Sunday, January 13, 2008

Look! A Black Woman; or, Re-interpreting the History of Black Men and White Women in Politics

I read the Sunday New York Times in this order: sports section, Styles section (quick jump to the "Modern Love" feature, then a scan of the marriage announcements to see if there is anyone I know who is Doing It), "A" section, Metro section, Connecticut section. If, as I do, you live outside the metropolitan area -- in Connecticut, Minneapolis or Bahrain -- the magazine and the Book Review come on Saturday. This is not only distinctly un-festive, it causes us in this household to miss Sundays with the paper and deli from Russ and Daughters on East Houston Street in New York. But it matters less than it might have in the past.  I have come to dislike the Magazine and the Book Review section; the former is badly edited from my perspective and the stories inane, while the latter tells you nothing you wouldn't learn from looking up the book on

I almost never read the "Week in Review" section. I don't know why, except that I spend enough time on the internet that by Sunday I often feel that I have absorbed enough commentary on the week's news. Except today.  For some reason my aging eyes picked out the names of history colleagues Sara Evans, Joan Scott and James Patterson, who were asked to comment on the Hillary Clinton - Barack Obama primary contest. This was timely for your Radical because, after soliciting the opinions of many young friends over the last ten days, I had just decided last night to give it up that John Edwards will be my party's nominee. And even though the Connecticut primary is so irrelevant and our blue state status so predetermined that candidates only come through to collect money from us, I feel that I need to begin to develop an opinion nonetheless, and one that addresses the political terrain as it is developing. So I point you to the front page article in today's Week in Review, Mark Leibovitch's "Rights vs. Rights: An Improbable Collision Course," which pursues the question of whether the "white woman" or the "black man" should "go first" as a path-breaking presidential nominee.

I would like to propose that it doesn't matter whether we nominate the white woman or the black man, since they both have utterly bourgeois values and neither one provides much of a new direction -- both will have a horrendous burden awaiting them, and I think there is a good chance that neither one will be able to do much more than stop the bleeding.  Which would be a relief, but not progress, as it used to be perceived.  I would also propose that what it means intellectually or politically to be a "woman" or "black" or "gay" is something we should be long over, given such luminaries as Phyllis Schlafly, Clarence Thomas and the extended Cheney clan.

So let's start somewhere else.  As a queer feminist, I would like to tackle the binary we are being asked to make a decision about here, and propose that while identity politics can help us critique policies that have prevented movement on the large number of imperfections in our democracy in recent years, we have also hit the limits of identity politics in this election. It may truly not make a difference whether we choose Clinton or Obama. In the general election, either the Republicans will do the sensible thing and nominate McCain -- in which case it will be a dogfight -- or they will nominate anyone else and it won't. And all three prospective presidents will have trouble governing -- for different reasons, none of which will be related to race or gender.

But since I wanted to vote for the white man whose politics represented a significant shift to the left, and this has pretty much been taken off the table, I hoped the article would give me something to think about. Which it did -- except, of course, what it caused me to ruminate on is how journalists deploy history badly to imagine the significance of current events and perpetuate false choices. And I don't blame this on the historians, mind you: any of us who has been interviewed for a newspaper article knows that it is the rare journalist who comes to us to learn something.  Mostly they are looking for good quotes to beef up the story they already wanted to write. Evans, Scott and Patterson do a skillful job of teaching a large audience by delivering the quotes that Leibovich used. Perhaps the most masterful is this analytical point by Joan Scott, in which she sums up three books worth of feminist political theory in one sentence: "How do you become a universal figure," i.e., a president, "when you represent movements that have claimed the right of equality for you in your difference?"

So despite what the historians gave them, the article misses the point in its unwillingness to address the difficult questions here, one of which is the missing -- and impossible figure -- of a black woman as a contemporary political leader, and what that means. The article writes the possibility of a black woman out immediately by looking to the nineteenth century rift between Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Frederick Douglass over the Fourteenth Amendment as a suitable parallel, noting that despite their differences, the women's movement and the movement for African American civil rights moved forward together from the 1860's onward.  

