adhere to the facile equation of race versus gender (rather than race and gender), and interpret white women’s embrace of Palin as a symbol of “true womanhood,” even feminism, what such analyses leave out is the racism of white women.  The racism of white women like Sarah Palin herself.   Writing at the LA Progressive, Charley James reports that Alaskan citizens who know Palin well say she is “racist, sexist, vindictive, and mean.” According to a James’ interview with a local resident who served Palin breakfast shortly after an Obama victory over Hilary Rodham Clinton, Palin said:

“So Sambo beat the bitch!”

Charming.   Yet, as Adia so deftly pointed out here, because Palin and the McCain campaign are hiding behind protestations of “sexism in the media” Palin isn’t subjected to any hard-hitting questions about this statement, or any of her views on race, racism, or racial inequality (or anything else, for that matter).   That’s a wise move from the campaign’s perspective, because I don’t think it would be long before this sort of invective would escape Palin’s lips.   Even setting aside Palin’s overt racism (as some will inevitably call it an “aberration” and/or deny that she ever said it), her rhetoric of being a “hockey mom” and a “pitbull with lipstick,” is a rhetorical – and political – strategy that excludes women of color from the conversation.  As  Maegan la Mala eloquently writes as Vivir Latino (hat tip to Maria Niles):

Palin positions herself as continuing Clinton’s struggle, as continuing the struggle set forth by Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman to run as a vice-presidential candidate. Let’s not forget that Ferraro called Obama “lucky” for being black. Is Palin then lucky for having five children, like my abuela did before being forcibly sterilized? You wanna talk about Palin’s uterus or the uterus of her daughter? I want to talk about my abuela’s uterus, how it’s power was deemed dangerous because of it’s power to bear brown Spanish speaking babies, my uterus and it’s abortions, miscarriages, and pregnancies, violations upon it, the uterus of an immigrant woman being viewed as a weapon in a culture war and the need to put those immigrant women in chains as they push babies from them and the need the U.S. government has to separate mamis and babies and deport and dispose.

My uterus and my head is tired.

Unfortunately, this is a lesson that white liberal feminists fail to get over centuries of opportunities to learn this lesson: there is nothing incompatible about racism and white feminism.   In fact, they go together quite seamlessly.   Will racism pick the next president? You betcha.  And it’ll be the racism of white women leading the way.

The Racial Lines in Baseball

Howard W. Rosenberg, a national journalist who is an expert on U.S. baseball’s racism, sent me this and said I could place a version on our blog. It is relevant to our discussions of racism in various U.S. institutions, and notes a sad anniversary yesterday:

Even casual Chicago baseball fans may know that 1908 is when the Cubs last won the World Series. But when it comes to the history of racism in baseball, hardly anyone knows that Chicago was once the site of a one-of-a-kind moment, which took place September 6, 1908.

On that date, Adrian “Cap” Anson, the then-former Chicago National League star who today is sometimes blamed for the drawing of the sport’s color line in the 1880s – at the professional level — played with his Chicago semi-pro team in a game against Rube Foster, the then-manager and star pitcher of the Leland Giants, an all-black team in the same league. The game ended as a 13-inning tie, with Anson and Foster as the opposing first basemen throughout. The box score of the game is arguably one of the ten most interesting in all of baseball history; that’s because for the 1920 season, Foster would found the first of the Negro Leagues.

According to Cap Anson biographer Howard W. Rosenberg, Anson, with his Chicago semipro team Anson’s Colts, had played for the first time against another all-black semipro team in his league, the Leland Giants, on August 22, 1908. However, the September 6 game is arguably more symbolic. The September 6 game was played on the home field of the Leland Giants: Auburn Park, around West 77th Street. The August 22 game was played on Anson’s field … near the site of the 1893 World’s Fair. Anson, who was the lone big leaguer to reach 3,000 hits before the start of the 20th century, played from 1871 to 1897, the last 22 of which with Chicago of the National League. Anson would die in 1922, two years after the founding of the first Negro League.

In a year 2000 article on the golden age of Chicago semi-pro baseball, 1906 to 1910, baseball historian Raymond Schmidt wrote, “Semiprofessional baseball provided much of the entertainment for the sports fans of the city prior to World War I…. In addition, barriers between different types of teams had not yet solidified: major league and minor league teams from organized baseball sometimes played the semipros, and black teams regularly played white teams.” The article appeared in the Winter 2000 edition of Chicago History, a publication of the Chicago Historical Society.

[[But the racial barriers soon became entrenched, indeed.]]

On the Internet, a narrative by Schmidt, putting semi-pro ball in the context of the city’s baseball history, can be readily accessed at the following link; A recent news article referring to the game, written by Rosenberg for the McClatchy-Tribune wire, can be accessed at the following link.

How White Privilege Works

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.

Congressman Calls Obamas “Uppity”

Georgia Republican Rep. Lynn Westmoreland used the racially-tinged term “uppity” to describe Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama Thursday. In discussing Palin’s speech with reporters outside the House chamber, a reporter asked Westmoreland to compare Palin with Michelle Obama.  Here’s what she said:

“Just from what little I’ve seen of her and Mr. Obama, Sen. Obama, they’re a member of an elitist-class individual that thinks that they’re uppity,” Westmoreland said.

Asked to clarify that he used the word “uppity,” Westmoreland said, “Uppity, yeah.”

As MissLaura writing at The Daily Kos notes, this is a case in which Westmoreland forgot to go through the usual step of encoding his racism.

