Plenty of wags have compared Hillary Clinton to a zombie or the Terminator—she claws her way back to her feet and limps on when any mere mortal would be long dead. But the real reanimated corpse of this election is the contemptible question of whether sexism is worse than racism. This crude and divisive inquiry will not die, no matter how many times it is doused with the holy water of common decency and no matter how many times the wooden stake of good sense is driven through its heart. So I’m under no illusions that my attempt here will prove to be a magic bullet.
Judith Shulevitz’s post on “XX Factor ” last week was the latest version of this question that I’ve seen (and far from the worst), but this question has become almost obligatory in any race- or gender-conscious discussion of the election. For instance, in her New York Times op ed , Gloria Steinem insists, “I’m not advocating a competition for who has it toughest,” but a scant four paragraphs earlier she declared a winner, asserting that “gender is probably the most restricting force in American life, whether the question is who must be in the kitchen or who could be in the White House.”
I want to convince you that the racism vs. sexism query is one that should never be posed much less dignified with whatever could possibly pass for an answer. It’s conceptualism at its nadir. (It has all of the futility of kids arguing over whether Superman or Spider Man would win in a fight, but with none of the charm.) Worse yet, the question, by its nature, invites the most base form of competition for victim status: Like a bad cultural studies conference where the most subordinated of them all gets to speak first, this question suggests that the people who labor under the more severe type of identity-based oppression somehow, by virtue of their victimization alone, deserve special priority — first question after the keynote, first grab at the coffee and Danish table, maybe even first dibs on our political loyalties.
And while wallowing in the worst of 1990s-style identity politics, it ignores one of the few valuable lessons 1990s identity politics had to teach: namely that social identities are situational and not essential, that how and whether race and gender are important depends on context. Typically when the question has been put, it has evoked some thin one-sided evidence as to why one or the other is worse for Clinton or Obama (Clinton has to put on makeup and worry about the color of her pantsuits/ Obama can’t go on the attack without sounding like a black thug), augmented by a long litany of gender or race grievances that don’t have much to do with the narrow question at hand (slavery, Jim Crow, job discrimination, racial profiling, segregation, the Tuskegee experiment, the Jena 6/ rape, pornography, anti-abortionists, sexual harassment, prostitution, the glass ceiling, lazy and macho husbands, dry cleaners who charge more for blouses than shirts), the sheer tedious length of which is meant to overwhelm all arguments to the contrary, leaving only one conclusion: Sexism (or racism) is worse.
Of course it’s true, as Shulevitz asserts, that “a woman seeking higher office faces obstacles that a man does not face, no matter what the color of her skin.” But this doesn’t suggest that gender is the greater obstacle generally —only that gender poses distinctive obstacles. It’s also true that a black person seeking higher office faces obstacles that a white person doesn’t face, no matter his gender. If (for God knows what reason) we were to take seriously the narrow question—who has it worse, Clinton because of sexism or Obama because of racism?—we’d need to consider all of the racially or gender-specific disadvantages each has experienced and somehow try to compare them.
And there are distinctive advantages to be considered as well: Geraldine Ferraro was right to say that Obama wouldn’t be a front-runner but for his race, but right only in the most banal sense: Candidates for high office are elected, in large part, based on the voter’s perception of their “character,” and that perception is derived in large part from biography; Obama’s includes the fact that he’s black. And of course many people are especially excited about the prospect of a black president. So, too, Hillary Clinton would not be a front-runner but for her gender—plenty of people are excited about her candidacy primarily because of the prospect of a female president. There’s nothing scandalous about this—race and gender are salient in our society, and the symbolism is relevant in a politician. But how could we know “which is worse?” without somehow performing this complex and context-specific cost/benefit analysis? No one has even tried to make such an accounting—and for good reasons—but that’s what one would need to do in order to make any sense of the “which is the greater obstacle” question.
This leads me to suspect that when people ask whether sexism or racism is the greater obstacle in the context of Clinton vs. Obama, what they really care about is whether sexism or racism is the bigger social problem (since the evidence cited so often goes to the latter inquiry and not to the former) and therefore whether it would do more good or be more profound, in some overall cosmic sense of “good” or “profound,” to have a female as opposed to a black president. It’s understandable that someone who has spent her life fighting sexism, like Ms. Steinem or Ms. Ferraro, would find it tempting to pose (and answer) this question. But this is precisely the kind of unresolvable moral question, shot through with self-interest, that epitomizes the worst of late 20th-century identity politics. That kind of question has ruined more potentially successful activist organizations, academic conferences, college seminars, and political movements than all of the agents provocateurs J. Edgar Hoover could have imagined in his soggiest of wet dreams. And it will ruin the Democrats as well if we let it.
One last thing: If it seems that right now the people most insistently posing this unfortunate question are feminists, that’s simply because Hillary Clinton is losing. If Obama were losing, you can be sure you would hear similar carping from racial activists. (Close your eyes, and you can almost hear it now: “The white power structure will always protect its own in the end. …” “Race is still the greatest oppressive force. …” etc., etc.)