Look! A Black Woman; or, Re-interpreting the History of Black Men and White Women in Politics

January 13, 2008, 1:55 pm

I read the Sunday New York Times in this order: sports section, Styles section (quick jump to the “Modern Love” feature, then a scan of the marriage announcements to see if there is anyone I know who is Doing It), “A” section, Metro section, Connecticut section. If, as I do, you live outside the metropolitan area — in Connecticut, Minneapolis or Bahrain — the magazine and the Book Review come on Saturday. This is not only distinctly un-festive, it causes us in this household to miss Sundays with the paper and deli from Russ and Daughters on East Houston Street in New York. But it matters less than it might have in the past.  I have come to dislike the Magazine and the Book Review section; the former is badly edited from my perspective and the stories inane, while the latter tells you nothing you wouldn’t learn from looking up the book on

I almost never read the “Week in Review” section. I don’t know why, except that I spend enough time on the internet that by Sunday I often feel that I have absorbed enough commentary on the week’s news. Except today.  For some reason my aging eyes picked out the names of history colleagues Sara Evans, Joan Scott and James Patterson, who were asked to comment on the Hillary Clinton – Barack Obama primary contest. This was timely for your Radical because, after soliciting the opinions of many young friends over the last ten days, I had just decided last night to give it up that John Edwards will be my party’s nominee. And even though the Connecticut primary is so irrelevant and our blue state status so predetermined that candidates only come through to collect money from us, I feel that I need to begin to develop an opinion nonetheless, and one that addresses the political terrain as it is developing. So I point you to the front page article in today’s Week in Review, Mark Leibovitch’s “Rights vs. Rights: An Improbable Collision Course,” which pursues the question of whether the “white woman” or the “black man” should “go first” as a path-breaking presidential nominee.

I would like to propose that it doesn’t matter whether we nominate the white woman or the black man, since they both have utterly bourgeois values and neither one provides much of a new direction — both will have a horrendous burden awaiting them, and I think there is a good chance that neither one will be able to do much more than stop the bleeding.  Which would be a relief, but not progress, as it used to be perceived.  I would also propose that what it means intellectually or politically to be a “woman” or “black” or “gay” is something we should be long over, given such luminaries as Phyllis Schlafly, Clarence Thomas and the extended Cheney clan.

So let’s start somewhere else.  As a queer feminist, I would like to tackle the binary we are being asked to make a decision about here, and propose that while identity politics can help us critique policies that have prevented movement on the large number of imperfections in our democracy in recent years, we have also hit the limits of identity politics in this election. It may truly not make a difference whether we choose Clinton or Obama. In the general election, either the Republicans will do the sensible thing and nominate McCain — in which case it will be a dogfight — or they will nominate anyone else and it won’t. And all three prospective presidents will have trouble governing — for different reasons, none of which will be related to race or gender.

But since I wanted to vote for the white man whose politics represented a significant shift to the left, and this has pretty much been taken off the table, I hoped the article would give me something to think about. Which it did — except, of course, what it caused me to ruminate on is how journalists deploy history badly to imagine the significance of current events and perpetuate false choices. And I don’t blame this on the historians, mind you: any of us who has been interviewed for a newspaper article knows that it is the rare journalist who comes to us to learn something.  Mostly they are looking for good quotes to beef up the story they already wanted to write. Evans, Scott and Patterson do a skillful job of teaching a large audience by delivering the quotes that Leibovich used. Perhaps the most masterful is this analytical point by Joan Scott, in which she sums up three books worth of feminist political theory in one sentence: “How do you become a universal figure,” i.e., a president, “when you represent movements that have claimed the right of equality for you in your difference?”

So despite what the historians gave them, the article misses the point in its unwillingness to address the difficult questions here, one of which is the missing — and impossible figure — of a black woman as a contemporary political leader, and what that means. The article writes the possibility of a black woman out immediately by looking to the nineteenth century rift between Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Frederick Douglass over the Fourteenth Amendment as a suitable parallel, noting that despite their differences, the women’s movement and the movement for African American civil rights moved forward together from the 1860′s onward.  

This is simply misleading and untrue, except in a very general sense. The only reason this analysis has credibility is because of a skillful, entirely modern political phenomenon which should lead us back, as Joan Scott suggests, to the emergence of difference as a category through which similar political claims could be made by disempowered identity groups, working in loose coalition and using each others’ victories in the courts and in Congress to amass credibility. By the 1970′s, as Alice Kessler Harris has shown, American feminists had long decided to pattern their claim to citizenship on the modern civil rights movements, as would gay and lesbian activists after them. This, and Sara Evans’ path breaking scholarship on the direct links between the movement for black civil rights and second wave feminist organizing, has caused many casual observers to articulate the relations between the two movements as harmonious and their issues as comparable in the twentieth century, an argument that is significantly troubled if you look at the struggles between white women and women of color in the feminist movement from the mid-1960′s on. “One issue that is of major concern to us and that we have begun to publicly address is racism in the white women’s movement,” wrote the members of the Combahee River Collective in their 1974 Statement “As Black feminists we are made constantly and painfully aware of how little effort white women have made to understand and combat their racism, which requires among other things that they have a more than superficial comprehension of race, color, and Black history and culture. Eliminating racism in the white women’s movement is by definition work for white women to do, but we will continue to speak to and demand accountability on this issue.”

