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Sexism, Racism, And Political Success

I had coffee today with two foreigners who were excited by Barack Obama's victory in the Democratic primary on Tuesday. One of them had spent a couple of years living here in America, while the other had only visited a few times. Both were pleasantly surprised that--given the prevalence of racism in this country--a black man was now the odds-on favorite to win the presidency. Neither could quite grasp how this could be so, and the reason for that, I think, is that both of them were incorrectly evaluating the American scene. It wasn't so much that they had the wrong impression about racism in the United States, but rather that they didn't know how to correlate prejudice with political roadblocks.

The "amount" of racism that Obama has faced over the past two years, in other words, is not necessarily directly proportional to his political fortunes. Racism can lead to backlashes against racists, or better media coverage, or sympathy, or overwhelming black support or God knows what? To understand how Obama achieved what he has achieved, you have to know just as much about politics as you do race.

It's precisely this issue that some of Senator Clinton's supporters seem to be stumbling over. It's one thing to be justly furious at the sometimes sexist treatment of Hillary Clinton; it's quite another to dispute that her gender and the sexism directed her way were not a gigantic boon to her political fortunes. Not only did a backlash against the media save her candidacy in New Hampshire, but it proved an inspiration to her supporters over the past few months, as her chances dimmed. 

One example here would be the "iron my shirt" incident, when some thuggish idiots yelled out those three words during a Clinton rally. No one should have to put up with such nonsense, but is there any doubt that this episode, and others like it, helped her campaign? We should all decry sexism, and Hillary supporters are perfectly within their rights to mourn her loss, but if we are going to make a connection between the two, a little more evidence is called for. 

--Isaac Chotiner