Cover Story – Race and Gender: 2008 Election
The U.S. Constitution is held up as a model document for the principles it enshrines – freedom, equality and justice. But for more than two centuries since its adoption in 1787, those august principles have been more promise than reality. It’s only four decades since the Voting Rights Act removed all curbs on the right to vote for blacks and the Supreme Court ruled that anti-miscegenation laws – which banned interracial marriage – were illegal.
The lack of progress on race and gender issues is well-reflected in the highest of political institutions. Over the course of American history, less than 2 percent of U.S. senators have been women, and only five blacks have ever been elected to the Senate.
Never in the course of our history has a woman or a person of color broken through the most impenetrable of glass ceilings – the White House.
Yet 2008 promises to be a year where the concept of “We, the People” might, for the first time, actually mean all of us. With the very real possibility of a woman (Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y.) or a mixed-race African-American (Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill.) ascending to the country’s highest office, issues of race and gender are front and center this political season.
Ethnicity and gender making a mark
As pundits and analysts furiously debate how Clinton’s gender or Obama’s ethnicity will play out with voters, this campaign season has thrown conventional wisdom a number of curve balls. Many women – particularly college-educated women – are more likely to support Obama, while many working-class blacks are drawn to Clinton. These divided loyalties and intersecting agendas make for an unprecedented election year, where suddenly the nuances of race, class and gender are the subjects of Sunday morning TV news shows and pollster questions.
One question many have asked is why so many African-American women remain Clinton devotees. Black women will play a critical role in whether Clinton or Obama will win the Democratic nomination for president, experts say. Nearly 70 percent identify Clinton as their first choice – according to a CNN poll of black voters taken in October – leading some pundits to theorize that black women long for the Bill Clinton years, while others agree with the former first lady on issues that support working women and families.
While Clinton was hugely popular among black women – 68 percent to Obama’s 25 percent – for black men, the poll shows Obama with a slight lead with a 46 percent to 42 percent margin.
CNN political analyst Bill Schneider wrote of the poll, the difference between black women and men “underscores the fact that the nation’s vote is divided not only by race, but also by gender.
“Black women don’t just vote their black identity,” Schneider says. “They also vote their identity as women.”
Author and political activist Earl Ofari Hutchinson wrote on the Web site of New America Media, “Nearly three times more black women say they’ll back Hillary over Obama, and that’s especially true among lower income, working-class black women. She is a mother, and most importantly, is regarded by many black women as a strong advocate for child care and women’s interests.” This is a significant point because South Carolina is the most diverse of the early voting states, with black voters make up more than half of Democratic voters.
But Peter Masundire, Seattle-based media and communications director for the grass-roots group Washington for Obama says, “When they both first entered the primary race, it was assumed that most black people would support Hillary because of the perceived good that her husband, Bill Clinton, did for black people. Some of the support attributed to Hillary was merely a result of her name recognition.”
Bill Fletcher, senior scholar for the progressive Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C., adds, “But black people are for Clinton all the way for very bizarre reasons. It’s not like Clinton was all that great for African Americans. What Bill Clinton was able to do was to connect with African Americans unlike most white politicians and that personal connection often was confused with people identifying with him on a personal level and feeling he understood something about our experience.”
Meanwhile, some powerful black women are starting to show their support for Obama, such as Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., one of Congress’ strongest opponents of the Iraq War.
But the supporter with possibly the greatest influence is TV megastar Oprah Winfrey, who recently attracted 65,000 people to rallies in Iowa, South Carolina and New Hampshire. Since Winfrey’s appearances, a quarter of Americans said they have heard more about Obama recently than any other candidate, according to a mid-December poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. Among African Americans, when asked which candidate they have heard the most about recently, 51 percent of those polled said they have heard the most news coverage about Obama, while 27 percent identified Clinton as the top presidential newsmaker. (That was a big increase for Obama from November polls, when 50 percent named Clinton and 15 percent Obama).
According to the November Pew poll, Clinton has “an advantage over Obama” among female Democrats in New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina on key issues such as health care. For example, in Iowa, about twice as many voters say they think Clinton could better handle health care than Obama. Why? Is it through her experience in her U.S. Senate seat from New York, or have the American people placed gendered values on Clinton – assuming she can best handle areas like health and education, which have historically been dubbed “women’s work?”
Some believe that many people of color, particularly African Americans, simply don’t know enough about Obama and play it safe by supporting Clinton, while others think it’s a racist assumption that African Americans would automatically vote for Obama on the basis of race over issues they value.
“Black people are like everyone else and should look at all the candidates, at where they stand on the issues and how they would lead this country before deciding who to vote for,” says Masundire, who is African American. “I also think it is insulting to blacks to categorize them as one monolithic or homogeneous group of people that should act or vote the same way.”
