“I don’t say this because he’s black, but the guy just seems arrogant to me, the way he expects things to go his way.”
“It was probably inevitable. The historic contest between a woman and an African-American for the presidential nomination is now all about white men.”
Discussing the presidential election in my university-level Writing Arguments class recently, a student said that of course some people would vote for their candidate based on gender and/or race. But, this was to be lamented. Rather, a candidate’s stance on the issue–and not identity politics–is what should matter. But if true, I asked, how could it be that the first 43 presidents were all white males? Coincidence? Or was not gender and race a factor, at least in part?
This is a productive moment in class, a moment when students see that things are more complicated then they at first appear, that what they learned in history classes over the years is as important as what they did not learn. Hopefully, over time a student will come to see that being complicated is not necessarily a bad thing.
This issue does not exist in the vacuum that is my class. Harry Brobst of Latrobe, PA won’t vote for Barack Obama. He takes pains in a New York Times article to explain that in the Pennsylvania primary he will vote “not so much for” a candidate but against one. And while Brobst searches, if inelegantly, to clarify his position as being based on something other than race, for much of the news media and the chattering classes the issue is strikingly clear: race and gender are at the forefront of the discussion concerning the candidacies of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
For example, when Geraldo Rivera of Fox News gleefully exhorts me to sit through the commercial to catch his interview with Charlie Rangel (D-NY), head of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, it’s because he thinks he has a scoop. Before the break, Geraldo explains that Rangel is “African American.” But the kicker? Rangel “supports Hillary Clinton.” Though unstated, Geraldo’s implication is that it is odd that in this election a black man would support a white woman while another black man is running.
This is hardly an isolated incident, for, if we are to believe the media, women and African Americans have all the tough decisions to make this election. At CNN.com Randi Kaye writes that for African American women “a unique and most unexpected dilemma presents itself. Should they vote their race, or should they vote their gender?” Bill Kristol said on Fox News Sunday that Clinton supporters are only “the Democratic establishment and white women,” adding also, jokingly (it’s always jokingly from the Kristols of the world), that “[w]hite women are a problem, that’s, you know–we all live with that.”
These are but a few examples of what seems to be an unending string of them. The subtext of what the talking heads and typing hands are telling us is that making such decisions based on the supposedly irrational issues of “identity politics” is a bad thing. For how, the thinking goes, could voters reject the apparently rational course of looking solely at a candidate’s position on the issues? How, for instance, could voters vote for Obama without–a favorite Fox News trump card we will be hearing ad nauseam in the coming months–knowing any of his “accomplishments”? How could voters choose Clinton just because she is a woman?
Stanley Fish, trying to make sense of identity politics, observes that, “If there’s anything everyone is against in these election times, it’s ‘identity politics,’ a phrase that covers a multitude of sins.” His definition:
(It may not be yours, but it will at least allow the discussion to be framed.) You’re practicing identity politics when you vote for or against someone because of his or her skin color, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or any other marker that leads you to say yes or no independently of a candidate’s ideas or policies. In essence identity politics is an affirmation of the tribe against the claims of ideology, and by ideology I do not mean something bad (a mistake frequently made), but any agenda informed by a vision of what the world should be like.
Fish then makes the argument that there are some perfectly acceptable times to vote according to such politics, if that vote is based on “interest-identity politics” (“based on the assumption…that because of his or her race or ethnicity or gender a candidate might pursue an agenda that would advance the interests a voter is committed to”) and not “tribal-identity politics” (“politics based on who a candidate is rather than on what he or she believes or argues for”). Fish also provides examples of non-default Americans (a Jew, an African American, a woman) who someone might support based on “interest-identity politics.” Ultimately, the non-default American is anyone who is not a white male (though this is endlessly variable when considering such factors as religion or education or socio-economic level or…). This is not inherently a bad thing or a good thing, but like so many things, it’s what you do with your position in society that counts.
But Fish, like just about everyone else I have heard discussing this issue, avoids the choice that I will have to make.
Since all politics is local, I’m starting with myself. Yes, as an American voter, I see two roads diverging in the woods and know I’ll have to cast a vote. While I avoided the path altogether in the Washington State primary–because I don’t want to be aligned with either party–I will vote in November. But this choice that I and millions of other people “like me” will have to make is not the one people are talking about.
No, it is the one everyone is avoiding.
What people are comfortable discussing, even when claiming that it is not or should not be important–from Fox News to the op/ed page of the New York Times to whatever it is that passes for a water cooler space these days, blogs maybe–is a variety of what ifs. What if a person of this gender and/or that race votes for someone outside their gender and/or race based on these very aspects of identity politics?
