Politics as Usual: Racism, Sexism, and Homophobia

While this presidential campaign promises to be the most interesting in a number of years because of the hope of a “first” (first woman, first black) victory, and the end to the Bush regime, the news about politics-as-usual strategies of the campaigns offers somewhat disappointing evidence to dampen that hope.   Bob Johnson, writing at Daily Kos, has an excellent post dissecting the Clinton campaign’s rather Machiavellian strategy to make race “THE issue” in the campaign.  And, Pam lays bare the racism in NY Attorney General Andrew Cuomo’s comment about “shuckin’ and jivin’,” in reference to Barack Obama’s performance at a press conference.

Of course, Clinton’s campaign gets accused of “playing the gender card”  for showing emotion in a public appearance.  Yet, there’s very little of her campaign rhetoric that seriously tries to draw attention to the overwhelming maleness of the power structure in this country, and God forbid anyone should use the word “patriarchy”  to describe how the system works.  I mean, that’s so 1983, right?

Yet, what enthusiasm I had for Obama’s candidacy suffered pretty serious damage with the whole McClurkin debacle back in November.    So, you want to be a “uniter” Sen. Obama?  How about calling up someone like Billy Porter, an out, proud, black gospel and Broadway performer to tour evangelical churches rather than someone who panders to homophobia?

What’s really so very retro- about both Hillary’s and Barack’s campaign’s are the old-school way of thinking about race / gender / sexuality as existing in separate containers, separate silos, if you will.   And that kind of thinking doesn’t work in the real world of lived experience and it doesn’t work in terms of thinking sociologically about the world.

In terms of lived experience, Jen over at Feministing, points out how thinking of “Obama = race” and “Clinton = gender” effectively excludes her experience as a black woman.     And, just to do the extended race/gender math here, Obama is still a (straight) man and Clinton is still heterosexual and white.   No one lives their lives as the embodiment of just one of these identity categories, as convenient as that might be for the mass media production of story lines.

And, in terms of thinking about these categories sociologically, the discipline of sociology has, until very recently, been part of the problem.   Traditionally, sociology as a discipline has been interested in class, race, gender and sexuality within separate and sequential silos of knowledge. The study of class and political economy can be traced to the origins of the discipline with Marx, Durkheim and Weber.  Almost as early, but rarely acknowledged, is the sociological research on race by pioneer W.E.B. Du Bois.   Much later to the sociological table was research about gender, such as Arlene Daniels (1975) and sexuality, such as Laud Humphreys (1975). The Civil Rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s for racial equality and women’s rights (and to some extent gay and lesbian rights movements) provided scholar-activists with the prerequisites for transforming the academy, and sociologists involved in these social movements worked to create new academic institutions, journals, courses and entire bodies of knowledge. Similarly, social movements of the early 1990s organized in response to the AIDS crisis, such as ACT UP and Queer Nation, galvanized the gay and lesbian social movement to recognize and be more inclusive of bisexual, transgender and queer people. Once again, scholar-activists involved in these social movements challenged the dominant discourses of sociology, in particular, feminist sociology. 

It has only been in the last twenty years that pioneers in sociology like Patricia Hill Collins, Bonnie Thornton Dill, Margaret Andersen and others have started asking difficult questions about precisely how race, class, gender and sexuality are interwoven.  Of course, some may argue that it’s necessary to pull out one dimension of oppression and domination to analyze, and that may well be necessary at strategic points in time.   However, I don’t see that kind of strategic necessity being deployed in the current political campaign.  Instead, what I see is a devolution into decades-old discredited debates about hierarchies of oppression, about “who has it worse” the blacks, or the women, or the gays?   None of this is useful or edifying, and informed citizenry should demand better from their so-called leaders.