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The sorrows of race and gender in the 2008 presidential election

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It may seem odd to talk of sorrows around race and gender in politics when we are a few months away from being able to vote for a white woman or a black man for president of the United States. When I was born in 1958, any suggestion that such an election was on the horizon would have been laughed off as crazy. In the first presidential campaign I paid attention to as an eighth-grader in 1972, Shirley Chisholm -- who four years earlier had become the first black woman to win a seat in Congress -- was to most Americans a curiosity not a serious contender. Today, things are different.


Today Hillary Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s battle for the Democratic Party nomination suggests progress. Though the pace of progress toward gender and racial justice may seem slow, we should take a moment to honor the people whose struggles for the liberation of women and non-white people have brought us to this historic moment. If not for the vision and courage of those in the feminist and civil-rights movements there would be no possibility of a contest between Clinton and Obama, and the debt we owe those activists is enormous.


But instead of getting too caught up in this moment, we should reflect more deeply on that history -- not just on what was won but what has been lost. We have an obligation to those who sacrificed in those struggles for liberation to reflect honestly, and if we do that I believe it will lead to sorrow.


I don’t take this sorrow to be a bad thing. Today one of the most important virtues is the ability to understand sorrow clearly, to confront sorrow openly, to feel sorrow deeply, and in the end to accept the sorrows that come with being human in the modern world. Such sorrow is especially important in a society built on delusional beliefs about manifest destiny and endless expansion, world domination and American exceptionalism. The best of a people is carried not by those who pander to a pathological sense of entitlement, but by those who are not afraid to live with sorrow.


As one of my favorite songwriters has put it, “Those are lost who/try to cross through/the sorrow fields too easily.”[1]


So, let us heed Eliza Gilkyson and not race across those sorrow fields. Let us walk through them deliberately, carefully, and responsibly. Let us learn from that journey.


What are the sorrows to which I’m referring? I don’t mean the disgust and distress that many of us feel when we read the blogs, listen to talk radio, or watch cable TV news -- places where some of our fellow citizens and journalists wallow in the sexism and racism that still infects so much of this society. I don’t mean the ways in which, even in polite liberal circles, Hillary Clinton is scrutinized in ways no man would ever be. I don’t mean the ways in which, even in polite liberal circles, Barack Obama’s blackness is examined for either its inadequacies or excesses.


The attacks on Clinton because she is a woman and Obama because he is black should make us angry and may leave us feeling dejected, but for me they are not the stuff of sorrow. We can organize against those expressions of sexism and racism; we can mobilize to counter those forces; we can respond to those people.

  Remembering the radicals 

My sorrow comes from the recognition that the radical analyses of the feminist and civil-rights movements -- the core insights of those movements that made it possible when I was young to imagine real liberation -- are no longer recognized as a part of the conversation in the dominant political culture of the United States. It’s not just that such analyses have not been universally adopted -- it would be naïve to think that in a few decades too many dramatic changes could be put into place, after all -- but that they have been pushed even further to the margins, almost completely out of public view.


For example, when I talk about these ideas with students at the University of Texas it is for some the first time they have heard such things. It’s not that they have rejected the analyses or condemned the movements, but they did not know such radical ideas exist or had ever existed. These students often do not know that these movements did not simply condemn the worst overt manifestations of sexism and racism, but went to the heart of the patriarchal and white-supremacist nature of U.S. society while at the same time focusing attention on the imperialist nature of our foreign policy and predatory nature of corporate capitalism. The most compelling arguments emerging from those movements didn’t suggest a kindler-and-gentler imperialist capitalist state, but an end to those unjust and unsustainable systems.


The irony is that Clinton and Obama, who today are viable candidates because of those movements, provide such clear evidence of the death of the best hopes of those movements. Those two candidates have turned away from these compelling ideas so completely that neither speaks of patriarchy and white supremacy. These are not candidates opposing imperialism and capitalism but candidates telling us why we should believe that they can better manage the system.


I recognize that this may seem condescending coming from a white man living in the American middle class -- that is, someone whose material standard of living is enhanced by these very systems of domination and subordination. One might point out that it’s easy for me as a person with privilege (especially one who is not running for office and not appealing for votes in a reactionary country) to talk about liberation and radical movements. What right do I have to demand that Clinton and Obama articulate a radical political vision as they grapple with the reality of a political campaign?


Let me be clear that I am not attacking Clinton and Obama for not sharing my politics; I’m not really attacking them at all, though I disagree with many of their political positions. Instead I’m arguing that these candidates offer a political ideology very different from that which animated the best of the movements that made it possible for them to run. This is not simply a critique of the candidates’ campaign platitudes, not an examination of whether either candidate talks enough about “women’s issues” or “racism.” This is part of a larger examination of the unjust and unsustainable systems -- patriarchy and white supremacy, imperialism and capitalism -- that we must take seriously if we are to talk seriously about the possibility of a decent future, or of a future at all.


Radical feminism, which I think was the crucial core of that movement, offered a critique of patriarchy and the hierarchy created by patriarchal values. Those activists spoke not only of equal rights for women but of an end to all hierarchies. The radical civil-rights forces, which I think were at the core of that movement, offered a critique of white supremacy and the hierarchies reinforced by white-supremacist values. Those activists spoke not only of equal rights for non-white people but of an end to systems of domination more generally. The most powerful articulations of feminism and the civil-rights movement did not simply say, “Let’s leave these fundamentally unjust and unsustainable systems in place but put some women and non-white people in positions of power.” They argued for a transformation of the systems.

For example, as the U.S. pursued its brutal attack on the people of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia in the 1960s and ‘70s, these movements argued for the end not only of that war but of U.S. imperialism. Radical feminist and civil-rights activists weren’t dreaming of the day that Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice, and Colin Powell could be appointed Secretary of State to help run an imperialist U.S. foreign policy that would continue to engage in crimes against peace, crimes against humanity, and war crimes -- as all three did during the administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. The goal was not simply to change the players, but to change the nature of the deadly game.

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Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. His latest book, All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice, was published in 2009 (more...)
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