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Clinton and Obama in Anthropological Perspective Why Race and Gender are Separate Issues

Why Race and Gender are Separate Issues

by JUSTIN E. H. SMITH


Will there be no end to this tiresome "national conversation" as to whether a black man trumps a white woman, or vice versa, on our nation’s list of the wronged? One possible end might arrive, of course, when another white man is elected in November and American politics returns to business as usual. In the meantime, I would like to join the conversation, if only in order to bring to light the inanity of the relevant comparison, based as it is on a presumption of analogy between two social groups that are distinguished, conceptually and in reality, from the dominant group for entirely different reasons: in the one case, the distinction is based on a relatively short, 500-year history of economic subordination; in the other, it is a consequence of an evidently universal structural feature of human societies.

A few disclaimers. First, disciples of the Robin Morgan-school of feminism will probably fail to appreciate that the disanalogy between race and gender may be acknowledged without abandoning one’s feminist principles, even if these principles inform a feminism of a very different stripe: one that does not seek to justify masculine domination on normative grounds, but that nonetheless is genuinely concerned to take it seriously as a deep-rooted, rather than recent and superficial, phenomenon. Second, I confess I will be doing what, at least since Simone de Beauvoir, we have been told we must never do: conflating sex and gender. Of course, "male" and "female" are not just biological categories. They are also social categories, and they have vastly different connotations from culture to culture. They do not always correspond to the biological categories they are presumed to denote. Thus among the Inuit, social gender is determined by the soul-name one is given at birth, depending on which ancestor one is perceived to reincarnate. It is not determined by the particular set of genitals one has. Yet "male" and "female" continue to divide up the world dualistically, for the Inuit as for everyone else, and it stands to reason that they would not be doing this if human beings reproduced asexually, through parthenogenesis, from a single and universal variety of sexless human body. 

If we follow Judith Butler and the prevailing dogma of academic gender studies, the distinction de Beauvoir wanted to make is anyway untenable: talk of sex reduces in the end to talk of gender, and we can’t but have social gender in mind when we talk about biological sex. (Whether Butler sees this as holding for spawning salmon or the stamens and pistils of flowers as well as for human beings is unclear.)  Anyway, Butler’s reduction frees up a materialist, biology-friendly analyst like myself to ignore the distinction de Beauvoir hoped to make, and to talk of "male" and "female" as corresponding (more or less) to a certain reality of the evolutionary history of a wide range of species, including our own.

But what does all of this have to do with the national conversation our two leading Democratic candidates have decided to start?

I maintain that the racial divide in American society is both a more pressing and a more tractable problem than the sexual one because there is an objective reality onto which talk of the difference between men and women maps, more or less accurately, whereas there is nothing, but nothing, of serious objective interest in the distinction between "races." Talk of race is based on a bogus and discredited ethnography, whereas women really are, on average, about 30% smaller than men; women unlike men are capable of giving live birth; women have a different average life-span than men, different fertility patterns, different illnesses. Some researchers, such as Simon Baron-Cohen, believe they have discovered the neurological basis of certain behavioral differences between men and women. While discoveries of this sort are not conclusive, they at least require serious arguments in response, rather than simple denial. 

The differences here listed do not translate into different intellectual capacities, as they have too often been falsely interpreted to do. As Katha Pollitt has sharply argued, even if there are some cognitive differences between men and women, there is also a persistent ideologically driven tendency to valorize whichever cognitive abilities happen for the moment to be associated with the male brain. Men are now thought to be better able to engage in spatial reasoning, whereas in the 19th century it was verbal ability that was seen as distinctly masculine. Not surprisingly, as Pollitt notes, the ability to mentally rotate objects in space is one that has accordingly gained in prestige. 