Darryl Cox , an African-American policy consultant who lives in Seattle, says, “If black folks do not believe Sen. Obama has a credible chance of winning the nomination, then it would make little sense to vote for him on the basis of race pride alone.”
He hopes to see “a broad and diverse group of people running and being elected to the presidency.” As for his personal stance, Cox says, “As a black man who grew up during the era when a majority of black people in this country were not allowed to vote, the notion of having someone who is black occupy the White House carries a great deal of appeal.”
Cox believes there will be a sure shift in sentiment for Obama among African-American voters if it begins to look like he can win a primary. “Then black voters will make an assessment,” he says.
It could be a strategic move, as well. “An alternative interpretation is that African-American voters want most to win, and perhaps might be strategically holding back on Obama if they believe he cannot win the general election,” explains Gary Segura, a professor of American politics at the University of Washington who specializes in American Latino politics.
According to an October Pew Research survey titled “Blacks See Growing Values Gap between Poor and Middle Class,” some African Americans think Obama’s race could detract from his chance to be elected; although three quarters
say he is a good influence for the black community.
The poll shows 61 percent of blacks who say the values of middle-class and poor blacks are becoming “more different.” Fifty percent say Obama shares their values, but half dismiss him as having only “some” in common with their values. Other findings show that “blacks feel less upbeat” about the state of black progress now than any time since 1983 with just one in five who say things are better than they were five years ago.
The poll further cites that over the past two decades, African Americans say they have lost much of their confidence in the leaders of their communities, including national political figures, clergy and the NAACP.
“Large numbers of African Americans don’t know what to make of Obama,” says Carol Swain, Vanderbilt University Law professor and an authority on race and politics. “Some view him with suspicion and others are skeptical because he is an unknown quantity. A lot of blacks seem to be more trusting of Hillary because of their knowledge and affection of Bill Clinton.”
Swain says people of color also might believe that the first black president would have to be over-qualified for the job. “Consequently some will be quite skeptical of Obama’s chances of being elected president without having served some other high-profile political position for longer than a single term,” she says.
Still, several high-profile Democrats of color have endorsed Obama, including Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. of Illinois and other key lawmakers who were expected to back Clinton. And Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP, has described Obama as “tremendously appealing.” He says that a very positive development has already happened in the 2008 presidential campaign in that Democratic candidates are reaching out to black voters.
Obama recently drew large crowds at three rallies in Seattle where he told one crowd of more than 1,000 that he believes there is such a thing as being too late, “and that moment is almost upon us.”
In October, Obama had far outpaced all others in fund raising in Washington state. According to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Obama raised $1.1 million in the state, with Edwards in second with $570,000 and Clinton at third place with $453,000.
Black voters have always been important to the Democratic Party as they are reliable Democrats, voting nearly 9-to-1 for Democrats in 2004 and 2006, according to USA Today. “The African-American vote is one of the core constituencies of the Democratic Party and all too often taken for granted,” says Fletcher, of the Institute for Policy Studies. Still, in past presidential elections, candidates have waited too long to garner support from the African-American communities. Six weeks before an election “candidates panic and go the African-American community for their support,” Fletcher says.
Norm Rice, the first African-American mayor of Seattle, has endorsed Obama and says, “I’m not coming into this a Pollyanna. I think his chances are very difficult but I do think that as African Americans that we’ve got to believe that if we keep saying that we can’t or that we won’t make it, then that is self-defeating.
“If you believe that race is a barrier then it is a barrier,” Rice says. “You have to look beyond race. It’s how strong you are and I believe that Obama is a strong man.”
And yet, as we roll into the 2008 election cycle, one theory contends our votes were cast long before the debates began. A new national study by University of Washington researchers explains a certain implicit phenomenon that happens in the voting booth, when unconscious or automatic preferences reveal themselves. In the study, conducted in October and November, over 900 participants took an Implicit Association Test to measure their unconscious attitudes for an Obama vs. Clinton race; an Edwards vs. Clinton race; or an Obama vs. Edwards race. Questions such as how warmly a voter felt for a particular candidate were asked and used to determine a connection (or in this case, a disconnect) between implicit and explicit voting preferences.
The results? Before taking the test, Obama held a 42 percent to 34 percent “favored” margin over Clinton, and Edwards fell in third place with just 12 percent of the favored vote. Yet, the Implicit Association Test revealed that, according to voters’ automatic preferences, Clinton held the majority (48 percent), Edwards was second with 27 percent, and Obama came in third with 25 percent.
This would explain why, in years past, poll numbers have overestimated support for black candidates when compared with vote percentages garnered in the final race. The same might be true for the 2008 election cycle. It’s a very real possibility that voters will express outward support for the person of color or the woman in the campaign phase and then vote differently when the pressure is on.
