Pitting Race Against Gender in Election '08

Since 2004, when rumours abounded over an Obama candidacy, pundits have cast this year’s Democratic election as a battle of identity politics: will Americans choose a Black man or a White woman to be their nominee for president? And by extension, will this finally settle the debate over which is the more subjugated identity: race or gender?

This morning, Gloria Steinem, influential second-wave feminist, weighed in at the New York Times with an opinion piece titled "Women Are Never Front-Runners." I guess we can tell where she stands in this debate.

(Incidentally, if women are never front-runners, than how did Clinton get as far as she did on the "inevitable pseudo-incumbent" campaign she’s been running that made her the front-runner for most of last year? I find the headline of this piece to be a wee bit of hyperbole.)

We’ve heard many argue that it’s time for an African American president, and many more argue it's time for a female president. But, nowhere in the race vs. gender frenzy that has swept the nation has anyone challenged the very validity of the question. How can one compare racism to sexism – and if one tries, where do those of us who are disadvantaged both by our race and by our gender fit in?

In truth, the juxtaposition is disingenuous, divisive, overly simplistic, and ultimately harmful, because it redirects our attention away from efforts to break the White male patriarchy that excludes all the Others, but towards in-fighting where we all compete to see both who’s more oppressed, and who will make it out of that "Oppression Box" first.

Scholars like Steinem have only fueled these divisive attitudes. Though she writes, "I’m not advocating a competition for who has it toughest," Steinem opens her article with the observation that "gender is probably the most restricting force in American life." She continues by implying that the race barrier has largely been resolved, because "Black men were given the vote a half-century before women of any race were allowed to mark a ballot, and generally have ascended to positions of power, from the military to the boardroom, before any women."

While Steinem is correct in observing that women are still oppressed by the gender roles that expect us to remain in the kitchen over the White House, how can we compare those gender roles to the racist expectation that Black men be either athletes or in jail? How does that compare to the plight of Native Americans, who suffer from almost non-existent healthcare or educational opportunities? Or to the on-the-job harassment faced by Asian Americans seen as perpetually untrustworthy and foreign?

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