But what are people like me supposed to do? I am a white male, who, though not a registered Democrat, leans politically to the same side of the country in which I live. And although we don’t yet know whether Hillary or Barack will be the Democratic nominee, it appears as if, in the general election, I will be vote either for my race or against it and/or for my gender or against it.
But you probably need a little more information on me before you can know just what and why I might be selling out come November. I’ll generalize and say that I am a literature professor at a small, Catholic liberal arts university, an agnostic/secular American Jew. I had one set of grandparents escape Nazi Germany and another set (also Jewish) stationed in Germany post-WWII with the US Army. As such, there are a few things I think I know. And even if Jews are now white, as Karen Brodkin writes in How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says about Race in America, there remains a heavy “but…” hanging over her book. I have known all my life that Jews in America, though integrated, successful, overly educated, and whatnot (I’ve heard we run Hollywood and probably at least one secret world order, though I have yet to get my access card), are still not quite the American default.
For my part, though, I’m not complaining. I can do just about anything legal I want in America without interference from others. Well, almost. I can’t be president. I know, I know, I’ve been told many times that I can do anything I can imagine. “Good job,” I think, “that’s exactly what unquestioning fealty to the American Dream demands that they (i.e. parents, teachers, the media, the corporations, the movies…) tell us Americans.”
But consider this. Besides Ralph Nader (who got my vote in ‘00, because I knew that in my then-state of Kentucky, Gore had a snowball’s chance in hell…), I think another reason Gore didn’t win the election outright is because he had a Jew on the ticket. True, Gore ran an anemic campaign with a running mate who even Rush Limbaugh endorsed, but because the election was so close I believe this was yet another factor. Even though Lieberman tried to out-God Bush with his incessant public appeals to faith, there were plenty of Americans who, I suspect, could not vote for a Jew to be a heartbeat away from the American presidency. Of course, I don’t have the “facts” on this because we don’t discuss it. Given the mythology of the American Dream, such an admission makes us too uncomfortable.
But in any case, this situation doesn’t apply to me, for Lieberman is a religious Jew. I am a secular one, thus disqualifying me outright, at least according to Lewis H. Lapham’s satirical, if accurate, understanding of the presidential job description: “…to be of service, believe in God, and never forget that the customer, although sometimes weird, is always right.” Two out of three just ain’t going to cut it in early 21st-century America. Maybe later, but not now.
And while I don’t want to be president, I will vote for one. So what part of my American-ness, my humanity, to sell out? And how can I even be facing the decision to sell out, you might ask, when I am neither female nor African American? After all, though Jewish, I am firmly in the white-American-male camp. I have all the evidence I need from a simple trip the chalkboard on the first day of class. People see a white male up there and act accordingly; that is, I am afforded a certain level of respect which I have done nothing to earn. With my own eyes I have seen many times how this is different for people who are not white or not male or both.
There are two major possibilities: will I vote, in part, my white race and go with John McCain or will I abandon my race and vote for Barack Obama? Or, as seems less likely now, might I face instead the choice of voting, in part, with my male gender or abandoning it to side with Hillary Clinton?
Even if these choices are only part of the equation, all of my fellow American white males will face some part of this calculation.
The catch is that no one wants to discuss the possibilities that I face. Vote on the issue of white maleness? Nobody does that, the talking heads would have you believe. Bill O’Reilly, typical of the people who desperately want to pretend we live in a race and gender neutral country, complains: “I don’t think gender should be a factor at all!” And, yeah, well, maybe it shouldn’t, but it is. So, the question then becomes: what will we do about it?
O’Reilly’s repeated and vigorous efforts to deny minority status (I watch him over dinner a couple times a week; he’s good for the digestion) proves how powerful is the default, how invisible the whiteness and maleness to those who would see it continue unquestioned, not even out of malice perhaps, but out of ignorance, willful or otherwise. (Though maybe willful ignorance is malicious…) The reason the O’Reillys–that would be willfully ignorant white males in this case–want to deny the importance of whiteness and maleness? Because they know that if they ever–ever–acknowledge our country’s continuing, even if lessening, inequality, then they will need also to acknowledge a certain responsibility that comes with this knowledge, a responsibility to work for change.
This explains part of the need of the O’Reillys to crush Obama’s pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright and, in turn, Obama. Historian Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (my dad tells me he also used to play a little basketball) writes: “The recent uproar about Barack Obama’s pastor has pushed a very explosive issue into the presidential campaign. The issue of our country’s history with regard to race is one that Senator Obama literally embodies in his physical being as well as various political stances he has taken.” This is only partially true. Race, of course, was always present in the campaign, from the very first presidential election to today. The Wright videotapes have not forced race not into the race but rather the discussion of it.
