Monday, January 14, 2008

Hillary: The White Woman's Burden

It looks like Barack Obama is declaring an end to the racial sniping between Hillary's campaign and himself.
"I don't think it was in any way a racial comment," Obama told ABC News.
"That's something that has played out in the press. That's not my view."

But, he said, the comment was revealing about her political character.
"I do think it was indicative of the perspective that she brings, which is that
what happens in Washington is more important than what happens outside of
Washington," he said.

He said he believes the quote betrays a belief on her part, "that the
intricacies of the legislative process were somehow more significant than when
ordinary people rise up and march and go to jail and fight for justice."

He called that a "fundamental difference" between them.

Too bad! I wish the sniping had gone on for a couple of more permutations. There's been a lot of worry about the mutual criticism "tearing the Democratic Party" apart or throwing the election to the Republicans.

But I believe that the racial dimension of the contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama creates significant opportunities for us to change "the political conversation" in this country.

Where are those opportunities? The first opportunity is created by Barack Obama himself. Conservative commentators like William Bennett and Jim Sleeper view Obama as "transcending race." What country does Bennett really live in? It's much more fruitful that Obama is a specific African-American man and that the media and voters have to deal with him as a particular black person running for president rather than as a symbol of racial transcendence or example of racial stereotypek. Obama does a great job of breaking through the dichotomy of symbol and stereotype that dominates the public representation of African-Americans. That in itself is changing the political conversation about race and politics.

But Hillary Clinton is also moving the conversation forward. The most fruitful thing that Sen. Clinton has done is to decide to fight Obama for black votes. The Clintons have an interesting history with black voters. Bill Clinton tried to show his distance from the black community by publicly criticizing Sister Souljah for remarks of hers. During the impeachment scandal, however, black voters identified strongly with Bill Clinton as someone they felt was persecuted and Bill Clinton has been very popular in the black community ever since. Hillary Clinton started her campaign for black votes from that positive point. However, it's more important that she's not been willing to cede the black vote to Obama in terms of a politics of black identity. Instead, Hillary has been willing to round up black endorsements, visit areas where African-Americans are concentrated, and campaign for black votes in a way that no other white Democrat has been willing to do.

Unable to take African-American votes for granted herself, she's not been willing to let Obama take African-American votes for granted either. As a result, there's a lot of talk about black institutions like beauty parlors, a number of African-American voters being interviewed, and a great deal of discussion about the African-American vote. By acting in a way that got African-Americans more thoroughly integrated into the political conversation, Hillary Clinton advanced the political conversation in this country a great deal.

She's also advanced the political conversation by being willing to attack Barack Obama in the same way that she would attack any other major opponent. And she's been willing to do so by talking about an icon like Martin Luther King.

Hillary's White Woman's Burden. But this is where the conversation could be advanced still further. Hillary's comments about King were pretty inept and the comments of Hillary surrogates Bill Clinton, Billy Shaheen, and Andrew Cuomo have been even more ham-handed and stereotyping. This is where the legacy of whiteness is hurting Hillary Clinton. Having lived in all kinds of communities, Barack Obama has developed such good skills at talking to white people that he's answers the concerns of white constituencies like independents and moderates better than any of the white politicians. Hillary Clinton doesn't have this advantage. Although her political staff is integrated (and that's a good thing), Hillary Clinton has lived her life in overwhelmingly white settings with token black involvement at best. Although Hillary deserves credit for engaging the black community, she can't do so with nearly the skill that Barack Obama engages white communities.

For Hillary Clinton, her "white woman's burden" is that she doesn't have the skills to either represent herself effectively in black communities or criticize Obama in ways that black voters find legitimate or effective. Because such racial isolation is overwhelmingly the case with Hillary's white Democratic surrogates, she finds herself embarrassed by their statements as well. In other words, Hillary's white woman's burden also includes the awkwardness of other white politicians in addressing racial matters or the black community.

In other words, Hillary Clinton's whiteness puts her at a disadvantage with Obama. Where a black veteran of integration like Obama can be comfortable working with both black and white communities, a more racially isolated white woman like Hillary Clinton is relatively awkward in appealing to African-Americans.

It's a disadvantage that Hillary will have to at least partially overcome if she wants to win.


Tim said...

I'm not a huge Hillary fan, but I will vote for her. Personally, I like Obama and his more centrist proposals (although I do think healthcare needs a mandate).

Nonetheless, this entire kerfluffle bewilders me. Since when is the term "fairy tale" racial? What is wrong about pointing out that the US Senate had blocked Civil Rights reform in this country for 80 years, until Johnson broke the Southern filibuster in '64? Without King, there still might have been a Civil Rights Act of '64 (there certainly would not have been a Voting Rights Act, though, without King). Without Johnson, there might have been a Civil Rights Act, but the chances seem slimmer.

Her point, ignored in our sound bite culture, was that idealism is fine, but idealism doesn't accomplish goals when you're the President. It can create a movement for greater good, but moving people isn't the same as moving the US Senate...

See "Get the hell out of Iraq" numbers 1-22 from this past year

Ric Caric said...

It's interesting that Hillary's gradually falling into a "liberal" box in everything but foreign policy while Obama's becoming the moderate.

I don't think that Hillary's remark was mistaken. Instead, she made the whole point in an inept way because she's white and doesn't normally have to be accountable to black people. The remedy is for Hillary (and other whites) to be more often in situations where they have to earn th approval of African-Americans. Practice makes perfect.