Race to the Bottom

Race to the Bottom

How Hillary Clinton’s campaign played the race card–and drove a wedge into the feminist movement.


In the course of Hillary Clinton’s historic run for the White House–in which she became the first woman ever to prevail in a state-level presidential primary contest–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.

Watching the brass ring of the presidency slip out of Clinton’s grasp as she is buffeted by this torrent of misogyny, women–white women, that is, and mainstream feminists especially–have rallied to her defense. On January 8, after Barack Obama beat Clinton in the Iowa caucuses, Gloria Steinem published a New York Times op-ed titled "Women Are Never Front-Runners." "Gender is probably the most restricting force in American life, whether the question is who must be in the kitchen or who could be in the White House," Steinem wrote. Next came Clinton’s famous "misting-over moment" in New Hampshire in response to a question from a woman about the stress of modern campaigning. For that display of emotion, Clinton was derided, on the one hand, as calculating and chameleonlike–"It could be that big girls don’t cry…but it could be that if they do they win," said Chris Matthews–and, on the other, as lacking "strength and resolve," as her Democratic rival John Edwards put it, in a jab at the perennial Achilles’ heel of women candidates. Riding a wave of female sympathy, Clinton won New Hampshire in what was dubbed an "anti-Chris Matthews vote."

Thus, feminist opposition to the sexist treatment of Hillary Clinton has morphed into support for the candidate herself. In February Robin Morgan published a reprise of her famous 1970 essay "Goodbye to All That," exhorting women to embrace Clinton as a protest against "sociopathic woman-hating." In the Los Angeles Times, Leslie Bennetts, author of The Feminine Mistake, wrote of older female voters fed up with the media’s dismissive treatment of Clinton: "There are signs the slumbering beast may be waking up–and she’s not in a happy mood." A recent New York magazine article titled "The Feminist Reawakening: Hillary Clinton and the Fourth Wave" described how "it isn’t just the ‘hot flash cohort’…that broke for Clinton. Women in their thirties and forties–at once discomfited and galvanized by the sexist tenor of the media coverage, by the nastiness of the watercooler talk in the office, by the realization that the once-foregone conclusion of Clinton-as-president might never come to be–did too."

The sexist attacks on Clinton are outrageous and deplorable, but there’s reason to be concerned about her becoming the vehicle for a feminist reawakening. For one thing, feminist sympathy for her has begotten an "oppression sweepstakes" in which a number of her prominent supporters, dismayed at her upstaging by Obama, have declared a contest between racial and gender bias and named sexism the greater scourge. This maneuver is not only unhelpful for coalition-building but obstructs understanding of how sexism and racism have played out in this election in different (and interrelated) ways.

Yet what is most troubling–and what has the most serious implications for the feminist movement–is that the Clinton campaign has used her rival’s race against him. In the name of demonstrating her superior "electability," she and her surrogates have invoked the racist and sexist playbook of the right–in which swaggering macho cowboys are entrusted to defend the country–seeking to define Obama as too black, too foreign, too different to be President at a moment of high anxiety about national security. This subtly but distinctly racialized political strategy did not create the media feeding frenzy around the Rev. Jeremiah Wright that is now weighing Obama down, but it has positioned Clinton to take advantage of the opportunities the controversy has presented. And the Clinton campaign’s use of this strategy has many nonwhite and nonmainstream feminists crying foul.

While 2008 was never going to be a "postracial" campaign, the early racially tinged skirmishes between the Clinton and Obama camps seemed containable. There were references by Clinton campaign officials to Obama’s admission of past drug use; the tit-for-tat over Clinton’s tone-deaf but historically accurate statement that Martin Luther King needed Lyndon Johnson for his civil rights dreams to be realized; and insinuations that Obama is a token, unqualified, overreaching–that he’s all pretty words, "fairy tales" and no action.

From the point of view of Obama’s supporters, the edge was taken off some of these conflicts by the mere fact of his stunning electoral success, built as it was on significant white support. Melissa Harris-Lacewell, a professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton and an Obama volunteer, recalls that for black Americans "Iowa was an astonishing moment–watching Barack win the caucus felt like Reconstruction. There was something powerful about feeling as though you were a full citizen." In democracy, Harris-Lacewell explains, "the ruled and rulers are supposed to be the same people. The idea that black folks could be engaged in the process of being rulers over not just black folks but over the nation as a whole struck me as very powerful."

