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Last modified: Thursday, April 10, 2008

Two Elephants in the Room

While gender and race are the two elephants in the room of the Democratic primary, there is a sizeable difference between the two. Members of an IU faculty panel assessed the subject at a public forum at the IU School of Law-Bloomington on Feb. 4.

The Democratic primary will be historic no matter which of the two candidates is nominated, however the difference between the first woman and the first African-American nominee may be much more significant than people realize. While Hillary Rodham Clinton openly discusses the importance of being the first woman president, Barack Obama is sidestepping the issue of race and letting others do the talking. The reason why is because the racial gap may be much larger than the gender gap ever was. As Larry Hanks, professor of political science at IU Bloomington, points out, "Men and women, despite the battle between the sexes, are natural allies. Whites and blacks are not. Everybody has females in their life somewhere that are important, therefore gender differences don't have nearly the same acrimony that racial divides do."

While both Clinton and Obama are touting "change" as what they'll bring to the Oval Office, the two campaigns treat the most obvious change they'll bring very differently. "Hillary can say 'Look at me, I'll be the first female to be the president of the United States,' and that's change," noted Hanks, "and I don't think Barack Obama can answer that in the same way."

Obama, Hanks said, is trying to avoid being portrayed as the "black" candidate, sidestepping the title once given to candidates such as Jesse Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton. Meanwhile, Clinton is embracing--and, to a limited degree, discussing--donning the mantle of the first "Madam President." There is a sizeable difference between race and gender, and especially the way sexism and racism factor in, he said. Hanks theorized that the election of a black president would ease the conscience of many Americans who could finally say that "racism is dead." Obama's inauguration would demonstrate that racism is no barrier to the highest office in the nation, and many people would rest easier believing that a black person's election to the White House proves that racism is not an issue in the U.S. It is the symbol of having a black president, said Hanks, that has drawn some Americans to Obama, and likely the same thing is happening for Clinton because of her gender.

Lori Henson, a doctoral student in the Department of Communications and Culture on the Bloomington campus, also discussed the gender gap, and pointed out how completely the media focus on Clinton as the "woman candidate" and Obama as the "black candidate." Despite Obama portraying what Henson calls a "new type of masculinity," eschewing a macho masculine image in favor of a dedicated and caring family man, the media consistently covers Clinton as the "gender" candidate.

Seth Lahn, a lecturer at the School of Law-Bloomington, agreed that sexism and gender would mainly revolve around Clinton. "It was perfectly obvious to anyone who followed politics over the past 50 years there was going to be sexism," said Lahn "especially since who you have running is probably the best known woman in America."

Lahn highlighted several examples of sexism he had come across, including a Hillary "nutcracker" doll, as well as a clip from Republican presidential contender John McCain's town hall meeting where an outspoken supporter asked the Arizona senator: "How do we beat the bitch?"

Such instances of overt or discreet sexism are inevitable and far more likely to cluster around Clinton than Obama. The difficult part, Lahn continued, is separating the sexism from the anti-Clintonism. Being a woman inevitably attracts attention and some sexism; however, the combination of Hillary Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, has driven certain parts of the right wing "around the bend." While Lahn noted the significance of gender and sexism in the election, he cautioned the audience from jumping to conclusions when examining why someone might oppose Hillary Clinton.

Jeannine Bell, professor of law, presented the case of black women who sit "at the intersection of race and gender" in the election. "Originally," Bell noted, "assumptions about black women were the same about white women--that they will vote the same way as their husbands."

But Bell asserted that black women sit at the "intersection of gender and race," which provides them with their own set of unique issues that differ from those of white women--or black men. While the fate of both those constituencies concern them, as they share the same gender or are related through blood and marriage, Bell believes that black women were often pigeon-holed into one group by people who did not recognize their unique position. "The effect is a double whammy," said Bell, in which black women are concerned with statements which are either racist or sexist and "especially statements issued in defense of gender, which can be construed as racist."

Henson reinforced Bell's statement when she told how some women called Oprah Winfrey a "traitor to women" for supporting Obama over Clinton, and other groups accused Winfrey of supporting Obama because he was black.

Each member of the panel emphasized the unique nature of the primary, and how the two candidates have handled the issues of gender and race. When asked about the chances of the "dream ticket" of Obama/Clinton, Hanks responded it was "very unlikely."

"If the democrats can pull this off with just one of them, I think it would be phenomenal," Hanks said. "I do not see America dealing with both of them at once."