The particular list of differences may always be changing, but there are enough real ones to ensure that, always and everywhere, "male" and "female" will designate different roles in a social system, to the extent that we remain, at least for now, a particular social variety of biological entities. "Black" and "white" are in contrast categories that really could, as a result of collective consciousness raising, be made to disappear. Indeed, supposed racial differences already have been made to disappear as a result of scientific enlightenment and social change. Throughout 18th-century ethnography, for example, no one was placed lower on the racial hierarchy than the Scandinavian Sami (once known as Lapps), and it was widely presumed that all Scandinavians, as a result of interbreeding with the Sami, were more squat, swarthy, and brutish than mainland Europeans. As we know, the racial pseudoscience that would emerge in the 19th century and be officially adopted by the Nazi regime had a very different opinion, and even a different perception, of Scandinavians. Closer to home, not so long ago the Irish were sufficiently detested in the United States as to come to be perceived as deeply and essentially (which is to say "racially") different from other "white" people. Today, the social context that gave rise to this ethnic prejudice is but a distant memory. 

I will not attempt to speculate here as to how exactly the biological differences between the sexes listed above translate into masculine domination. Françoise Heritier proposes that it is not that body mass, the cycle of gestation, etc., render the woman weaker and thus prone to subjugation by masculine force, but rather that the exclusive possession of the childbearing capacity by women makes men, everywhere, and everywhere unconsciously, jealous. Witness for example the practice of couvade, widespread in African societies, in which a husband will simulate labor pains alongside his wife’s very real ones, and will expect that his community give him as much sympathy and attention as the actual childbearer gets. This jealousy ensures that men will seek to control the process of childbearing as much as possible by regulating their society’s kinship system, which is to say by exercising exclusive authority over who can have sex with whom, when, where, and how. Domestic violence, the virgin/whore complex, the glass ceiling, etc., all flow in turn from this control. I neither confirm nor deny this account, but only acknowledge that, in spite of myths of Amazons and feminist hopes for the discovery of true matriarchies (as opposed to systems of matrilineal descent, in which it is anyway not mothers but uncles who call the shots), the ethnographic data show consistently that biological sex difference somehow translates into masculine social domination. Anyone who does not take these data seriously is being willfully naive, and certainly is not helping to advance the cause of gender equality.

"Black" and "white" are categories that have come to appear as real as a result of a particular, very short 500-year history of economically driven stratification of social classes that happen (sometimes) to have different skin pigmentation. (I say sometimes because I can’t help but notice that with a good tan I get darker than Thurgood Marshall ever was, and thus if skin tone were all that were at issue, I would be among the victims of the racialized class system in America, rather than among those who benefit.) "Male" and "female" are categories that have come not just to appear but to be real as a result of the emergence of sexual dimorphism several million years ago, a development useful for maximizing variability of traits in a population through obligatory exchange of genetic material.

Now, in a decent, liberal society, the difference between men and women will not constitute an obstacle to the pursuit of whatever sort of life any man or woman in that society would like to create for her- or himself. Yet much more strongly, in that very same society, there will simply be no talk of difference between blacks and whites at all, because, again, there is no difference. If I may venture an audacious comparison, a horse breeder could choose not to pay attention to which of her mares and stallions are piebald, which are chestnut, etc. She could not however afford to ignore which of her horses are stallions and which are mares. Human society is of course much more complicated than a horse farm (or at least we may suppose it is here in order not to get sidetracked), yet both are structured by sexual difference, and color patterns are objectively as trivial in the one as in the other.

Again, emphatically, none of this is to say that a woman would not make a good president, but only that the prospects for deep social change that a woman’s presidency might bring about are rather more slight than what we might see in America with a black president. Indeed, Hillary Clinton’s presidency would be not so much an advancement of the cause of women as a perpetuation of the troglodytic logic of dynastic rule. Masculine domination is not a local, American problem, but the original sin of our particular primate lineage, and one that will not be atoned for in the slightest by the nepotistic, Bhutto-style appointment of Bill Clinton’s wife and proxy. I fail equally to see any signs of the true advancement of women in the leadership of Benazir, Megawati, and other borderline crime-family matriarchs, whose power always flows from the legacy of a man who came before them and who lurks, alive or dead, behind the scenes. Hillary Clinton’s rise to power would call these grandes dames to mind much sooner than the leadership of a dull and modest and self-made politician such as Angela Merkel or Michelle Bachelet. Indeed, a second Clinton presidency would be a classic case of a particular big man’s tenacious grip on power, a grip so tight that he manages to circumvent annoying rules like term limits by symbolically transferring the power to a close clan member. Anthropologically, a Clinton victory would be a near perfect echo of the victory of Bush fils in 2000, except that the absence of the Oedipal element that makes primogeniture a risky method of maintaining power would likely ensure even greater uniformity of policy between the two Clinton eras.

