Marjorie Valbrun: Race, Gender and the Campaign

Maybe it had to come to this point eventually. The battlelines are clearly drawn, the positions firmly held and the mood is seething. For months now, black women supporters of Barack Obama and white women supporters of Hillary Clinton have been engaged in a low-grade war of words to gain the upper hand in a campaign defined by one recurring question: does race trump gender in the elections? The result, now that Obama is the all-but-certain nominee, is a racial polarization that he will be hard-pressed to overcome.

Gloria Steinem lobbed the first grenade early on when she said Obama would not have made it this far if he were a woman because gender is "the most restricting force in American life." This was news to many black women who wondered why, if this were true, black men are at the bottom of every measurement of well-being; and why none has yet occupied the White House. Then there was Geraldine Ferraro's many utterances followed by those from a bevy of other Clinton supporters, all talking about female oppression in tones dripping with condescension toward women—in particular, black women—who would deign to support Obama.

Black women have naturally fought back, among them the novelist Alice Walker, who weighed in with a widely debated essay about race and the campaign. Essays and counteressays continue to appear online in various news and discussion sites, op-eds abound in newspapers around the county, the blogosphere sizzles with emotional debate. The more points each side makes, the more entrenched the positions have become. Détente now seems out of the question. The relationship between black and white women was never that strong to begin with. Sure, we've had a few good moments here and there, and we have meaningful relationships with individual black or white girlfriends, but there has always been a stubborn divide. That divide is now a chasm of resentment.

For most black women, overcoming racial oppression has always been a more important goal than fighting battles strictly along gender lines. It is a feeling that resonates deeply and is based on this country's long history of racial oppression. It's also something white feminists may never understand. Black women's support for Obama is not just about race, just as it's not solely about gender with Clinton supporters. The problem is that, as both camps have appealed to their most loyal supporters, the divide has broken down along racial lines: all too many progressive white women now say they will have a hard time voting for a black man in November.

Clinton bears some measure of blame for this. Both she and Obama are qualified to be president, but Clinton only recently, and reluctantly, acknowledged that Obama is capable. Doing so seemed as difficult for her as swallowing shards of glass, and it wasn't clear that she really believed it. In the view of many black women, this spoke to her sense of entitlement. She remains dismissive of Obama's candidacy and says he can't win the votes of the white working class, as if they were her longtime constituency. Her supporters have made clear that Obama should have waited his turn and portray his supporters as mindless minnows following him upstream only because he's black. This view grates on black women's nerves, especially because it's so patronizing.

I have tried to understand the depth of disappointment Clinton must feel after having worked so hard only to watch the crown jewel be seized by a candidate who came out of nowhere. Every time I start to soften on her, however, she says something so racially calculated that I get mad at her all over again. How would she explain the many FOBs (Friends of Bill, and presumably Hillary) and former Clinton cabinet members who have signed on with the Obama camp? Did they all become sexist pigs overnight? And what are we to make of the roster of alpha males leading the Clinton campaign who might arguably deserve the credit for running it into the ground. Why aren't her female supporters miffed about this?

A woman educated at Yale and Wellesley who can afford to lend her campaign $20 million becomes the standard-bearer for working-class white people? She's clearly not a coal miner's daughter. So how did she do this? She appealed to their most base racial fears and resentments. It's worth remembering that Clinton started the race with a large base of black support. Then she made it easy for black women to abandon her.