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"President Hillary Clinton" vs. "President Barack Obama": Which Will Be A More Significant Historical Precedent?

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Message Nathan Nahm

During the 2008 presidential election campaigns, Hillary Clinton and her supporters, especially her women supporters, have spread the words that Hillary Clinton is getting a raw deal because she is a woman, and that the bar for a woman for president is higher than the bar for a black. No one would seriously deny that there is still some degree of sexism, as well as racism, in this country but their argument that sexism hinders Hillary Clinton's campaign more seriously than racism hinders Barack Obama's campaign is an interesting one.

A similar, albeit more diluted, point has also been made by Hillary Clinton herself, as well as by other Democrats who claim to be neutral to either candidate, but who have pronounced many times that the prospect of having either candidate as a possible next President in the U.S. speaks volumes about the progress of our country in terms of racism and sexism, and that our country should be equally proud to have either of them as our next President. This second view presupposes that the bar for a woman and the bar for a black would be more or less equal. I have no intention of disputing the notion that we should be proud to have the prospect of a black or a woman president in the U.S. On the contrary, I wholeheartedly agree with that notion. However, I question the idea that the election of a black president or a female president in the U.S. would have the same level of historical significance, and that we should be equally proud of either of the prospects. For I believe that equating the two is not only misleading but diminishes the proper historical significance of a black president in the U.S.

However, to clear a couple of preliminary points: First, the Clinton's original argument, that the bar for a woman is higher than the bar for a black, has now been publicly contradicted by the Clinton camp's own more recent pronouncement, to the effect that Mr. Obama, a black candidate, does not stand a chance to be elected because he is black, whereas she, as a woman, has a much better chance of being elected in the general election. This more recent argument from the Clinton camp, in effect, deplores the state of racism in this country, while proclaiming the presumably great news that the U.S. electorates are now free of sexism, or at least much freer of sexism than they are of racism. From the ease with which the Clinton camp can make such radically inconsistent statements on fundamental issues like the status of racism and sexism in this country during such short spans of time, it is evident that the Clinton camp's two inconsistent statements were made for their perceived political gains at different times, without any regard to the truth of either statement. Second, as I will show in more detail later in this article, the success or failure of an individual female candidate in her quest for a high political office, as in Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, generally has no direct bearing to the state of women's rights in the country. In the case of Hillary Clinton's campaign, there is the added fact that her campaign seems to depend too much on her status and experience as the wife of the former President Bill Clinton, instead of competing exclusively based on her own personal strengths and qualifications. As will become clear in what follows, there were plenty of women like her throughout history but their stories are anything but a feminist model as relevant today.

In any event, the main question of whether it is true that the bar for a woman is higher than the bar for a black, or the relevant bars are fundamentally equivalent, is one that merits an examination. To answer this question, I propose that we look at certain patterns in the world history, which I believe give us a relatively clear answer. First, I do not believe there ever has been one single country in the history of mankind, where a black man has been elevated to the head of the state or to highest position of the government, where the country is a predominantly white, Caucasian nation. I have not done a thorough historical research, but I would venture to say that Mr. Barack Obama's Presidency in the U.S., if he is elected to that office, will be a true "first" in the history of mankind in this respect.

In contrast, throughout human history, there have been countless cases of women who occupied the position of head of state or other highest position of the government, not as the wife of a sovereign, but as the sovereign of their nation. Maybe, we can begin with the world famous story of the Hellenistic ruler of the ancient Egypt, Cleopatra VII Philopator, who originally began to share power with her father, Ptolemy XII, later with her brothers/husbands Ptolemy XIII and Ptolemy XIV, and then eventually as the sole ruler, Pharaoh, of Egypt for a significant period before the Birth of Christ. Cleopatra, however, was by no means the only empress or queen or her equivalent in the history of many nations. Everyone is familiar with female sovereigns like Queen Elizabeth I, Queen Elizabeth II and Queen Victoria of England and many other queens (the female sovereigns) in other European countries, in the past and present. Even in the ancient China, Tang Dynasty, where women generally did not have any real official status in the government and hardly had any right to inherit anything, let alone the right to inherit the throne, there was a case of a woman, Empress Wu Zetian, who was originally an ordinary empress, wife of an emperor, but who rose to the official position of the sovereign and ruled Tang dynasty, which was by far the world's most powerful and most civilized nation at the time, as the supreme ruler for many years, in the late 7th century, after her husband had passed away.

In modern times, we have familiar female heads of state or heads of government, including Margaret Thatcher, former Prime Minister of the Great Britain; Indira Gandhi, former Prime Minister of India; Corazon Aquino, former President of the Philippines; Benazir Bhuto, twice former Prime Minister of Pakistan; Maria Macapagal-Arroyo; present President of the Philippines; to name just a few. Actually, Wikipedia lists no less than 50 female heads of state (elected or appointed heads of state formally representing their states, but not including monarchs, such as queens) in the world since 1940; and it has a separate list of 54 female heads of governments, such as prime ministers.

