I recently read Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink! It reinforced what psychologists have been saying for years: sometimes we aren’t even aware of the reasons for our decisions. Gladwell writes about times when we make decisions literally within the blink of an eye. Evidently, those judgments sometimes turn out to be as accurate as those on which we spend a lot of time. (Or, as my former teaching colleague Jerry says, “When you study long, you study wrong.”)
This article is about what I believe is a form of prejudice. This is an area which I think it’s best to approach with humility: those of us who have our favorites in this Presidential campaign may have made up our minds months or even years ago for reasons we’ll never know. I’m pretty sure that the reasons why I’m supporting a white candidate have nothing to do with her race; but if Gladwell is right, I may never be sure.
It’s tempting to take the position that our true motives are unknowable, so any time spent on knowing them is time wasted; but I think we have an intellectual and moral responsibility to try to understand our motives. And I think that’s especially important for Democrats this year because the sex and race of the candidates are more important in this primary than they have ever been before.
This phenomenon is being called “identity politics.” The Web site dictionary.com quotes the American Heritage Dictionary as defining identity politics as “political attitudes or positions that focus on the concerns of social groups identified mainly on the basis of gender, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.” (It’s worth a trip to Wikipedia for more on this phenomenon.)
I must confess to some discomfort when I hear Hillary Clinton’s supporters pointing out how wonderful it would be to elect the first woman to the White House. To me, that was never much of an argument, and I’m equally unimpressed by the equivalent argument being made by Barack Obama’s supporters. Both arguments are appeals to identity politics.
Earlier in the primary when several white male candidates were still running, if supporters had ever suggested voting for one because he is a white male, observers would rightly have condemned the suggestion as racist and sexist. But political leaders and regular citizens alike say openly that they’re supporting Clinton because she’s a woman or that they’re supporting Obama because he’s black. Allegedly that’s identity politics and it’s OK, but to me it’s just prejudice by another name.
I wrote in a previous post that our challenge is to vote for the person we believe will make the best President. We can honorably reach different conclusions about whether that’s Clinton or Obama, but I think we are obliged, to the extent that it’s possible, to make that judgment independent of the sex and race of the candidate.
As someone who is neither black nor female, I hope a final observation will be appropriate. To me at least, it is clear that being a woman has been a far greater burden to Clinton’s campaign than being black has been to Obama’s. I have never heard anyone suggest that Obama’s race makes him unfit for the Presidency, but I have heard plenty of people suggest that Clinton’s sex is an obstacle. If she appears sensitive, she’s weak; if she appears tough, she’s a lesbian. Obama hasn’t had to contend with anything remotely like it. I have a friend who believes that many white voters who tell pollsters that they would vote for a black candidate actually won’t. He may be right, and racism may hide below the surface. But evidently sexism doesn’t have to stay below the surface: it can be indulged in openly and without penalty.
The implication–and it comes as a surprise to me–is that at this point in our journey as a society, sex is a far more potent political force than race.
This historic primary has revealed things about us that we might prefer to have kept secret; but we’re better off for knowing them, and we’ll be better off if we can acknowledge them honestly, openly, and fairly.