This is simply misleading and untrue, except in a very general sense. The only reason this analysis has credibility is because of a skillful, entirely modern political phenomenon which should lead us back, as Joan Scott suggests, to the emergence of difference as a category through which similar political claims could be made by disempowered identity groups, working in loose coalition and using each others' victories in the courts and in Congress to amass credibility. By the 1970's, as Alice Kessler Harris has shown, American feminists had long decided to pattern their claim to citizenship on the modern civil rights movements, as would gay and lesbian activists after them. This, and Sara Evans' path breaking scholarship on the direct links between the movement for black civil rights and second wave feminist organizing, has caused many casual observers to articulate the relations between the two movements as harmonious and their issues as comparable in the twentieth century, an argument that is significantly troubled if you look at the struggles between white women and women of color in the feminist movement from the mid-1960's on. "One issue that is of major concern to us and that we have begun to publicly address is racism in the white women's movement," wrote the members of the Combahee River Collective in their 1974 Statement "As Black feminists we are made constantly and painfully aware of how little effort white women have made to understand and combat their racism, which requires among other things that they have a more than superficial comprehension of race, color, and Black history and culture. Eliminating racism in the white women's movement is by definition work for white women to do, but we will continue to speak to and demand accountability on this issue."

So this is where we need to look at history -- and our current dilemma about the Clinton-Obama primary campaign -- far more critically. Four historical arguments that might better inform our thinking are:

1. The nature of support for expanding the franchise has always depended on who would benefit, and that has to be placed in the context of class politics: in the 1860's, it was the Republican party who first used black votes and then used a powerful white male war veterans' apparatus, the Grand Army of the Republic, to pursue support for a set of expansionist national policies that were dedicated to putting money in the pockets of national elites.

2. Voting has always, more or less, been a corrupt and inexact practice in the United States. It became idealized in the post- World War II period because of the contradictions between the violence of mass black disenfranchisement and United States foreign policy claims that articulated voting as a major point of distinction between democratic and communist forms of government (see, for example, founding contributor to Legal History Blog(ger) and historian Mary Dudziak on this topic.) In the United States, however, black people and poor people have been perceived over the long term as the source, rather than the means, of this corruption in a way that white women -- often viewed as the conscience of white men -- have not. When black men in the south proved not to be as corruptible as the Republican party had initially hoped, activating their own political networks independent of the national Republican party, and negotiating locally, first with southern Democrats and then with third-party movements, Republicans and Democrats agreed between themselves in 1877 that the black franchise in the south was "corrupt" (see Steven Hahn, A Nation Under our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration, Belknap Press, 2003). And it is no accident that white women's votes were seen to have a "purifying" influence by 1921, when the historians of the Dunning school had "proven" to a national political elite that black men's votes were the epitome of corruption.

3. White women have been perceived as exceptional in the category of "women" over the course of United States history:  for example, the modern perception of welfare recipients as overwhelmingly women of color living their lives on undeserved charity, or the choice of white feminists to emphasize their whiteness as a qualification for full citizenship prior to 1921. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her allies, as the central movers of a bourgeois nineteenth century women's movement, capitalized on the perception that they were exceptional among the mass of women, and that their whiteness entitled them to political privilege.  They were racists, in the modern sense, because like most educated, middle class people, black and white they did not believe in the universal franchise. They believed that the enfranchisement of millions of new citizens -- former slaves or immigrants -- corrupted the political system because their educational and biological inferiority could be easily exploited by others. They were what coalesces late in the nineteenth century as "liberal racialists," who believed that black people would eventually be prepared to shoulder social and political responsibility, but that slavery had delayed that project for an indeterminate amount of time. One was not simply a "racist" in the nineteenth century: racialisms were a complex set of beliefs that criss-crossed class, gender, and often "racial" groups themselves.