It is also noteworthy that many of these cases involve countries and times in which strong women's rights have not been established at all, as witnessed not only by the case of Tang Empress Wu Zetian in antiquity but also by other more modern cases including Muslim countries, such as Pakistan and others. In addition to women who rose to the official position as head of state or as head of government, it was not an infrequent phenomenon in the antiquity from the Persian Empire to China and to Korea in the east, where the empresses or their equivalents wielded the real political power, sometimes officially as regents and sometimes merely as de facto power houses, behind the nominal male sovereigns who happened to be the powerful women's husbands, sons or grandsons, even though women in their countries at those times generally suffered from a low social status unimaginable from today's standards. All of which I believe shows that the success or failure of a few individual females to advance to the official position of the head of state or to the highest government office, or to wield the mightiest political power in the nation as the de facto holder of such powers, has no direct correlation with the general status and recognized rights of women in their countries.

These well known historical facts show that racism and sexism are fundamentally different kinds of prejudice and cannot be compared directly in any meaningful way. Maybe, at the risk of oversimplifying the issue but to illustrate the relevant point in a more graphic way, consider whether a male chauvinist is likely to vote for a candidate simply because the candidate is a man, when the election is between his wife and a male candidate with whom he has no special personal allegiance. (Imagine Bill Clinton voting for Obama, instead of for Hillary, in a moment of a male chauvinist outburst!) Nor is it likely that a feminist sister will vote for a candidate mainly because that candidate is a woman if the election is between a woman and her own husband.

All men and women live together with some other men and women as family members, relatives and as close friends, and as colleagues in work and various ventures, and have lived that way from the time immemorial, and will live that way forever, and they never live separately as two separate and distinct groups, whereas different racial and ethnic groups used to live physically separately, even within the same nation, in the past and still tend to do so in a real sense, to the extent that there is a racial segregation within the society, and to the extent that members of different racial groups may tend to socialize more frequently among members of their own group than with members of other racial groups. In other words, because, unlike different racial groups, men and women are not different groups that live apart from each other but they all live mixed, together with other members in the same families and in the same community, and share all the economic and other benefits with members of the other sex, it is not even possible to separate and distinguish men's exclusive interests from women's exclusive interests, and so on. And to the extent that it is impossible to separate their exclusive interests, it is also impossible for a man or for a woman to practice sexism in a consistent manner so as to promote one set of interests for all or most men exclusively at the expense of the other set of interests for all or most women. In other words, no amount of sexism can cut through or even loosen these family connections and other powerful emotional and economic bonds between men and women because those are bonds far stronger than any prejudice can possibly be and because they are so inextricably intertwined and integrated in complex sets of emotions for both individual men and women who are united as one unit for all practical aspects of their lives.

What I have said in the above by no means should be taken to suggest that sexism does not have its morally odious and sinister aspects, and that we need not work on issues relating to women's status and rights in this country. However, it does mean that racism and sexism work in radically different ways and that the way to combat these prejudices may also require radically different thinking. In any event, one important practical consequence of this difference is that even in a society, old or modern, with the most rampant sexism, a woman can, and sometimes does, get the most active support from the most powerful men for what she may wish to attain, including the goal of attaining a powerful political position, even as the head of the state. In sharp contrast, no black man (or, for that matter, a black woman, or any man or woman who does not belong to the most powerful, predominant racial or ethnic group in that society) could ever expect the same kind of support from members of the politically powerful racial group in a predominantly white society, as long as there is a strong racial prejudice among members of that group. This is borne out by the fact that there has never been a single case of any nation where a black man has been elevated to the head of state or to the highest position of the government in a predominantly white country in the past.

The reason for all this also has something to do with the origins of racism. Among many possible origins of racism, the most fundamental part of it probably originates from the time when men were ignorant enough to think that different races may have evolved separately, which gave rise to the view that some racial groups may be less human than some other racial groups. Those were the times, not even a very long time ago, when the white "scientists" made observations and experiments on Tasmanians in attempts to compare and determine how closely the Tasmanians did, or did not, resemble the European whites, who were assumed to be the standard sample of the human species. Although now the geneticists have confirmed through DNA studies that all of us, all the humans alive today, are relatively recent descendants of the same small group of ancestors, that there is no such thing as a racial marker for any race in our genes, that there are on the average no more genetic differences between different racial groups than among different members of any given racial group, etc., the old racism, which originates from our old days of tribalism, dies hard.

From these historical perspectives, even if Hillary Clinton were elected as our next President, it would not be a historical breakthrough on a par with the election of Barack Obama. For, given the past history of racism in general, coupled with the multi-faceted violence of tribalism, in the world and the specific history in this country relating to the black slavery, the imminent election of Mr. Barack Obama as President in the U.S. would represent an absolutely uplifting historical "first," a breakthrough in the history of mankind, as it would mark, in a truly significant sense, an end of racism as we have known it for centuries past. The prospect of electing Mr. Obama as President, therefore, should make all of us Americans proud, as we will thereby be making a thunderous proclamation to the entire world that we now believe that we are all brothers and sisters, and that we are now ready to accept and follow any member of any racial group as our leader if that person is so qualified as to act competently in that capacity. There is nothing more fitting that this country can do at this point in history, if this nation is to be the leader of all nations, when we have now learned that all of us are all truly brothers and sisters. I hope that our feminist sisters will not hesitate to join us in this campaign to elect our historical "first" black president.

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Nathan Nahm is a retired New York lawyer.

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