To some in the chattering classes, this is the biggest sin, for they want nothing more than to avoid discussing race honestly and openly. I think their anger comes not only from the fact that some of the things Wright said may be, as Christopher Hitchens argues, “wicked and stupid and false,” but that some of the things Wright believes come from a deeply rooted past and present of racial injustice that as a society we don’t want to acknowledge. Obama’s speech on race–forced out of him after Wright’s comments were seen and heard by everyone–was the first time in my lifetime (I was born in ’69) that a major presidential candidate has been so refreshingly open on the topic of race. The problem for the O’Reillys is that they don’t like the subject even being broached and demand that we pretend this is an issue relegated to the past.
Obama, trying to will change on a system that garners a great deal of money and power from schism, said “If we simply retreat into our respective corners, we will never be able to come together.” However, we are coming out of a presidency where division has been not something to avoid but a deliberate political strategy. Nevertheless, the conversation about minority status, sidelined for so long, is upon us. Even Condoleeza Rice, looking to extend her political career beyond Rove and Bush, recently said that the “descendents of slaves” in America are born with “[t]hat particular birth defect [which] makes it hard for us to confront it, hard for us to talk about it, and hard for us to realize that it has continuing relevance for who we are today.” Bad phrase? Maybe. But good point? Yes.
I know the charges already, of course, because I teach in class that in order to know your own argument, you must know the opposition’s. People will claim I’m playing the race card, the gender card, even the joker card. On March 25, Bill O’Reilly threatened to “get” anyone who dared to play the race card. “Everyone will know about it,” he said. I guess this means I’ll be on his show? Someone calling himself Ralph McGaughey of Boston emailed me after my essay on the anti-Harold Ford commercial (also in Counterpunch) and told me that I “have racial hang ups that the rest of society does not.” (He also said “Harold Ford is far more Caucasian than he is Negro.”) That, given the topic, I see the irony in his phrase “hang ups” maybe proves him right. Or, maybe I know the history of my country and am ever trying to understand how it affects us today. I would counter that such cards are already being played every day, whether or not I mention them, by both people who are racist and by people who are not.
What I am actually doing is playing the Opposite Game, pointing out that many things in our country work also in the opposite manner of the way people acknowledge publicly or even understand.
I have long liked to play the Opposite Game (though I have only recently starting calling it this, thanks to my good friend David Price). As a teacher of argument, this is a great strategy for getting at alternate or not as easily viewed versions of the truth. It’s pretty easy to play. The instructions: take an argument out there, look at some form of its opposite, and see where that gets you. That’s it.
Let’s practice; we’ll start with an easy one. Fox News’ slogan: “Fair and Balanced.” You can see immediately how this works.
Now, a harder one. The charge mentioned above that voters might actually vote for Hillary and Barack based on their gender and/or race. Look for an opposite. When Obama gets in trouble for “skipping” an African American event–in this case, the “State of the Black Union” in New Orleans–I immediately wonder a kind of opposite. Which events have McCain or any of the candidates gone to, or skipped, because of, in part, race? I know, I know, such questions should be kept to a whisper, but we can’t fully explore the possibilities or be true to our complicated American experiences in this presidential race if such questions are asked just of the non-default candidates.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not claiming that John McCain or the O’Reillys or anyone else is racist or sexist. We all have to decide such things for ourselves. Instead, I am attempting to address a brave student of mine (who appears to be white; I make no presumptions) who says, “I am just tired of hearing about race all the time.” I am sure that he is. And he is no racist; rather, he doesn’t understand how the history of this country is not something only in the past. He has probably been taught, after all, that he should not acknowledge gender and/or race. That in today’s society (my favorite phrase in student papers) we have moved beyond such things.
And now that the mere presence of a viable black candidate and a viable female candidate appear to raise the very issues this student thought were not supposed to matter is indeed confusing. Nevertheless, race and gender are factors on all levels, on all sides, and at all times and to deny them is, once you are aware of them, disingenuous. After all, when this country imported slaves and sanctioned the practice in the Constitution with the Three-Fifths Compromise (even while the Preamble, you’ll remember, begins with a distinctly non-exclusive plural pronoun, “We the people of the United States…”) it was certain that inequality would be around for a very, very long time. “America’s cult of whiteness, after all, was never just about skin color, hair texture and other physical traits,” Ellis Cose argues in Newsweek. Rather, “[i]t was about where the line was drawn between those who could be admitted into the mainstream and those who could not.”