4. Bourgeois black men who aspired to political office in the nineteenth century, many of whom, like Barack Obama, were bi-racial, and many of whom were the acknowledged or unacknowledged sons of planter elites, have also historically believed that they were exceptional among the greater mass of black people, both those who were poor and undereducated, and those who were women. And, frankly, nineteenth century white feminists were not wrong to perceive themselves as having been left at the altar after the Civil War by black male politicians, who believed that their opportunity for the vote would be lost if they "feminized" their claims by insisting on bringing their white, feminist allies from the anti-slavery movement with them. This, I think, muddies the water significantly as to whether white women are the only villains of this sordid little historical tale. If you admire pragmatism, it was probably the right thing to do; if you admire principle, it was not.

OK, so to return to the present -- what is really at stake in the Clinton-Obama contest? What is at stake, I would argue,  is not the merits of the two candidates (who are distinguishable, but barely, and it's hard to even know how Obama's slightly more liberal stance would play out in post-election political realities.) The real anxiety here for the Democratic party is whether "women" and "blacks" -- the most sought after political blocks of votes over the last half century-- will actually hold together as political groups and which candidate will maximize their impact.   Can the reduced number of  "black" voters who have not been disenfranchised by modern forms of voter purge be counted upon to turn out and vote for a Democratic candidate who is a white woman?  Will Obama be perceived as "black" by voters who still view American blackness through a history of enslavement that Obama cannot claim? Will "women" stay home if they are thwarted again in their quest for political equality and power?  And what I propose is this: that both candidates pledge that whichever one of them wins the nomination, that they will run together as a ticket. This, in my view, does two things. It might get us back to ideas -- rather than inane debates about whose political rights matter most -- and it would demonstrate that each candidate is truly willing to put the nation's best interests at this crucial historical moment ahead of careerism and selfish personal gain.

And by the way, if you don't recognize her: the woman at the top of the page is the late, great, Shirley Chisholm. She was the first African-American woman to be elected to Congress, and in 1972 she became the first black woman to run as a major party candidate for President of the United States.


Anonymous said...

I agree that white women must confront racism, but the African American civil rights movement must confront its sexism as well. You neglect this is your summary. I was present in the 1970s and recall the angry statements of African American civil rights leaders who felt the women's movement was trying to co-opt its movement and who claimed that their struggle was nothing like that of women. I also recall the difficulty African American women had supporting Anita Hill because the African American civil rights movement demands a united front, even when it means supporting a sexist jerk like Clarence Thomas (or O.J. Simpson for that matter). I am willing to be chided about the lack of inclusion of feminism in the 70's but I will not ignore the misogyny of African American civil rights leaders. Barack Obama must be considered in the context of THAT history and I do not see him breaking away from it in any respect. I saw a posting a few months ago of the diversity of the various candidate's staffs. Obama's diversity consists of adding a large percentage of African Americans to his staff. Hillary Clinton's consists of nearly 50% spread across all groups, including Hispanic and African American and Asian American. No one else was diverse. That is one of the reasons I will be voting for her instead of for Barack Obama.

Tenured Radical said...

Thanks for the quick response: but I think my point 4 does indeed point to what you are addressing, although you expand on the idea in significant and important ways and I did not specifically use the word sexism (although I think it is implied.) Black politics and feminist politics should register the seventies as a moment of discursive and practical failure in many respects.

I think where you and I might disagree is that the two struggles were, in fact, as similar as feminists wanted them to be. And I think parallelism is a recurring political issue. Witness the mainstream gay rights movement trying to reassure trans people that the two struggles are parallel and interdependent, and that trans people should support them, even though mainstream gays and lesbians have repeatedly been willing to trade in trans rights to get GLB legislation passed. My point is that what we may be looking at is not a problem of representativeness, but a problem with how modern liberal politics are conceived in the first place.


GayProf said...

It has been disheartening to me that many academics have taken-up the (tired) notion that progress for one group means that another group must necessarily be losing out. The media loves the notion that identity-based groups are at war with each other. After all this time, it is sad that we still fall for it.

Lesboprof said...

I greatly appreciate your reflections and agree with all of them. I was so troubled by Gloria Steinem's piece, and the role she wanted to play in this identity politics melodrama, that I needed a little better historical analysis, and you have provided it. I can only hope she reads it.

