I'm a black woman. This is my dream
The two Democrat candidates have gone through fire to get this far; now they deserve to go further
Sunday January 13, 2008
The political history of the United States has been crafted by its greatest orators. From Thomas Jefferson to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, from Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton, the most influential Presidents have anchored their appeal in the democracy of the eloquently spoken word. As the election of November 2008 draws closer, we usher out George W Bush, the most spectacularly dismal exception to that rule. Of course, there are many attributes other than oratory I'll be looking for in candidates running for highest office: he or she must not think war is a 'cakewalk', must be alarmed about global warming, must not think torture is a handy little tool. Nevertheless, I will be listening hard for any future President's ability to string words into unmuddied, coherent thought. I'll be listening for ideas that have been worked through sufficiently to have a beginning, a middle and an end. I'm looking for intelligence. Someone who has real ideas, something more than missiles wrapped in folksy homilies.
Too many people see Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton's appeal as rooted in 'identity politics'. It is the cheap political equation of the moment. He's supposed to walk away with the black vote, she's supposed to have women all sewn up. But the diversity of their constituencies and the complexity of their platforms have defied simplistic expectations.
There's a cliché in the American civil rights community: if you're a member of a stigmatised group, you have to be twice as good as everyone else to accomplish half as much. Clinton and Obama have been tested by fire; neither rose to this level of national importance because anyone gave them a pass.
Hillary Clinton was among the first generation of women to attend law school in any numbers. She's about four years older than me and the barriers were enormous back then. Her first political work, as a student advocate for women's rights and minority admissions, opened the door a little wider for people like me. When I arrived at law school, there was still much moaning that women were 'taking over', even though we constituted 8 per cent of law students.
Today, women make up 50 per cent of most law school classes. It took enormous fortitude to succeed in that atmosphere. Indeed, Hillary has stood up to and overcome an onslaught. As Senator Clinton campaigned in Iowa, it was to the snarky drone of shock jock Rush Limbaugh babbling about how no one wants to watch a middle-aged woman grow old. Her detailed and thoughtful ideas for a universal healthcare system have been derided as the dangerous, communist ravings of a radical feminist. The New York Times's Maureen Dowd called Clinton a 'dominatrix ... control freak' who 'whips' her opponents into line.
Not that there's any consistency to prejudice of this sort. There was quite the kerfuffle when someone asked her how she was doing after her loss in Iowa and a tremble shook her voice. If Clinton-haters have got their jollies from painting her as steely and remote, in the mere mist of an eye she became too soft, wavering, choked up, broken down. Headlines implied that Clinton had lost it. Yet look at the video: she speaks of her plans for the country with eloquent emotion and great composure, her voice soft but strong. There were no tears. There was nothing undignified about it.
Meanwhile, Obama walks a fine line of both being 'not black enough' and pandering to 'special interests'. The accusation that he is 'inexperienced' is a cipher for deeper cultural anxieties about race.
Senator Obama is a presidential candidate of profound decency and great eloquence. He was president of the Harvard Law Review, a position that requires not just the highest grades, but also the unanimous acclaim of a band of viciously competitive students and a famously divided faculty.
American identity is best defined as the experience of the willing diaspora, the break by choice that is the heart of the immigrant myth. It is that narrative from which most African-Americans have been exiled. Hence it is precisely his place in that narrative that makes Obama so attractive, so intriguing and yet so strange. Obama's late father migrated from Kenya to the US; his mother was from Kansas. He's managed to fuse the immigrant myth of rapid upward mobility, until then almost exclusively white and European, on to the figure of a black man. Yet there are many for whom his appeal rests not on what he is - smart, full of fresh vision - but on what they imagine he isn't. He's not a whiner. He doesn't hate white people. He doesn't wear his hair like Al Sharpton.
Senator Joseph Biden, like Bush another exemplar of crude oratorical inelegance, expressed it as follows: 'I mean, you got the first sort of mainstream African-American who's articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that's a storybook, man.' Such faint, condescending praise.
In the coming months, I expect to see much confusion as the importance of gender, the visibility of race and the commitment to pretend none of it matters is sorted out. The American public is reeling with images of Hillary, our first viable female candidate for President, floating on the endorsements of a raft of black religious leaders, and Obama, our first viable black candidate for President, flanked by a pride of Oprah-watching, white 'soccer moms'. Add a sprinkling of Bill Clinton, popularly caricatured as our 'first black President'. Fold in Michelle Obama, popularly caricatured as an outspoken career woman who doesn't like to stay home and bake cookies any more than Hillary. Turn the pressure cooker to high.
As the right's Rovean spinmeisters kick into action, wrapping both Obama and Clinton in sticky webs of hybridised stereotypes, she will be cast as too 'mannish', he too 'boyish'. She'll be too familiar, he too foreign.
Yet I pray that we Americans can resist the vicious, vacuous, mudslinging mire of malapropisms from which the Bush presidency loped to power. This is an extraordinary moment in American history: we have our first serious black and female presidential candidates and they are, indeed, twice as good as their nearest contenders. I hope that the two of them, in whatever order, will become running mates by November. They must not fall prey to those who would love to see them played against each other in the scramble to be top dog.
· Patricia Williams is a professor of law at Columbia University and a regular columnist for the Nation