Which is precisely what is at stake in this election.
Writing at Poltico.com, David Paul Kuhn explains that even now “[t]op Republican strategists are working on plans to protect the GOP from charges of racism or sexism in the general election, as they prepare for a presidential campaign against the first ever African-American or female Democratic nominee. . . Republicans will be told to ‘be sensitive to tone and stick to the substance of the discussion’ and that ‘the key is that you have to be sensitive to the fact that you are running against historic firsts,’ the strategist explained.” That people need to be told such things says an awful lot about where we are as a country.
But who can deny that John McCain is running, in part and by default, on his gender and race? Further, if the charge is that some might vote for Hillary or Barack based on issues of identity politics, who can deny that some people will vote for McCain for these reasons, even if they don’t know it or can’t see it? (That’s why it’s called a default.) Actually, I know the answer to my question, because I know the defaults in this country. The answer is that most people will deny this.
Discussing the Opposite Game in my African American literature class, some of my students were at first incredulous at the idea that McCain was running in part as a white man. It’s a hard opposite for many people to see, though they have all heard, and on some level understand, the questions about voting for Hillary and Barack based on gender and race. Some of my students had even been asked by their friends if they will vote on such issues of identity politics. So concerning Hillary and Barack, the questions are out there and are seen as legitimate by many people.
But McCain running as a white male? Voters voting for him for these reasons? Crazy.
I next asked my students if they thought that someone might vote against Hillary because she was a woman. Or against Barack because he is black.
Nodding heads all around, some reluctant, some eager.
If so, then must not the opposite also be true? That some people will vote for McCain, in part, because he is a white male? There are many people who think the country is “not ready” for a black or female president, even if they really mean, but won’t say, that they are not ready for one. Playing the Opposite Game, this means also that such people think the country continues to be ready only for a white male president. There’s even a term for this, Derek Shearer reminds us: the “Bradley effect” (named after losing African American gubernatorial candidate from California, Tom Bradley), which states that in polls “about 10% of likely voters will not tell the truth about their willingness to vote for a woman or a black.” This same 10% could make all the difference in November, divided as we are.
But that McCain is running on his whiteness and maleness is not only true by default. No, McCain is overtly championing these aspects of his candidacy, even if he is unaware he is doing so. “Why is Chelsea Clinton so ugly?” McCain reportedly joked a decade ago. “Because her father is Janet Reno,” was the answer. But maybe this bit of ancient sexism from before McCain boarded the Straight Talk Express should be dismissed. Ok, then consider this widely reported question from last November: “How do we beat the bitch?” queried a female supporter, referring to Hillary. Though evidently uncomfortable, perhaps because he knew the video was headed straight for Youtube, McCain called it an “excellent question.”
And then there was the extended exchange between McCain and Huckabee as to who had the more kick-ass supporter: Huckabee’s Chuck Norris or McCain’s Sly Stallone. However, it was an odd appeal from both of the candidates, because they were saying not that they could kick ass, but a particular muscular supporter could. In a debate, McCain said that Stallone could take care of Norris. General guffaws. It’s like that guy in the home security system commercials. He can’t protect his wife and family in this scary age, but he can pay for a surrogate male to be on the other end of the phone in an emergency.
On Hannity and Colmes, Republican Strategist Pete Synder weighed in on Hillary’s daring to challenge the men for the presidency: “Someone’s going to have to take her back [behind] the barn…because this campaign is all about her personal ambition.” Neither epithet, the b-word and the a-word (ambition), would be lodged against a male. And the non-stop comments about Hillary’s pantsuits? The unstated charge is that that Hillary is cross-dressing and seeking male power.
Okay, perhaps this is all “just” fun and games. Boys will be boys, after all. But this fun comes with the time-honored traditions of female degradation and threatened violence for women who overstep their bounds. I’m not saying McCain should have corrected that supporter. If this is how he views women, fine; it is better to know about it. But clearly, he is appropriating stereotypes of masculinity and femininity (or the perceived lack thereof) to make his point. Thus, he is, in part at least, running as a male. That he might not be aware of it doesn’t make it any less true.
So if we can ask female voters if they will vote for a woman, then the opposite question must also be asked. What men will vote for McCain because he has a penis?