For a long time I insisted on pointing out to all who would listen, enemy of racial essentialism that I am, that Obama is not, ethnically, an "African-American," in the sense of this term Jesse Jackson had in mind when he coined it. This term is meant to designate the descendants of slaves from West Africa, who developed over the centuries a New World hybrid culture with a distinctive English dialect, distinctive recipes, music, religion, etc. Obama is in contrast a Kenyan-American, among other things, and thus from a part of Africa that never provided slaves to America, and that is as culturally different and geographical far from Ghana as Ghana is from Portugal. But then it dawned on me that Obama’s ability to assume the same "racial" (which is to say ethnic) identity as Jesse Jackson or Frederick Douglass, in fact serves to strengthen my point about the malleability of our ethnic categories. If a Kenyan-American may be subsumed into an ethnic community of descendants of West Africans, then in principle any adoptive ethnic affiliation is possible. It is only harder for me (an Anglo-American) to publicly express the same elective affinity because Americans continue to believe in the pseudoscience of race as a reality that runs deeper than ethnic identity. 

It would in any case be quite a bit harder for me to, say, choose to run as a woman for public office as a result of elective affinity, and it would do nothing to legitimate this choice if I were to point out that one of my two parents is a woman. Having a black father makes Obama 50% black (and thus, by America’s racist calculations, 100% black), whereas having a female mother does not make me any more a woman. This point is so obvious it’s unlikely that anyone has ever bothered to make it before, but it is crucial for driving home the disanalogy. Women live in the same homes as men, and give birth to both boys and girls. Women have the same class-based interests to protect –their homes, their children’s futures– as the men with whom they share their class identity and their antagonism towards the men and women on the other side of the tracks. Blacks and whites, in contrast, not only do not live in the same homes, but rarely even in the same neighborhoods, and where they do it is a tense coexistence. The success of one group’s children is, as Obama pointed out in his Philadelphia speech, generally perceived as a zero-sum game that depends upon the failure of the other group’s children. I could go on and on, describing other points of disanalogy between race and gender, but I hope it’s clear by now.

Eventually, in a post-racial America, an American’s Kenyan descent will no longer appear as a sufficient reason to group that person with Ghanaian-Americans, again, any more than the Ghanaian-Americans would be grouped with the descendants of the Portuguese. But again, for now, "race" is conflated with ethnicity, and it is enough for Obama to emerge as an "African-American" leader that symbolically he appears as one of the people who belong to the social class in America that continues to suffer from gross inequality as a result of the legacy of slavery. America needs such a leader as a crucial step in overcoming the legacy of slavery, which Obama has rightly described as its specific "original sin." As Hillary Clinton herself rightly pointed out, Martin Luther King’s grass-roots leadership was only able to change American society at an official and legal level as a result of Lyndon Johnson’s deigning to legitimate it. The racial divide in America can never be bridged by community efforts, and occasional white gestures of conciliation, alone. It will be bridged, maybe, when the descendants of the slaves have full and direct access to the apparatus of power. If a Kenyan-American can stand in as a member of this group, for now, as a first step, this is surely a step in the right direction.

A post-gender America, in contrast, is a science-fiction biotech utopia that I hope I won’t live to see. I’ll repeat one last time that this does not mean that a woman president would not be a good thing, but only that she would do nothing to remedy our distinctly American original sin. Given the racially charged dirty campaigning we’ve seen from the Clintons so far, it is safe to say that if that particular woman president turns out to be Hillary Clinton, the fallout of this original sin will get worse before it gets better.

Justin Smith teaches philosophy in Canada. He can be reached at: jehsmith@gmail.com