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Sexism V. Racism, American Style

In today's WaPo, columnist Mike Gerson lays out the three big reasons that, as he recalls one reporter gushing to him, "on the day Obama becomes president, America would think differently about itself." One, Obama's uplifting, high-minded style. Two, his bipartisan potential. And last but not least, his race: "Obama's race matters greatly, because most of the American story-from our flawed founding to the civil rights movement-has been a struggle between the purity of our ideals and the corruption of our laws and souls. The day an African American stands on the steps of the U.S. Capitol--built with the labor of slaves--and takes the oath of office will be a moment of blinding, hopeful brightness."

There has been chatter on the web this week about Gloria Steinham's NYT op-ed about feminism and Hillary and the lingering sexism that may or may not be impacting this race. It wasn't a particularly inspired piece, heavy-handed and a little sloppy in its arguments.  But the resulting discussion did get me thinking about sexism, how differently it is viewed/talked about than racism, and why that is.

You would, for instance, be unlikely to find Gerson writing a similarly lofty passage about what it would mean for a woman to be sworn in to the presidency. This isn't to say that people don't think that it would be a kick for a gal to shatter the highest of all glass ceilings--not to mention inspirational for all those young American Girls out there watching the process--but the idea doesn't strike the same chord of moral redemption as when we talk about a black man doing the same.

I suspect this has something to do with the different forms racism and sexism have taken in America, especially in recent years. Until just a few decades ago, our racism was blatant, violent, and indisputably hate-filled. By contrast, American sexism (and I'm obviously dealing in generalities) has tended to be of the kinder, gentler, more patronizing, paternalistic variety. Women may not have been allowed to vote until 1920, they may face pay disparities in the workplace, and they may be barred from joining certain hoity-toity golf clubs. But they've never been lynched for sport. No one took fire hoses to or sicced police dogs on those 1970s bra-burners.

In many ways, even overt sexism here has long been about treating women differently than men--better, some claim--rather than specifically about keeping them down. (All part of God's/nature's grand plan, we are told.) As often as not, the folks who object to, say, women in combat don't publicly argue that gals shouldn't be on the frontlines because they're unfit (save, of course, for Newt Gingrich, who gently reminded us that babes in foxholes "get infections")--but rather that the mothers and daughters of this nation shouldn't be exposed to the brutality of war zones. It is a sweet form of discrimnation, a caring form-one that enlightened people dislike but don't have to feel all that guilty about.

In part because of the nebulous, non-aggressive nature of modern American sexism, many women are loath to talk about it lest they be labeled whinging purveyors of outdated victim politics-or gross manipulators of the political gender card. Team Hillary unsurprisingly has taken some whacks for playing identity politics in this race. Team Obama, not so much. In fact, Gerson specifically lauds Obama for not making "cynical use of his race."

It's true enough that Obama is not running on his blackness. But that doesn' t mean his campaign hasn't been happy to remind us of their man's potentially history-making genetic makeup and background, if only to charm us with his unlikely tale of upward mobility. Michelle Obama has been dispatched talk about whether her husband is black enough to satisfy African-American voters. And Gerson is hardly the first media blabber to go on at length about what it would mean for America's self-image and global image if a black man-middle name Hussein, no less--went all the way. Obama hasn't cynically run as a black man. He has very elegantly run as a black man. And while his race isn't at the core of his appeal, neither is it--or could it possibly be--a non-factor in a country still so very sensitive about the subject. (Oh My GOD, can you believe a black man won Iowa!!!) 

But we're not all that sensitive about sexism-at least, not in the same way. Yeah. We know it's out there, though we prefer to think of it in terms of the more egregious, retrograde examples that pop up (such as when  Bill "loofah" O'Reilly allegedly takes a shine to one of his young staffers). Most of us are confident that we personally couldn't possibly ever harbor any such biases. (After all, look how far women have come! Look at all the women in our workplaces!) And we don't particularly find anything awe-inspiring, uplifting, or even noteworthy about a woman who runs for office without ham-fistedly playing the gender card.

More broadly, we certainly don't feel driven to wipe away sexism's ugly stain the way we do with racism. And sometimes we seem almost surprised (embarrassed even) when the issue of gender bobs to the surface at all. The WaPo's dispatch from last night's Obama rally features the sad story of 19-year-old Obamaniac Tobin Van Ostern. Initially pumped for victory, Van Ostern grew ever more antsy as he watch the returns role in. When it became clear that Hillary was going to win, and which demographic block had made this possible, a disspirited Van Ostern could only respond,  "Oh, women."

Oh, indeed.

--Michelle Cottle