The word “uppity” has a long history in the U.S. as the first half of a racist term.  Historically, this word is followed by the N-word.    There’s also a gendered component to this word, as women who are feminists have sometimes been called “uppity.”  The use of this word is a form of social control deployed by people in positions of power to maintain a position of dominance of those they perceive to be “above their station” in the social hierarchy.     The sort of racism that Rep. Westmoreland expressed here often operates just below the surface, in the back stage of private conversations, in American society.   What’s remarkable about this instance is that it erupted into the front stage with reporters standing by, taking notes.    Those who want to see Obama elected dismiss and ignore this phenomena – and the appealing whiteness of the republican ticket – at their peril.

The Campaign: Not Issues, But Symbolism

George Lakoff did a very interesting commentary on the way the political issues are framed by Democratic Party and Republican Party candidates and advisors, using the case of Governor Sarah Palin, the Republican vice-presidential candidate. First he makes the point that the Republicans understand much better that the U.S. political game is more about “conservative family values” and general feel-good symbolism than about “realities” and rational arguments about public policy issues. The initial Democratic Party response is to assume the rational voter and accent the “issues.” But

the Palin nomination is not basically about external realities and what Democrats call “issues,” but about the symbolic mechanisms of the political mind-the worldviews, frames, metaphors, cultural narratives, and stereotypes.

Lakoff then adds the crucial point that accenting critical symbols is the Republican strength in political campaigns:

Reagan and W won-running on character: values, communication, (apparent) authenticity, trust, and identity – not issues and policies…. Conservative family values are strict and apply via metaphorical thought to the nation: good vs. evil, authority, the use of force, toughness and discipline, individual (versus social) responsibility, and tough love. Hence, social programs are immoral because they violate discipline and individual responsibility. Guns and the military show force and discipline. Man is above nature; hence no serious environmentalism. The market is the ultimate financial authority, requiring market discipline. In foreign policy, strength is use of the force.

Palin may have some political problems but she fits the symbolism framing extremely well:

Palin is the mom in the strict father family, upholding conservative values. Palin is tough: she shoots, skins, and eats caribou. She is disciplined: raising five kids with a major career. She lives her values: she has a Downs-syndrome baby that she refused to abort. She has the image of the ideal conservative mom: pretty, perky, feminine, Bible-toting, and fitting into the ideal conservative family. And she fits the stereotype of America as small-town America.

This is a very important and interesting analysis, but Lakoff leaves out what is perhaps the most important symbolism of all for the Republicans—the racial symbolism. John McCain and Sarah Palin symbolize the highly prized whiteness, the virtuous republicans (small R.) imagery, that has been at the heart of the white racial frame since the 17th century. That is why they are so attractive to white, and some other, Americans.

That is probably the most important symbolism that is heavily shaping this election. Not only do Republicans stand for “conservative family values,” but those values in this society are distinctively white in accent and interpretation. Indeed, even the word “American” for most whites, and many others across the globe, signals “white American” even without the adjective.

And these candidates McCain and Palin are candidates, of course, of the “white party” in the U.S. Something like 93 percent of the Republican delegates in Minnesota this week are white, with 7 percent Americans of color. In contrast the Democratic Party convention had some 67 percent white delegates and 33 percent Americans of color. What a contrast! So the central symbolism here is racial, and the “conservative family values” so strongly advertised are in effect “white.”

Some Things Have Not Changed, George Will

Writing for the Washington Post Writers Group, George Will, vividly describes a pogrom that occurred in Springfield, Illinois in 1908. On that date 89 blacks were lynched. The article describes how

Forty black homes were destroyed, as were 21 black and several Jewish businesses.

The writer does not mention that this type of occurrence was not rare, but another example of violence perpetrated against African Americans and Jewish Americans with a a purpose beyond what was immediately obvious. As is true of many (especially white) Americans, Mr. Will speaks of these events as something of the distant past and closes by saying:

So, remember Springfield. The siege of the jail, the rioting, the lynching and mutilating all occurred within walking distance of where, in 2007, Barack Obama announced his presidential candidacy. Whatever you think of his apotheosis, it illustrates history’s essential promise, which is not serenity — that progress is inevitable — but possibility, which is enough: Things have not always been as they are.

The purpose for mentioning this pogrom in connection with Barack Obama is, I gather, to remind us that racism and its associated violence has ended. Well, James Byrd, Jr. was lynched in Jasper, Texas 10 (1998) years ago. According to the record, it was the first time in the history of the state that a white man had been convicted of killing a black man. A 1993 publication by Marquart, Ekland-Olson, and Sorenson examines how lynching was replaced with capital punishment. When one examines the disproportionate number of African Americans and Latino males in prison the logical conclusion is that very little has changed except the method of applying violence. An example is Angola Prison in Louisiana that operates likes a slave plantation. This practice is described in detail in an article posted on this site. Add to this that the NAACP put out the following statement on August 20, 2008 as an Action Alert message regarding the imprisonment of men of color:

These disparities are particularly true for African American men and boys, who are grossly overrepresented at every stage of the judicial process, from initial contacts with police to punishments. African Americans routinely receiving more jail time and harsher punishments; 42% of Americans currently on death row are African American. Nearly a million African Americans today are incarcerated in prisons and in jails, and unless there is a change, a black male born today has a one-in-three chance of going to prison in his lifetime.

While Barack Obama’s run for President signals an important historical event, some spoke of lynching when talking about his wife Michele Obama. As Media Matters noted, this happened on the February 21 broadcast of a nationally syndicated radio program.

Yes some things have changed, but the practice and the strong belief in intimidation and violence as a tool of racism still exist.

Patricia A. Bell is Professor of Sociology at Oklahoma State University.