Soon enough, however, that powerful idea came under attack.

"More than any single thing, that moment with Bill Clinton in South Carolina represents the rupture that was coming," says Harris-Lacewell. The moment occurred in late January, when the former President compared Obama’s landslide win, in which he received a major boost from African-American voters, to Jesse Jackson’s victories there in 1984 and 1988. Because the former President offered the comparison unprompted, in response to a question that had nothing to do with Jackson or race, the statement was widely read as chalking up Obama’s win to his blackness alone and thus attempting to marginalize him as a doomed minority candidate with limited appeal. Obama was now "the black candidate," in the words of one Clinton strategist quoted by the AP.

By March, multiple videos of Wright, Obama’s former pastor, had popped up on YouTube and had begun to play on an endless loop in the right-wing media. "God damn America for treating your citizens as less than human," Wright inveighed, reciting a litany of racial complaints. And he said in his sermon immediately following 9/11, "America’s chickens are coming home to roost."

According to Smith College professor Paula Giddings, author of a new biography of Ida B. Wells, Ida: A Sword Among Lions and the Campaign Against Lynching, Wright’s angry invocation of race and nation tapped into a reservoir of doubt about the very Americanness of African-Americans. "American citizenship has always been racialized as white. Who is a true American? Are African-Americans true Americans? That has been the question," she says.

In Obama’s case–given his mixed-race lineage, his Kenyan father, his experiences growing up in Indonesia, his middle name (Hussein)–questions about his devotion to America carry a special potency, as xenophobia mingles with racism to create a poisonous brew. The toxicity is further heightened in this post-9/11 atmosphere, in which an image of Obama in Somali dress is understood as a slur and e-mails claiming that he is a "secret Muslim" schooled in a madrassa spread virally, along with rumors that he took the oath of office on a Koran. The madrassa and Koran canards have been thoroughly debunked, but still they persist–and few have been willing to stand up and say, So what if he was a Muslim? For her part, Clinton, asked on 60 Minutes whether Obama was a Muslim, said, "There is nothing to base that on, as far as I know."

Giddings calls the Wright association a "litmus test" that Obama must pass, saying, "It will be interesting to see if a man of color, a man who’s cosmopolitan, can be the quintessential symbol of America" as its President.

Obama initially responded to that challenge with his speech in Philadelphia on March 18. While condemning Wright’s words, he placed them in a historical context of racial oppression and said, "I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community." (More recently, of course, Obama did renounce him.) But in the Philadelphia speech, called "A More Perfect Union," Obama also outlined a racially universal definition of American citizenship and affirmed his commitment to represent all Americans as President. "I chose to run for the presidency at this moment in history because I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together–unless we perfect our union by understanding that we have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction."

A mere three days after Obama spoke those words, Bill Clinton made this statement in North Carolina about a potential Clinton-McCain general election matchup: "I think it’d be a great thing if we had an election year where you had two people who loved this country and were devoted to the interest of this country. And people could actually ask themselves who is right on these issues, instead of all this other stuff that always seems to intrude itself on our politics." Whether or not this statement constituted McCarthyism, as one Obama surrogate alleged and as Clinton supporters vigorously denied, the timing of the remark made its meaning quite clear: controversies relating to Obama’s race render him less fit than either Hillary or McCain to run for president as a patriotic American. A couple of weeks later, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen went so far as to call on Obama to make another speech, modeled after John F. Kennedy’s declaration in 1960 that, despite his Catholicism, he would respect the separation of church and state as President–as though Obama’s blackness were a sign of allegiance to some entity, like the Vatican, other than the United States of America.

In the Democratic debates, enabled by the moderators, Hillary Clinton has increasingly deployed issues of race and patriotism as a wedge strategy against her opponent. First, in the debate in Cleveland on February 26, she pressed Obama not only to denounce but to reject Louis Farrakhan–to whom he was spuriously linked through Reverend Wright, who had taken a trip with the black nationalist leader in the 1980s. In style as well as content, that attack was a harbinger of things to come. In the most recent debate, ABC’s George Stephanopolous and Charles Gibson peppered Obama with questions such as, "Do you believe [Wright] is as patriotic as you are?" and, regarding former Weatherman Bill Ayers, a Chicago neighbor and Obama supporter, "Can you explain that relationship for the voters and explain to Democrats why it won’t be a problem?" Time after time, Clinton picked up the line and ran with it. "You know, these are problems, and they raise questions in people’s minds. And so this is a legitimate area…for people to be exploring and trying to find answers," she said, seeming to abandon her argument that these issues are fair game now only because they will be raised by Republicans later and thus are relevant to an evaluation of Obama’s electability.