But even more strangely to some people, McCain is also, in part, running as a white male. On some level his Johnny-come-lately defenders understand this, which is why they are so incredulous when the topic is broached. “White value system?” Sean Hannity asked on his TV show. “I have never heard of this in my life,” he said, exasperated, both hands in the air. It is true that he may not have heard of it referred to in these words. But Hannity’s success hinges on his ability to sell the idea that we live in a post-race world where the white male value system governing this country is known merely by its default name of the “American value system.” He isn’t looking for actual equality, but for people to stop challenging the hegemony of whiteness and maleness generally, and his world-view specifically. Sharon Begley points out in Newsweek that Obama rejects the term “post-racial” as “naïve.” We are not there yet. Nevertheless, the Hannitys make their bread and butter claiming we live in a post-racial, 21st century America.
“Is race going to now be an issue for them?” Hannity spat, wanting us to believe race is only an issue when anyone who isn’t white raises it. This is the same Hannity who is also troubled that Michelle Obama’s Master’s thesis reveals her true nature: “black first…student second.”
When Barack Obama says that race has been a “national obsession of ours for a long time,” America generally believes him, but much of America wants to deal with this fact by pretending that it was “solved” during the Civil Rights movement. America understands that race remains an issue in many ways, some good (historic firsts), some bad (racism, exclusion). But it’s the vocal champions of intolerance that demand we decry anyone who might vote for a black or female candidate based on, in part, identity politics. The real fear, of course, is that people might start asking if identity politics might be a factor in a person voting for…John McCain.
Ultimately, McCain is just running as McCain, even if part of his identity is as a white man in America. This is not bad or good; it just is. A recent ad triumphs–in case anyone still didn’t know–his service in the military and his imprisonment in a North Vietnamese camp. But McCain is not separate from the larger fabric, indeed, the entire history, of America. We know intuitively that if his service to his country is a strength, it has also been, for much of the history of this country, the province of white males. If being a fighter pilot and a POW is to his credit, then the opposite game tells us that it is to his opponents’ detriment that they did not or could not have had such an experience. And, yes, women have now flown in combat and, yes, there were black male pilots in Viet Nam, but these were and are the exceptions and not the rule. McCain’s long family history of military service which he is rightly proud of is also only possible for the white men in his family. In the year 2008, there can be no equivalent long history of service for women or African Americans.
John McCain is inescapably part of that American continuum–as all Americans are–that began centuries before he was born. He need not apologize or feel guilty for any of this (a common defensive position I hear when discussing this topic, for most people can’t get past the personal, thinking this is all an attack on their individual life), but he–and all of us–must be aware of the lingering effects of this history that exist all around us. I don’t know, though, that he would understand or acknowledge this (I would like to ask him), but white males are not exempt from dealing with this complicated history just because they want to pretend we live in a post-racial America. And if it takes a presidential race to bring this out into the open, I say, bring it on.
One wonders if McCain would have ever tried to make amends for voting against the Martin Luther King, Jr. national holiday in 1983 if he wasn’t now running for president. On the 40th anniversary of King’s assassination, McCain said:
We can be slow as well to give greatness its due, a mistake I made myself long ago when I voted against a federal holiday in memory of Dr. King…I was wrong and eventually realized that, in time to give full support for a state holiday in Arizona. We can all be a little late sometimes in doing the right thing, and Dr. King understood this about his fellow Americans. But he knew as well that in the long term, confidence in the reasonability and good heart of America is always well placed.
Taking him at his word, if McCain was ignorant about King’s importance, well, now he is not. I argue in class all the time that ignorance is not a crime, but willful ignorance is indeed very dangerous. If McCain can finally acknowledge that growth is possible, surely the same is true for our country.
As this country’s default, white males have learned to not triumph their white heritage–the ultimate American entitlement program–in words, even as they benefit from this status in countless ways every day. As a white male, I have learned that if I remain quiet, then it is left to minorities to define themselves against my whiteness and maleness. If a genuine post-racial America is the goal (I don’t know that it is), then willful ignorance will not get us there.
We must engage in the conversation, even though it is difficult, because our silence allows too many Americans to not have an equal chance at the pursuit. Perhaps even O’Reilly is getting the message that this is more complicated than he pretends. On April 8th he told his viewers he would be more “precise” when discussing race so that he wouldn’t be attacked and misunderstood in the future. I look forward to the O’Reillys and the Hannitys of the country asking white males how race and gender will influence their votes, because it’s time we all played our cards honestly with each other. Maybe once we get past the spin, we can get closer to claiming that Constitutional “we” for all of us.
JEFF BIRKENSTEIN is a professor of English at St. Martin’s University in Lacey, Washington. He can be reached at: email@example.com