I am sick of the similarity arguments across the table. While I think they are employed to get some empathy from people working for other identity causes, they always backfire because experiences of different groups are necessarily different, and because they devalue the specificity of experiences and the intersection of differences.

And I love Shirley Chisolm.

So you rock on all counts.

Sisyphus said...

The problem is that Americans don't know the difference between embodying identity politics and believing a platform of progressive identity politics, something that the republicans have now figured out how to flank (I was terrified there for a while that Condi Rice would be in the running).

What this means is that no matter who wins, if the choice is down to between these two candidates (sigh) Americans are going to think that the installation of a national figurehead means that either one or the other of these "problems" is "solved," and it's going to be hell teaching about systemic, entrenched gender or racial discrimination, much less how they intersect.

And I'd rather have Edwards on either ticket to put some leftward pressure on them than have them reinforce each others' worst tendencies.

Anonymous said...

Radical, you are slowly but very surely and very ably chipping away at my native tendency not to think about American history, ever. One of the reasons that I have trouble coping with this election is that I am not grounded, at all, in my own country's history -- thank you for the corrective.

Anonymous said...

One of the things I've found most troubling about media coverage of the race as it's been so far is the assumption that the "women's voting bloc" and the "black voting bloc" will automatically line up behind their respective candidates. Your post seems to suggest similarly-- you say

"Can the reduced number of "black" voters who have not been disenfranchised by modern forms of voter purge be counted upon to turn out and vote for a Democratic candidate who is a white woman? Will Obama be perceived as "black" by voters who still view American blackness through a history of enslavement that Obama cannot claim?"

a passage which seems to me to assume that should the situation fall the opposite way, the black voters will indeed turn out for Obama. Do you find that Obama and Clinton's politics are so similar that identities become the deciding characteristic? What social factors do you suppose are behind this widespread assumption in the media?
-A Zenith senior

Anonymous said...

I should add that this assumption does not take into account the intersection you point out-- black women-- and in doing so discounts/silences them. I would ask you the same questions as above about this particular effect
-The same Zenith senior

Tenured Radical said...

Dear Zenith senior,

You misunderstood my position here -- but you misunderstood me because I wasn't clear enough, so I re-edited it. Thanks. The anxiety is not mine but that of the Democratic party structure which -- if you point out assumes a demographic loyalty that should have been significantly undermined by the defection of working class whites in 1980 and after to the party that does not represent their interests at all.

Anonymous said...

I don't disagree with you on B. Obama or H. Clinton, but I sure don't think a rich trial lawyer like John Edwands is going to do much to move anything leftward. I'm sure I'm missing something...

Susan said...

Thanks for the useful post... though I'm hoping that Edwards lasts a little longer. It seems to me (Perplexed) that what he brings to the race is skepticism about the good intentions of corporate America. He has, after all, become rich precisely by challenging them when they have put their own interests before that of people.

Anonymous said...

Being diverse, in the sense of belonging to a minority group, does not necessarily make one sensitive to other people's diversity or to issues of diversity. That was part of my point above about Obama's lack of diversity on his campaign staff compared to Clinton's obvious attempt to be inclusive. I'll bet a great deal more on her sensitivity to issues important to minority groups, than his (can you say "Donnie McClurkin"?). I like Edwards but he does not have the same diversity on his staff so I do not trust him on such issues, nor do I believe he has any chance of being elected in Nov.

Anonymous said...

While I agree with you on the way-too-centrist nature of both Clinton's and Obama's positions (and I say this as someone who wrote a junior high school social studies paper in 1971 on why Shirley Chisholm should be President), I honestly think that the fact that the choice between a black man and a white woman means something. Yes, it is too bad that they don't adequately represent the needs of their groups, and yes, it is too bad that a black woman is not part of the equation. But realistically, we are going to have a business-as-usual, corporate-supported, centrist Democratic nominee. Given that unfortunate truth, isn't it kind of amazing that neither of the serious options are white men? Given that I live in a state with a late primary that never matters, I will likely be voting for Kucinich as I did in '04. But I will gladly, gladly, support either Clinton or Obama in the general. And while there is a huge difference between either one of them and where I'd like the country to be going, it is not as huge as the difference between either one of them and any of the Republicans.