The Wright, Farrakhan and Ayers controversies have been fueled by a craven media, and ABC’s performance in the debate has rightly been condemned. But given that Clinton is the one who is running for President and who purports to represent liberal ideals, her complicity in such attempts to establish guilt by association is far more troubling. While she has dealt gingerly with the matter of Wright in the wake of his recent appearance at the National Press Club–accusing Republicans of politicizing the issue–she also took pains to remind reporters that she "would not have stayed in that church under those circumstances."

It’s disappointing, to say the least, to see the first viable female contender for the presidency participate in attacks on her black opponent’s patriotism, which exploit an anxious climate around national security that gives white men an edge both over women and people of color–who tend to be viewed, respectively, as weak and potentially traitorous. Says Paula Giddings, "This idea of nationalism and patriotism pulling at everyone has demanded hypermasculine men, more like McCain than the feline Obama, and demanded women whose role is to be maternal more than anything else."

For Hillary Clinton, the gendered terrain of post-9/11 national security politics has been treacherous indeed. As Elizabeth Drew observed in The New York Review of Books, Clinton took steps in the Senate, like joining the Armed Services Committee, "to protect herself from the sexist notion that a woman might be soft on national security." As a 2002 study by the White House Project, a women’s leadership group, found, "Women candidates start out with a serious disadvantage–voters tend to view women as less effective and tough. Recent events of war, terrorism, and recession have only…increased the salience of these dimensions." Clinton has been quite successful in allaying these concerns, although she faces a Catch-22: her reputed toughness and ruthlessness have helped ratchet up her high negatives. The White House Project study found that a woman candidate faces a unique tension between the need to show herself "in a light that is personally appealing, while also showing that she has the kind of strength needed for the job she is seeking."

Of course, Clinton’s decision to play the hawk may have had other motivations. Perhaps she really believed that voting to authorize the war in Iraq was the right thing to do (which is, arguably, even more worrying). But her posture in this campaign–threatening to "totally obliterate" Iran after being asked how she would respond in the highly improbable event of an Iranian nuclear strike against Israel, for example–has at least something to do with a desire to compete on a macho foreign policy playing field. It’s the woman in this Democratic primary race who has the cowboy swagger: the nationalist and militaristic rhetoric, the whiskey-swilling photo-ops, the gotcha attacks for perceived insults to a working-class electorate (as in "Bittergate") that is usually depicted as white and male.

Clinton has, to be sure, faced a raw misogyny that has been more out in the open than the racial attacks on Obama have been. But while sexism may be more casually accepted, racism, which is often coded, is more insidious and trickier to confront. Clinton’s response to "Iron my shirt" was immediate and straightforward: "Oh, the remnants of sexism, alive and well." Says Kimberlé Crenshaw, law professor at Columbia and UCLA and executive director of the African American Policy Forum, "While sexism can be denounced more directly, that doesn’t mean it’s worse. Things that are racist have yet to be labeled and understood as such."

While on occasion Obama’s campaign has complained of racial slights, Obama himself has avoided raising the charge directly. Even so, Clinton supporters make the twisted claim that it is Obama who has racialized the campaign. "While promoting Obama as a ‘post-racial’ figure, his campaign has purposefully polluted the contest with a new strain of what historically has been the most toxic poison in American politics," wrote Sean Wilentz in The New Republic in an article titled "Race Man." Bill Clinton recently groused that the Obama camp, in the controversy over his Jackson remark, "played the race card on me."

As for the way the Clinton campaign has dealt with race, Crenshaw says, "It started with a small drumbeat, but as the campaign has proceeded, as Hillary has taken part in things, more people are really seeing this as a ‘line in the sand’ kind of moment."