The Hispanic Vote
Lisa Navarrete, vice president of communications for the National Council of La Raza, the nation’s largest Hispanic civil rights body, says that the Washington, D.C.-based organization has not made a formal endorsement for a presidential candidate and has no statistics regarding Latinos and Obama.
But Navarrete stressed that the most important issue to Latinos is education. “We have an educational crisis in minority communities,” she says, “and it is unfortunate that it has not been a more prominent topic of discussion in this election so far.”
An October Pew Hispanic Center poll found that Latino voters favor Hillary Clinton at 59 percent of registered Latino voters compared with Obama at 15 percent, the mixed-race Mexican-American Richardson at 8 percent and Edwards with 4 percent. Hispanics are now the nation’s largest ethnic minority group, making up about 15 percent of the U.S. population. Hispanics say the Democratic party has more concern for their issues, especially in regard to immigration.
But any Democratic candidate is far from securing the Latino vote. A poll released Dec. 12 by ImpreMedia and Research group Avanze found that 35 percent of Latino voters in the five states with the largest percentage of Latino voters still are undecided about who will get their vote. Many have clearly abandoned the GOP with nearly half of Latinos surveyed saying that President Bush’s policies have been damaging to their communities.
So far, Obama hasn’t had much success in his campaign for the Hispanic vote and Clinton is more popular. “She’s the top and best known Democrat,” Hutchinson, the political analyst and author wrote in an essay called “Obama Surge Stalls with Latinos’ for New America Media. “Latinos cheer her stance on health care and education, and they like Bill.”
Hutchinson points out that’s it’s just the opposite for Obama. “He’s still too new, too untested and with virtually no widely known track record on bilingual education, immigration reform, and family values issues,” wrote Hutchinson. “He is too much of an unknown quantity to engender much support, let alone enthusiasm, at least at this point among a significant percent of Latino voters.”
Obama’s background – a liability or asset?
Another recurring issue has been whether Obama’s so-called “non-traditional” African-American background is a liability with black voters. But many blacks call this a racist assumption largely driven by the media only to cause divisiveness amongst blacks.
“What is a traditional African-American background, and how is Obama’s background non-traditional?” asked Masundire of “Washington for Obama.” “Like every person – whether they are black, white, yellow or brown – everyone has a unique background and experiences that makes them see the world in a particular way.”
Obama’s mixed-race background has invited a lot of debate about what it means to identify yourself as one race or another. Some call it a racist claim that he is not “black enough” because he grew up in a multiracial family – he was born in Hawaii to a white American mother and a black Kenyan father.
Cox says the media find it difficult to comprehend people of color who don’t easily fit into its expectations. “Consequently the mainstream press is constantly looking for metaphors or analogies it believes describes something that is new and different,” he says.
Troy Hutson, executive director of the Health Work Force Institute in Seattle, says that if Obama wins, “It matters to communities of color but it also matters to the entire population because it shatters stereotypes.”
“His background is only a liability until people believe Obama can win,” Hutson says. “Once that happens, the dam of support will burst,” says Hutson, an African American.
But Swain, the Vanderbilt law professor, says that having a black man run for president is “probably more important to America as a whole than it is to black Americans specifically. For white Americans it is evidence of how far we have come as a nation.”
“Personally, I think his non-traditional background is an asset,” says Carol Kopec, chairwoman of the Pierce County Veterans for Obama.
“I would rather have a candidate who has seen, lived and worked with people of many races, colors, national origins, religions and political persuasions versus one who has grown up sheltered in the white middle class and out of touch with the world beyond our borders,” says Kopec, who is white.
Political analysts have argued that Obama’s multicultural upbringing and racial heritage will help him connect with voters.
In a piece published in The New York Times, Philip Kasinitz, a sociologist at the City University Graduate Center wrote, “Obama’s identifiably black, but in many ways he’s outside of normal race relations. He’s a black politician for whom whites don’t have to feel guilty.”
Columnist Clarence Page, a member of the editorial board for The Chicago Tribune, wrote in a syndicated article, “America is too saturated with white supremacy to ever give a black presidential candidate an even break. Or, if any actually do make it, he or, someday, she must be a sell-out – an Uncle Tom; black on the outside and you-know-what on the inside. Pick your paranoia, it will show up as a very real presence in somebody’s mind. After all of the hard-won opportunities that the civil rights movement opened up, I am disappointed by this gloomy outlook, but not surprised.”
Ramey Ko, founder of the grass-roots group Asian Americans for Obama, says, “Obama has clearly had to face questions in the media that white politicians rarely have to address. Minority politicians are forced to walk a tightrope between loyalty to their minority community and ability to connect with others.”
According to Ko, many Asian Americans are skeptical that a person of color could be elected. But he gets the sense they think of Obama as being the candidate most likely to represent them. “Even those unfamiliar with his background tend to believe that as a member of a racial minority, Sen. Obama would be naturally more sympathetic to our community,” Ko says.
