Thursday, April 24, 2008

Race Matters

The post-primary election talk around the lunch table at the office today included a discussion of the impact of race on the outcome. Confirming Ed Rendell's prediction, Ed the Rant-dell, the LLWL Gang* agreed that racial attitudes no doubt factored in (and/or was responsible for) Obama's loss in Pennsylvania. A colleague of ours who spent election day in South Philly expressed his shock at the pervasive level of racism that he experienced while canvassing for Obama.

Of course, that's not to say that everyone who voted for Clinton is racist, but a look at the map showing the election results tell the story best. See THE VOTE COUNT and Suburbs helped fuel Clinton win. And, despite the fact that we aren't supposed to talk about it, The Contest, race is still a big issue in the Keystone State. See also, For Democrats, Questions Over Race and Electability.

As a side note, it's also interesting (but not unexpected) that the day before the election, predictions were that a result of 10 percent or less would be a loss for Clinton, yet the day after the news is all about the big win she had and whether Obama can overcome, notwithstanding that he still is leading. The media just loves spinning the spin.

Our lunch conversation then turned to the issue of which is more pervasive in our society -- racism or sexism? We were fairly divided on the issue, but most seemed to think that sexism is more fundamentally ingrained in our psyche (we're all women, after all, so what did you expect?).

It's true that sexism is a tool used to marginalize, as noted in Sexism is candidate Clinton's primary opponent:

No one has called Barack Obama a witch.

No one has suggested John McCain is too ambitious.

No one has disparaged Mitt Romney for misting up.

No one has accused John Edwards of faking emotions.

No one has depicted Mike Huckabee as calculating.

No one has critiqued the pitch of Rudy Giuliani's voice.

No one says male presidential aspirants are cold or feisty or careless about their cleavage (or any other anatomical feature). If they tear up, or even - gasp! - cry, no one says men are too weak to run the country. If they blow a gasket (a la Bill Clinton), it's manly. If they blow off a question (classic Reagan), it's strategic.

But when a woman has a chance to win the presidency, all bets are off. It's no conspiracy; this is America.
The Boston Globe also considered the issue, in Black man vs. white woman, focusing on studies on the issue:
But turn away from the campaign trail, and toward the laboratories where psychologists work, and a fascinating portrait of the primaries emerges. For decades, researchers have been probing bias -- how it arises, how it changes, how it fades away. Their work suggests that bias plays a more powerful role in shaping opinions than most people are aware of. And they suggest that the American mind treats race and gender quite differently. Race can evoke more visceral, negative associations, the studies show, but attitudes toward women are more inflexible and -- to judge by the current dynamics of the presidential race -- ultimately more limiting.

'Gender stereotypes trump race stereotypes in every social science test,' says Alice Eagly, a psychology professor at Northwestern University.

* * * *

Race and gender are both traits that we cannot help but notice. One hundred milliseconds after we have first laid eyes on someone, we have made a determination about their race; 50 milliseconds later, we have determined their gender. But the reactions are not identical.

When psychologists talk about bias, they use three technical categories: stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination. Stereotyping is cognitive bias, the tendency to ascribe people a set of traits based on the group they belong to (e.g., "black people are good at sports," "Jews are cheap"). Prejudice is an emotional bias, disliking someone because of their group identity. And discrimination is how we act on the first two.

Sexual prejudice isn't terribly common -- male chauvinists don't dislike women, they just have particular ideas about their capabilities and how they should behave -- but with race, stereotypes tend to go hand-in-hand with prejudice.

I also have to say that I think it's still considered somewhat acceptable to express sexist views. See also, Is Misogyny the Last Taboo?. On the other hand, it's generally understood that racist thoughts need to be silenced, expressed only in code or justified in some other way.

I wrote about the sex vs. race issue at the beginning of the year, Are You Ready?, discussing a piece by Mark Morford, from the San Francisco Gate, who pondered the question whether the country is ready for the first black or woman president. In The woman vs. the black guy, "Who's more terrifying to red states, smart Hillary or savvy Barack? The nation trembles." The reality is, both are alive and well. But, as Morford says, we need to forget about it & focus on the race to the White House.

As I said then, it would be deliciously ironic, to say the least, if the one good thing to come out of the failed Bush presidency would be that the Democratic nominee, whether Obama or Clinton, would prevail in the general election, despite the race or sex of the candidate. That the backlash against his disastrous reign would serve as the impetus needed to get us past this barrier.

Ending on a lighter note, The Daily Show had a great analysis on the race vs. sex factor:

* LLWL = Lady Lawyers Who Lunch (a/k/a my officemates)

UPDATE (4/25): For more on the impact of race on the race in Pennsylvania, see Dan Rubin's column on the election, Political paradox muddles Montco, as well as a follow up piece at his blog, The Trouble With Obama.


BAC said...

I also think it's that it's still somewhat acceptable to express sexist views.

Sadly, it isn't "somewhat acceptable" -- it's absolutely acceptable. A quick look at almost any pundit on television these days verifies it.

It seem less acceptable to make a racist express racist views, but I agree there are people who find ways to get their point across.

Both sexism and racism are clearly wrong, and clearly still part of our culture. One can only hope that this election will begin to get people to focus on BOTH of them, and how we can begin to eradicate them.

The only person we have any control over is ourselves -- so that seems like a good place to start. We also need to call out sexism and racism when we see it. We must make it completely unacceptable behavior.

I'm pretty sure this can't be accomplished by November, but hopefully this primary will get people talking.


JudiPhilly said...


When I used the term "somewhat acceptable," I meant that only some people feel free to be openly sexist (such as Chris Matthews). Others tend to show their misogamy in the same way that racism is shown -- through code and conduct.

I've also mentioned several times before that I believe it is becoming more socially acceptable to express racist views generally. The increase in bigotry against Arabs, Muslims and immigrants that our country has fostered in the past 8 years has opened the floodgates.