Law in Contemporary Society

Truth and Reconciliation: Barack or Black, Hilary or Clinton

-- By MichaelBrown - 18 Feb 2008

Part A: The Idea

The idea is simple, the consequences are not. What do we make of the fact that the presumptive democratic nominees and potential future president will be either Hilary Clinton or Barack Obama? What do we make of the fact that the first Black President may not be “black” and the first woman president may not be a “woman.” This election has the power to obfuscate or clarify issues of race and gender.

By “black,” I mean the descendant of slaves in America. Race is a social construction and blackness in America means having one drop of blood associated with the slavery. By “woman,” I mean viewed independently of a “man.” Ideally from a feminist standpoint, the first woman president would be elected based not on family lineage or her husband’s achievements, but her own.

Part B: The Consequences

Bye Bye “Blackness”

Reading Barack’s win as the win of a “black” person in a social science sense serves as a racial project. As the son of a White woman and a Kenyan immigrant father, he represents many different things. He can represent hope and the future because his background does not invoke the past – which is a critically important distinction between a “black” person running for elected office and Barack. African immigrants such as Barack make up 620,000 individuals in America. “Blacks” make up 39 million or 13 percent of the population. African immigrants have the highest average level of education compared to any other group including Asian immigrants and Whites.

While African immigrants experience discrimination, Whites are able to distinguish between immigrant black populations and “blacks.” Mary Waters demonstrates this in her book, Black Identities. Her book cites examples of employers firing all “blacks” in a given industry but retaining and seeking out West Indian Immigrants. Other statistical studies of resumes confirm her research’s conclusions.

A sincere consequence served by characterizing Barack’s presidency as “the first black presidency” is that it will serve to downplay the disparities between the “black” population in the United States and other groups. In the past few years, scholars have identified that affirmative action programs are benefiting African immigrants(among other groups) such as Barack more than “blacks” with over two-thirds of the “black” population of peer institutions to Columbia being comprised of non-descendants of slaves in America. Characterizing Barack as the first black president encourages us to say goodbye to what blackness historically has meant. There may be an argument of an evolving definition of “black” but I’m not sure it can reconcile the numerical and historical concerns. Blackness in America carries with it lingering stigmas and the racial project of characterizing his presidency without specificity has consequences.

Stand By Your Man

The consequences of Hilary’s characterization stem from different conceptual issues but still are worthy of note. Biologically a woman, the question remains whether “politically” as a candidate she is one. Many voters have made clear that they are voting for her because of her husband. In terms of the study of gender and feminism, it is important to address the fact that the first viable woman candidate is the wife of a former president. It is important that while she has made attempts to distinguish herself as Hilary that she is evaluated not as another woman would be evaluated but as a Clinton.

The consequence of this is Hilary’s campaign opens the door for more projects that seek to discriminate on the basis of gender. The lingering proposition that her entire presidency will be a repeat of her husband’s and that he is behind her success undermines the significance of being “the first woman” president. Feminism studies routinely show credit allocation to men for the achievements of women. Like Barack, the difference between her and other women politicians makes for uneasy digestion. The fact that her husband was a former president signals that the office is still out of reach for women who continue to break through glass ceilings in society. The idea of attainment of success via marriage is something that reinforces long lasting notions of inequality between men and women.

Hilary has used her first name strategically in her campaign to highlight her individuality. She has asserted the importance of being the first woman president. As well, has gone on record stating the differences between past policies of her husband and her plans for the future. Despite this, she is continually evaluated differently from her other male competitors for the presidency. The evaluations of her suggest that this is an all or nothing question. Rather than being a question of voting for Hilary Rodham Clinton, the question is whether she is Hilary or whether she is Clinton (implicit in the surname Bill). This prevents her candidacy from representing an ideal “first” for women.

If the question lingered before with respect to the ability of women to achieve this office, if the answer is only via marriage in America that consequence is laced with concerns for its implications.

Part C: Solutions

I believe the best road to a solution involves a conceptual truth and reconciliation. First, we must acknowledge and accept the fact there is a descriptive representative issue with both of these candidates that may or may not have normative implications for the future. Second we must not let the labels applied to them serve implicit projects that don’t advance the groups in question. Only in truth can we avoid the consequences outlined above.

If we apply principles relating to class action suit representativeness to these two, it is debatable they would suffice as litigants but this is where the conversation should begin. Have they suffered the same injury as members of their “group?” Does their candidacy adequately represent the other members of the class that the media wishes to label them? A part of finding the right solution is identifying the problem in the right way. I hope this is a start.

  • I don't understand the premise of this paper at all. The conclusion plainly implies that the rationale of each candidacy hinges on whether each candidate is an appropriate representative of the "victims" of something. Because neither of the candidates would agree that this is a necessary, sufficient, desirable or present element of the campaign, it's not clear for whose benefit a conversation of this sort would be carried on, or what the purpose would be. Are we asking whether to call the campaigns something they don't call themselves? If so, as a disputes about names rather than things it ought not to attract realist attention for a nanosecond. Are we trying to establish why voters should not vote for candidates based not on their judgment of the candidates themselves or their programs but on whether they are not other candidates who would be running with other programs for other purposes? You needed to establish why your question is significant.


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r5 - 12 Jan 2009 - 23:00:11 - IanSullivan
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