Among the black feminists interviewed for this article, reactions to the declarations of sexism’s greater toll by Clinton supporters–and their demand that all women back their candidate out of gender solidarity, regardless of the broader politics of the campaign–ran the gamut from astonishment to dismay to fury. Patricia Hill Collins, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland and author of Black Feminist Thought, recalls how, before they were reduced to their race or gender, the candidates were not seen solely through the prism of identity, and many Democrats were thrilled with the choices before them. But of the present, she says, "It is such a distressing, ugly period. Clinton has manipulated ideas about race, but Obama has not manipulated similar ideas about gender." This has exacerbated longstanding racial tensions within the women’s movement, Collins notes, and is likely to alienate young black women who might otherwise have been receptive to feminism. "We had made progress in getting younger black women to see that gender does matter in their lives. Now they are going to ask, What kind of white woman is Hillary Clinton?"

The sense of progress unraveling is profound. "What happened to the perspective that the failures of feminism lay in pandering to racism, to everyone nodding that these were fatal mistakes–how is it that all that could be jettisoned?" asks Crenshaw, who co-wrote a piece with Eve Ensler on the Huffington Post called "Feminist Ultimatums: Not in Our Name." Crenshaw says that, appalled as she is by the sexism toward Clinton, she found herself stunned by some of the arguments pro-Hillary feminists were making. "There is a myopic focus on the aspiration of having a woman in the White House–perhaps not any woman, but it seems to be pretty much enough that she be a Democratic woman." This stance, says Crenshaw, "is really a betrayal."

Frances Kissling, the former president of Catholics for a Free Choice, attributes this go-for-broke attitude to the mindset of corporate feminism. "There’s a way in which feminists who have been seriously engaged in electoral politics for a long time, the institutional DC feminist leadership, they are just with Hillary Clinton come hell or high water. I think they have accepted, as she has accepted, a similar career trajectory. They are not uncomfortable with what has gone on in the campaign, because they see electoral campaigns as mere instruments for getting elected. This is just the way it is. We have to get elected."

The implications of all this for the future of feminism depend significantly on the outcome of the primary, says Kissling. "If Clinton wins, the older-line women’s movement will continue; it will be a continuation of power for them. If she doesn’t win, it will be a death knell for those people. And that may be a good thing–that a younger generation will start to take over."

Many younger women, indeed, have responded to the admonishments of their pro-Hillary second-wave elders by articulating a sophisticated political orientation that includes feminism but is not confined to it. They may support Obama, but they still abhor the sexism Clinton has faced. And they detect–and reject–a tinge of sexism among male peers who have developed man-crushes on the dashing senator from Illinois. "Even while they voice dismay over the retro tone of the pro-Clinton feminist whine, a growing number of young women are struggling to describe a gut conviction that there is something dark and funky, and probably not so female-friendly, running below the frantic fanaticism of their Obama-loving compatriots," wrote Rebecca Traister in Salon.

It’s not just young feminists who have taken such a nuanced view. Calling themselves Feminists for Peace and Obama, 1,500 prominent progressive feminists–including Kissling, Barbara Ehrenreich and this magazine’s Katha Pollitt–signed on to a statement endorsing him and disavowing Clinton’s militaristic politics. "Issues of war and peace are also part of a feminist agenda," they declared.

In some sense, this is a clarifying moment as well as a wrenching one. For so many years, feminists have been engaged in a pushback against the right that has obscured some of the real and important differences among them. "Today you see things you might not have seen. It’s clearer now about where the lines are between corporate feminism and more grassroots, global feminism," says Crenshaw. Women who identify with the latter movement are saying, as she puts it, "’Wait a minute, that’s not the banner we are marching under!’"

Feminist Obama supporters of all ages and hues, meanwhile, are hoping that he comes out of this bruising primary with his style of politics intact. While he calls it "a new kind of politics," Clinton and Obama are actually very similar in their records and agendas (which is perhaps why this contest has fixated so obsessively on their gender and race). But in his rhetoric and his stance toward the world outside our borders, Obama does appear to offer a way out of the testosterone-addled GOP framework. As he said after losing Pennsylvania, "We can be a party that thinks the only way to look tough on national security is to talk, and act, and vote like George Bush and John McCain. We can use fear as a tactic and the threat of terrorism to scare up votes. Or we can decide that real strength is asking the tough questions before we send our troops to fight."

As comedian Chris Rock quipped, Bush "fucked up so bad that he’s made it hard for a white man to run for President." Rock spoke too soon: many are hungry for a shift, but the country needs the right push to get there. Unfortunately, from Hillary Clinton, it’s getting a shove in the wrong direction.

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