‘A new day in politics’
“Both Hillary and Obama end up becoming symbols for different things,” says Fletcher, of the Institute for Policy Studies. “Hillary is the symbol for the possibility for the first woman president and Obama the first black president. There is a whole notion of a new day in politics and because of the symbolism, there’s less of a focus on the content of their message.”
And while he admits there is a lot of interest among people of color in both campaigns, “What is missing is what was seen in the Jesse Jackson candidacy in ’84 and ’88.
“What Jackson did was very different in that he had very clear unapologetic stands on the issues and called for dramatic change in domestic and foreign priorities in the United States,” Fletcher says. “Obama’s stands tend to be middle-of-the-road and non-controversial, and so he is put before us as a credible candidate for office which he is – but his stands on things are a bit ambiguous as are Hillary’s in a different way.”
Rice, the former Seattle mayor, says it’s refreshing to have a candidate who is not weighed down by compromises and accommodations and is able to break out as a free-thinking and forward-thinking candidate.
“He is not a regionalist and not trying to be a new Democrat or an old Democrat but rather a person with ideas who cares about the world and America’s position in the world,” Rice says. “When you run for president, you can’t just run for one group of people, your message has to be compelling and clearly they have to look at their message.”
Cox says people in the black and progressive communities will not stop addressing social justice and racial issues simply because he is president. “On the other hand, it is not realistic to expect that these issues will always be at the top of his agenda,” he says.
“He is running to be elected as president of the United States, not as president of black America, which I believe many, many moderate whites of good will and more than a few blacks need to keep in mind,” Cox says.
Some minority groups have doubts that a person of color could win – a self-defeating view which Ko attributes to Asian Americans who have lost faith in the political system.
“Asian political participation has been notoriously low over the years with poor voter turnout and a response that the system is never going to accept them anyway, so spending time, effort or money on politics is wasteful,” he says.
“When I first heard Obama speak I was more inspired than I have been since JFK,” says Rice. “I think that when you see the essence of Obama you find someone genuinely American and trained to assume a position of leadership.”
Fletcher calls Obama essentially an “inspirational thinker” who’s running for president. “The Obama campaign is one that I continue to feel has potential because there’s a great deal of symbolic politics that surround his campaign,” he says.
“I would vote for Obama over Hillary but I think that I shouldn’t have to worry about where he stands,” Fletcher says. “I shouldn’t have to worry whether or not there’s a possibility he could get goaded into a war with Iraq, I shouldn’t have to worry about that, and I do worry because he’s not clear.”
Obama and civil-rights leaders
One challenge for the Obama campaign is receiving endorsements from old-guard civil rights leaders. Leaders, including prominent black civil-rights activists who are deeply rooted in the 1960s movements for racial equality led by Dr. Martin Luther King, have been cool to Obama’s candidacy.
Former presidential candidates Jesse Jackson Sr. and Al Sharpton, as well as Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., to name a few, have expressed concerns about whether Obama has what it takes to be president and specifically be a good leader for African Americans and people of color. Clinton leads Obama in Congressional Black Caucus endorsements, 15 to 12. Prominent civil-rights leader John Lewis along with other well-known African Americans such as Maya Angelou and Magic Johnson have publicly endorsed Clinton.
In Obama’s 2004 convention speech, the Illinois senator spoke about how his “post-racial consciousness” manifests itself politically: “there is no black America and white America, there is only the United States of America.”
Lorenzo Martin, publisher of the Chicago Standard newspapers, a chain of black-oriented dailies, wrote in The Washington Post, “Who does he represent? That is what people are worried about. When you look and see who is surrounding him, you are not going to see too many brothers. What you see is the liberal left.”
Former United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young, the civil-rights activist who worked alongside Dr. King, made his opinions clear at an appearance on “Newsmakers Live,” an urban media forum.
Young, who supports Clinton, says Obama is too young and lacks the support network to ascend to the White House. “I want Barack Obama to be president,” he paused, “… in 2016. It’s not a matter of being inexperienced. It’s a matter of being young. There’s a certain level of maturity – you’ve got to learn to take a lot of s-t.” Young then went on to say that Bill Clinton, the former president, “is every bit as black as Barack”
Young said that Obama needs a protective network that he currently lacks. “Hillary has Bill to back her up. There are more black people that Bill and Hillary can lean on,” Young said.
“You cannot be president alone – to put a brother in there by himself is to set him up for crucifixion. His time will come up and the world will be ready for a visionary.”
What will happen in this unprecedented presidential race is anybody’s guess.
But if the Obama and Clinton campaigns continue to surge forward, voters will be forced to examine ideologies and assumptions to reveal issues of race, gender and class that might just change America’s political face forever.