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Racism, sexism and the US elections

This article is over 16 years, 4 months old
Abbie Bakan takes a look at the arguments about oppression that have been thrown up by the Democratic Party’s presidential primaries
Issue 2092

As president of the US, George Bush has brought us the “war on terror” and all the slaughter, racial profiling and occupation that entails.

No wonder there is such excitement about the elections in November that will see him finally leave the office of the president.

Much of this excitement has centred around the tight race between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.

It looks as though the 2008 election will be the first time there is a possibility of a black or female head of state in the US.

From the standpoint of challenging entrenched oppression, this poses some important questions. Racism and sexism are both endemic to capitalism – leading some on the left to see the Clinton v Obama contest as a “win-win situation”.

There is a grain of truth to this argument. Without the decades of struggle opened up by the US civil rights movement in the 1950s, there would not even be a hint of serious consideration that the White House could be anything other than white.

And for a woman to be elected to political office in a liberal democracy, not least the US, is still the exception rather than the rule.

Without the battles of the women’s movement that challenged sexist barriers in education, employment and reproductive choice, a woman in the president’s seat would also be unthinkable.

But that aside, changing the gender or colour of the leadership of the Democrats will do nothing to alter the nature of this pro-corporate, pro-military party.

A moment’s glance at what the two candidates say about the issues makes this clear – not least their views on the situation in Iraq and the wider “war on terror”.

Stephen Zunes, Middle East editor of Foreign Policy in Focus, writes, “Opinion polls have consistently shown that the majority of Americans believe that Iraq is the most important issue of the day, that it was wrong for the US to have invaded that country, and that the US should completely withdraw its forces in short order.

“Despite this, Hillary Clinton is a strident backer of the invasion who only recently and opportunistically began to criticise the war.”


Obama spoke out against the original US attack on Iraq in 2003 and he continues to oppose the war. But his record is hardly anti-imperialist. After his election to the Senate in 2004, he supported a series of votes to increase the presence of the US in Iraq after the original occupation.

He wants to see a long-term US occupation in Iraq and he supports the war in Afghanistan – to the extent of calling for more US troops to be deployed there.

And in an interview with the Chicago Tribune, Obama pointedly refused to rule out US military strikes on Iran or Pakistan as part of the “war on terror”.

Both Clinton and Obama are backed by huge corporate interests and depend on these to finance their campaigns.

On all the major issues concerning the US and world politics, Clinton and Obama agree far more than they differ.

It is precisely because there is so little substantive difference between them that issues of personality and identity, notably race and gender, have come to the fore – alongside the predictable entrance of gutter politics.

Clinton reflected the racism that remains just below the surface in US politics when she stated in January, “Martin Luther King’s dream began to be realised when president Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It took a president to get it done.”

The notion that a white president was more significant than the black civil rights leader – one who literally gave his life fighting for the most basic democratic opportunities for black Americans – was rightly taken as an insult by black people across the US.

What about Obama? He claims to be King’s heir apparent – but he deserves no such comparison. Obama has been seen as “electable” largely because he is so corporate, patriotic, and not “angry”.He only reminds voters that he is, in fact, black when it seems appropriate to gain support.

Some sections of the feminist movement are mimicking the mainstream pundits, using the Clinton/Obama contest to assert a very narrow and divisive view of women’s oppression that risks playing into the hands of racism.

Gloria Steinem, for example, a founder of the 1960s women’s movement and a high profile US liberal feminist, wrote in the New York Times:

“Black men were given the vote a half century before women of any race were allowed to mark a ballot, and generally have ascended to positions of power, from the military to the boardroom, before any women.”

Arguments like these that trade off one kind of oppression against another inevitably and shamefully end up downplaying the reality of racism.

Other feminists, however, have challenged Steinem. Melissa Harris-Lacewell, professor of African American studies at Princeton University, pointed out that Steinem neglected the real history of the vote in the US.

Black men may have had the legal right to vote, but they were “lynched regularly for any attempt to actually exercise that right”.

False debate

Socialists and others who oppose racism, sexism and capitalism would do well to resist being drawn into a false debate that sets up gender against race.

Sexism and racism are both forms of oppression that operate in capitalist society – and both are linked in various ways to class exploitation.

While the US election is important, the White House does not operate in a vacuum. The corporate elite understands very well how it can influence political power.

But there is another side. The mass of the working class, the poor and the oppressed have shaped US politics for generations – not least in the movements for civil and women’s rights, and against the war in Vietnam.

And this “other superpower” is the real force in US politics. Before and after the election, maintaining a mass anti-war movement is the key to the policies that follow – regardless of who is elected or what promises are made along the way.

Abbie Bakan is a professor of political studies at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, in Canada.

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