Barack Obama flashed his million-dollar smile during the South Carolina debates and joked that he'd have to see Bill Clinton's dance moves before he could sanction him an official "brother," as legendary author Toni Morrison once did. Hillary Clinton told Tim Russert on one of the most-watched Meet the Press episodes ever (4.71 million viewers) on Jan. 13: "I don't think this campaign is about gender, and I sure hope it's not about race. It needs to be about the individuals."
Neither his lighthearted humor nor her faux-naiveté masks the serious fact that this campaign is, in part, about gender and race. It is, perhaps even more than most elections, about symbols. It comes at a time when Democrats the American people are dying for reconfirmation that our country is, indeed, a place bent on equality, though rooted in a history of slavery and sexism. We are longing for a leader who can make us feel hopeful about the future of this country and its reputation and relationships throughout the world. After years of government-sanctioned torture, an ill-planned war, and high-profile military abuses directed at women and people of color, we need political absolution. We want faces that are unequivocal, visual screams of change.
And, lo and behold, we've got them. We've got a wife/daughter/mother/sister who went to an all-women's college and has (though not recently) called herself a feminist in public and a biracial basketball-playing, community organizer who has the oratory skills of ten preachers. Their presence is already evidence of a new day on the horizon.
But a competition of the oppressed is not going to get us there. Take Gloria Steinem's well-intentioned, though ultimately divisive New York Times op-ed, "Women Are Never Front Runners." Melissa Harris-Lacewell, Princeton professor, was a few nasty barbs short of calling Steinem an out-and-out racist on Democracy Now and even Steinem's own goddaughter, Rebecca Walker, posted a rebuttal on the Huffington Post, arguing, "Obama is running as a uniter. Hillary needs to avoid re-inscribing historical divisions in order to gain ground."
Truth be told, Obama has his own back room of well-intentioned, though misguided, proponents of the "who's got it worse?" game. Another New York Times op-ed, this one penned by writer Lorrie Moore, essentially pitted white girls against black boys. "The political moment for feminine role models, arguably, has passed us by," she wrote. "The children who are suffering in this country, who are having trouble in school, and for whom the murder and suicide rates and economic dropout rates are high, are boys -- especially boys of color, for whom the whole educational system, starting in kindergarten, often feels a form of exile, a system designed by and for white girls." Huh? Designed by and for white girls? Moore should have read Schoolgirls by Peggy Orenstein, in addition to There Are No Children Here by Alex Kotlowitz.
In another instance, various pundits and players jumped on Bill Clinton's comment that Obama's position on the Iraq War was "the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen"--stretching Clinton's statement far beyond the limits of fair interpretation to claim it reflected the former president's view of the entire Obama run. Hopefully Hillary has realized that it's time to banish Bill to a paradise island for the next few months, but ultimately this is all a distraction from the critical conversation about how race and gender matter in this election and in this country.
Gender matters, not because Hillary Clinton is a woman, and therefore, more accurately represents all female Americans (women are not, nor have they ever been, a monolithic category), but because her election would fundamentally change the way we see women and power. I would never again have to hear one of my college students say, "I just can't imagine a woman ever being president." Little girls would, despite Moore's assertion that they don't need it, have the irreplaceable model of a bonafide woman president.
There would be reverberations beyond politics. The dynamics in our families, our boardrooms, even our bedrooms might shift as the centuries-old link between power and masculinity slowly unravels. Other nations would be influenced by America's readiness to have a female president. (Of course, many other nations have already smashed the highest glass ceiling).
Race matters, again not because Barack Obama is biracial, and therefore, more accurately represents all non-white Americans (it is infuriating that the news media continues to lump all racial minorities in one tiny melting pot), but because his nomination would complicate the way we see race and power. I would have hard-and-fast evidence to counter my cynical students claim that America's "just not ready" for a black president. Black kids' leadership dreams would be taken seriously instead of being seen as cutesy Martin Luther King, Jr. impressions.
So many spheres of power would be forever altered; how could we continue to ignore the failings of our racist public education system if there's a future president sitting in one of those classes? The health care and immigration systems -- among other arenas -- would more readily face issues of race and inequality as Obama's power normalizes, and even demands, such considerations. Our global friends and enemies, alike, would have to tell a new story about America's relationship to race and maybe even their own.
Is Hillary's femaleness or Barack's blackness a sole justification to vote for either leader? Absolutely not. Are the symbolic power of their respective identities incentive -- in addition to their policy positions, their track records, and their values -- to vote for them? Of course.
Ruth Mandal, senior scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics, elucidates the difference between the American public's "openness" and their "readiness" for a female president in the book Women and Leadership: The State of Play and Strategies for Change. By mid-century, the majority of voters already reported being open to voting for a woman if they thought she was qualified and last year, 92 percent did. But in the same poll last year, only 55 percent thought that America was "ready" for a female president. Mandal wonders, "Were they unable to cross the psychological hurdle between knowing and feeling that the time is right for change and believing that it can actually happen?"
Similarly, in the run-up to the South Carolina Democratic primary, many black leaders reported that their constituencies were still up in the air on who to support -- not because they didn't like Obama, but because they didn't truly believe he was electable. Not surprisingly, he spent much of his time there trying to invite cynical southern blacks into believing in modern miracles. And who can forget the refrain of his powerful concession speech in New Hampshire: "Yes, we can" (borrowed from the United Farm Workers' motto, "Sí se puede," coined during a fast in 1972)?
The citizens of South Carolina -- especially African Americans -- answered back: "Indeed, we can." They also sent a loud and clear message to the Clinton campaign with their votes: "Don't take our support for granted or mince words when it comes to issues of race and civil rights history."
As Katha Pollit put it so succinctly in The Nation, "It's crucial not to get into an oppression sweepstakes." We shouldn't let the media pit us against one another so that we waste valuable energy defending our own victimhood. Instead, we should be doing the difficult work of coalition building, embracing multiple issues as critical to our collective liberal agenda to make America more just and equal on all fronts. We must focus on the more important question: is America ready to believe in its own power to overcome? If it's either a white woman or a biracial man who walks into that White House, our country will never be the same. And that sure as hell matters.