Anonymous said...

The P/VP agreed in advance sounds great, but while it saves us from a nasty campaign it also deprives us of an actual campaign (though this might be good too if the Repubs do come to their senses, which here's hoping not).

But what makes me feel old about all this is not recognizing Shirley Chisolm (I too was in junior high) but wondering why nobody seems to be mentioning Ellen Carol DuBois's wonderfully enlightening book on this very subject.

Tenured Radical said...

Um.....because I haven't read Ellen's book. Now how embarrassing is that? For a Radical and a feminist?
I just never got around to it.


Anonymous said...

Sorry, didn't mean to embarrass. I meant the NYT more than you anyway, since I just assumed . . .

But I do want to say, TR, that I've been a huge fan, a long-time lurker until today, when I go and hurt your feelings.

That'll teach me!

Anonymous said...

I was excited to see the title of your post "look a black woman" followed by Chisolm who the Hillary camp have categorically erased in their attempts to position her as the only female candidate for president (which in this election alone, she is not). And I found your points both on racism and sexism salient. Yet, I have to admit that in the end even your narrative once again reduced the categories of woman to white and black to male. While everyone is talking about how "women" were moved by Hillary's tears, effectively erasing what those tears and the racialized comments that followed them might mean to black women, I can't help but think the same thing I thought when I came to the last paragraphs in your piece, "well at least I am still brave."

Anonymous said...

In this I have always agreed. The ideal obvious ticket to win is Clinton-Pres, Obama-VP, in that order for pragmatic political reasons. It pulls in the most voters. Clinton has paid more political dues. It gives Obama time to get a little more life experience and foreign policy credentials. It secures the White House for 16 years if properly handled. nasty. Just a little less ego from Obama would help a lot.

Anonymous said...

Love this post and the discussion. But aren't Obama and Clinton required to align themselves with "utterly bourgeois values" if they are to be elected as the first of their category by a predominantly bourgeois nation? You suggest that "to be a "woman" or "black" or "gay" is something we should be long over… we have also hit the limits of identity politics in this election." But that depends on who "we" is and what context you're talking about. It's hard to set aside ID politics when you're being followed by a group of young men shouting "iron my shirt." Besides, the group that has to set aside ID politics is the electorate and they mostly haven't, despite what Michelle Obama thinks happened in Iowa.

As long as anyone with any power cares about gender and race enough to wield sexist and racist power, women and non-whites will experience troubles governing that have to do with race and gender – and sexuality, ableness, age, religion, etc. Not because people in those groups do things in any particular way but because people allied against them do. The trick is for the targeted groups – women, blacks, whatever – to NOT respond to the wedge directly and instead to strengthen their coalition against hegemonic elitists. Easy to say in hindsight, crucial to do in the present.

I agree that "frankly, nineteenth century white feminists were not wrong to perceive themselves as having been left at the altar after the Civil War by black male politicians, … This, I think, muddies the water significantly as to whether white women are the only villains of this sordid little historical tale." But feminists were not all white then any more than they are now. Black feminists who rightly criticize white first wave feminists for their racist response the Congress's wedge also criticize black men for their sexism, but "we" tend to ignore that part.

Your comment about pragmatism vs principle assumes "vs" when the key is balancing pragmatic responses to "isms" without losing connection to principles. That is what Hillary was trying to say when she got pushed into her current mud bath. Hillary wasn't comparing black and white, she was comparing dreamers to pragmatists and pointing out that both are required in order to achieve social justice. God I hope that winky wedge isn't what undoes both campaigns.