So this is where we need to look at history — and our current dilemma about the Clinton-Obama primary campaign — far more
critically. Four historical arguments that might better inform our thinking are:

1. The nature of support for expanding the franchise has always depended on who would benefit, and that has to be placed in the context of class politics: in the 1860′s, it was the Republican party who first used black votes and then used a powerful white male war veterans’ apparatus, the Grand Army of the Republic, to pursue support for a set of expansionist national policies that were dedicated to putting money in the pockets of national elites.

2. Voting has always, more or less, been a corrupt and inexact practice in the United States. It became idealized in the post- World War II period because of the contradictions between the violence of mass black disenfranchisement and United States foreign policy claims that articulated voting as a major point of distinction between democratic and communist forms of government (see, for example, founding contributor to Legal History Blog(ger) and historian Mary Dudziak on this topic.) In the United States, however, black people and poor people have been perceived over the long term as the source, rather than the means, of this corruption in a way that white women — often viewed as the conscience of white men — have not. When black men in the south proved not to be as corruptible as the Republican party had initially hoped, activating their own political networks independent of the national Republican party, and negotiating locally, first with southern Democrats and then with third-party movements, Republicans and Democrats agreed between themselves in 1877 that the black franchise in the south was “corrupt” (see Steven Hahn, A Nation Under our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration, Belknap Press, 2003). And it is no accident that white women’s votes were seen to have a “purifying” influence by 1921, when the historians of the Dunning school had “proven” to a national political elite that black men’s votes were the epitome of corruption.

3. White women have been perceived as exceptional in the category of “women” over the course of United States history:  for example, the modern perception of welfare recipients as overwhelmingly women of color living their lives on undeserved charity, or the choice of white feminists to emphasize their whiteness as a qualification for full citizenship prior to 1921. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her allies, as the central movers of a bourgeois nineteenth century women’s movement, capitalized on the perception that they were exceptional among the mass of women, and that their whiteness entitled them to political privilege.  They were racists, in the modern sense, because like most educated, middle class people, black and white they did not believe in the universal franchise. They believed that the enfranchisement of millions of new citizens — former slaves or immigrants — corrupted the political system because their educational and biological inferiority could be easily exploited by others. They were what coalesces late in the nineteenth century as “liberal racialists,” who believed that black people would eventually be prepared to shoulder social and political responsibility, but that slavery had delayed that project for an indeterminate amount of time. One was not simply a “racist” in the nineteenth century: racialisms were a complex set of beliefs that criss-crossed class, gender, and often “racial” groups themselves.

4. Bourgeois black men who aspired to political office in the nineteenth century, many of whom, like Barack Obama, were bi-racial, and many of whom were the acknowledged or unacknowledged sons of planter elites, have also historically believed that they were exceptional among the greater mass of black people, both those who were poor and undereducated, and those who were women. And, frankly, nineteenth century white feminists were not wrong to perceive themselves as having been left at the altar after the Civil War by black male politicians, who believed that their opportunity for the vote would be lost if they “feminized” their claims by insisting on bringing their white, feminist allies from the anti-slavery movement with them. This, I think, muddies the water significantly as to whether white women are the only villains of this sordid little historical tale. If you admire pragmatism, it was probably the right thing to do; if you admire principle, it was not.

OK, so to return to the present — what is really at stake in the Clinton-Obama contest? What is at stake, I would argue,  is not the merits of the two candidates (who are distinguishable, but barely, and it’s hard to even know how Obama’s slightly more liberal stance would play out in post-election political realities.) The real anxiety here for the Democratic party is whether “women” and “blacks” — the most sought after political blocks of votes over the last half century– will actually hold together as political groups and which candidate will maximize their impact.   Can the reduced number of  ”black” voters who have not been disenfranchised by modern forms of voter purge be counted upon to turn out and vote for a Democratic candidate who is a white woman?  Will Obama be perceived as “black” by voters who still view American blackness through a history of enslavement that Obama cannot claim? Will “women” stay home if they are thwarted again in their quest for political equality and power?  And what I propose is this: that both candidates pledge that whichever one of them wins the nomination, that they will run together as a ticket. This, in my view, does two things. It might get us back to ideas — rather than inane debates about whose political rights matter most — and it would demonstrate that each candidate is truly willing to put the nation’s best interests at this crucial historical moment ahead of careerism and selfish personal gain.

And by the way, if you don’t recognize her: the woman at the top of the page is the late, great, Shirley Chisholm. She was the first African-American woman to be elected to Congress, and in 1972 she became the first black woman to run as a major party candidate for President of the United States.

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