Your proposal is brilliant: "that both candidates pledge that whichever one of them wins the nomination, that they will run together as a ticket." And the pledge should emphasize "together" rather than the traditional hierarchy of P and VP. [tho I agree with a previous post that because of the experience imbalance, O should be VP] 'course such a coalition might cause the electorate to run screaming to Edwards in the primaries. But that would not be terrible politically, even though it would feel awful to those of us who are longing for the demographics of our elected officials to rise to 2oth C international standards. Will you write a pledge petition? I'll sign it and pass it around!

Anonymous said...

Look, you are all so clever it's awesome. I started following this blog because I followed the Durham in Wonderland blog because the Seligmans are family friends and it was personal to me. These are the only two blogs I have ever read. I actually didn't know what a blog was before DIW which I read because Kathy found it so comforting to feel someone was on her son's side.
I have lived and taught in the Middle East for 23 years.I came out here because Islamic History was my American husband's academic area and he wanted to explore it and as my son wrote in his application to Brown "my father left for Saudi Arabia with my Mother in tow" and here we stayed.
Anyway it's rather different here and I have bizarre alternative experiences - like having a fully veiled student come to office hours to cry about boyfriend/husband problems and advising her to just do her homework and get a job-a girl forgets any guy after five years which is the same advice my flapper grandmother gave to me and in five years you can get a promotion-which is what happened. Or knowing people who were decapitated by Al Quaeda for being Hindu.
All sorts of odd stuff happens here.
But I want to say that reading this blog has cheered me up immensely
and thank you all.

Anonymous said...


I think you're a little confused. Professor Potter was never on Reade Seligmann's "side" and I'm sure her offensive comments about the lacrosse team caused Kathy Seligmann a great deal of pain.

Anonymous said...

I'm not confused, I'm just not clear.
DIW supported Reade. Dr. Potter's remarks about DIW led me to her blog.
I was quite upset about those remarks. She has since written the guys are innocent. Good on her.
Being stranded in the Middle East can be traumatic intellectually
and psychologically and as long as the topic isn't Reade I find these women very interesting and stimulating even if I often disagree with them. It sure beats putting on another fashion show to kill the boredom or discussing physical chastisement as an appropriate means of communicating with one's wife with one of my students. I also like reading the lists of books they read. By the way, I think the London Times is a lot more amusing than the New York Times. Try it as an alternative sometimes-especially the News Review.

Tenured Radical said...

Dear expat,

Thank you so much for the props, and for the glimpse of your teaching life -- if you ever want to send something for posting here, I would be glad to host it and I know the people would be interested. I wondered who my reader in the Middle East was!

If it is not an intrusion, could you drop me a line to my private email account? There is something I would like to ask you about the other topic you raise. If you prefer not, I understand.



Anonymous said...

Great post!!!

Anxious Black Woman said...

Great history! But I have to agree with one of your anonymous posters in that you still make the same mistake of reducing "blacks" to black men and "women" to white women.

Are All the Blacks Still Men? Are All the Women Still White? Will Some Of Us Have to Still be Brave?

Tenured Radical said...

Dear anonymous and anxious black woman:

I re-read the post, but I still don't see how it makes the move I'm critiquing: my point in putting "women" and "blacks" in quotes was to point to the categories as false constructions. And the final 'graph on Shirley Chisholm was meant to re-emphasize the absence of black women from the electoral and historical constructs. I guess it wasn't as effective as I had hoped.

And yes, Woodhull did run for president (and didn't Angela Davis also run on the Communist Party ticket several decades ago?) but neither were candidates nominated by either of the two major parties, which is why I didn't include them as precedents.

Thanks for reading and talking back!


Tenured Radical said...

Dear anonymous whose out of control nasty comment I just removed:

OK, so I left out a critical word. I fixed it. Everyone else knew what I meant. There are all kinds of ways to point out a mistake that someone has made without character assassination. Do you ever worry that you are a maniacal jerk and no one is strong enough to tell you? Or that they are trying to tell you and you don't hear it?

Don't come back until you can be civil.


Anonymous said...

thanks for pointing to those quotation marks. I guess linguistically they did not resonate enough for me but I do appreciate the sincerity with which you responded to my, & ABW's, criticism.