Sister Christian: An Open Letter to Hillary Clinton’s Disenchanted Supporters

Ask any black woman or white man and they’ll tell you that no one likes white women more than black men. So, assuming that she’s a genuinely pissed-off supporter of Sen. Hillary Clinton and not a plant from the Karl Rove School for Scoundrels, as a black man, I am reluctantly forced to admire the now well-publicized tirade of Harriet Christian in the lobby of the DNC rules committee meeting last weekend as a sorely needed display of righteous indignation at, well — anything. After seven years of most of us standing idly by and watching the Bush administration’s faux-conservative slouching toward Gomorrah, it’s good to see that Americans can still get mad about something.

But she’s mad at the wrong people at the wrong time. To the possible indictment of American overestimation of our own capacity for “liberté, égalité, fraternité”, our former mother country (Margaret Thatcher), our Mideast ally (Golda Meir), and two large Muslim nations, (Tansu Çiller and Benazir Bhutto) have elected women heads of state before we have. If America had a parliamentary system, Clinton would likely already be the head of state, as evidenced by the rise of the ultra-liberal but consummately establishmentarian Speaker Nancy Pelosi in the House of Representatives — the closest thing America has to a Prime Minister. But in a country where Presidents are selected for their potential as beer drinking companions, Clinton found her voice and hit her stride too late to comeback from her initial positioning as the message-less, establishment frontrunner.

Prior to her tenure as a Senator, Clinton received far too much criticism for supposedly not playing the role of a traditional first lady, even though her mostly conservative critics could never assail her on her commitment to her husband and her nearly flawless work as a mother. As an elected leader, she received perhaps too much praise for her pragmatism, even as the defining moment of her Senate career was a vote cast in the most calculating fashion in favor of a war that has been a devastating national catastrophe.

While she’s not quite Susan B. Anthony, or even Veronica Corningstone, Clinton’s ingenious legacy is that she saw 40 years in advance what few others did: that the first woman to make a run at the Presidency would do so by marrying a charming Rhodes Scholar and making him go first. If you believe in subverting the dominant paradigm from the inside out, then she’s your feminist hero.

But the cruel, yet fair conclusion to draw from her candidacy is that every day that Clinton has remained in the race, once she was all but mathematically eliminated, has reinforced an anti-feminist framework wherein a woman candidate would not accept that in such a competition, someone has to win and someone has to lose. Part of the unwritten job description of the primary runner-up, from Lyndon Johnson to Mitt Romney, is to get in line behind the nominee, not to sandbag him in the secret hope that he stumbles and leaves the field open for the next election. Just imagine if the delegate count was reversed and Senator Barack Obama was sticking it out, “just in case.” As The Washington Post‘s Lou Cannon writes, “Will she choose to be Ronald Reagan in 1976 or Gerald Ford in 1980?”

Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Clinton waves to supporters during a campaign stop at the University of Miami in Miami, Florida, Wednesday, May 21, 2008. (Nuri Vallbona/Miami Herald/MCT)

Clinton may yet have to accept the irony of her status as the Reverend Jesse Jackson of 2008 for her insistence on remaining in the primary long past her sell-by date. Jackson, in 1984 and 1988, ran classic protest campaigns — a self-appointed spokesman for the tired, weary, huddled masses of the progressive left, organized labor, and many people of color. He did relatively well electorally, particularly in 1988, and roused his supporters with the slogan, “Run Jesse, Run.” The operative word being “run”, not “win”, as there was no thought — either from Jackson’s supporters or opponents — that he could win.

Jackson proved that there were other constituencies within the Democratic Party that demanded to be heard, but he also demonstrated that he was not a realistic choice to govern. Now Clinton, who has offered herself up as the spokesperson of women over 50 and blue-collar Appalachniks has done her own, “Run Hillary, Run” to nowhere in particular, apparently trying to “Keep Hope Alive”.

Feminists will be the first to say that all it takes is the slightest innuendo for a woman in any position — military officer, corporate executive, American Idol judge — to be branded as a shrew or a jezebel if she doesn’t strike the perfect balance of femininity, and she will be unfairly and arbitrarily defined from the male perspective. So it goes for African Americans, or more specifically, one African American, Barack Obama. Any hint along the way by Clinton that his blackness is a buffer between Obama and the “hard-working Americans, white Americans” that he seeks to lead is picked up and run away with as an artificial reason why he may be unfit to lead.

The ultimate tie-breaker in terms of figuring out who has faced a tougher uphill climb to the top of the political pyramid probably has to be African American women — represented demographically by both Democratic Presidential contenders. At the start of 2008, African American women had no requirement, moral or otherwise, in the context of this election, to go for the “inadequate black male” candidate. For the last 30 years, black women have been doing most of the breadwinning, most of the child rearing, and most of the leading in the African American community. Had black women chosen to break for Clinton, who could have blamed them? So the fact that black women have instead moved, first in a trickle, and then in a deluge, away from Clinton and toward Obama — who has assumed the mantle of standard-bearer for liberal values, social justice, and an underrepresented America — should signal more than any other metric.

It wasn’t clear six months ago that Clinton wasn’t the African American candidate. It was only a little over two years ago that the Clintons “killed” at Coretta Scott King’s funeral. Over the last 16 years, we’ve seen images of the Clintons clapping and swaying at black churches, reading books to little black children, and generally cozying up to black folks in a variety of circumstances. From the time that Clinton broke out his bad-boy sunglasses and tenor saxophone on The Arsenio Hall Show he has been putting everyone on notice that Bill and Hillary are, “down with the brown”.

For her part, Sen. Clinton titled her first book, It Takes a Village, after a quasi-African proverb, “it takes a village to raise a child”. She compared a Republican-controlled Congress to a plantation while speaking at a black church, and until recently, affected enough ethnic lilt in her voice at select campaign events to pull off a convincing, “You go, girl!”

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama acknowledge the crowd during an election night rally at the Xcel Energy Center on Tuesday, June 3, 2008, in St. Paul, Minnesota. (Jerry Holt/Minneapolis Star Tribune/MCT)

But this was washed away by the effort the Clintons have made to separate Obama from white voters who otherwise might be willing to branch out to a black candidate. It started with Bill Clinton’s South Carolina comments and led up to Hillary Clinton’s reference to Bobby Kennedy’s assassination within the context of her the current campaign. The Clintons have found a way to separate white votes from Obama but also to separate black votes from themselves.

Two years ago, my wife — a Gen-X Claire Huxtable with left-leaning views and a buttoned-down temperament — was pouring through Clinton’s Living History and pondering her responsibility as a woman to work for Clinton’s election in 2008. Now she feels betrayed by the Clinton campaign’s quixotic mission to portray her as a victim of steamrollering chauvinism, even though Obama and his surrogates never suggested that she leave the race or spoke an ill word of Clinton’s qualifications based on gender. In Betsy Reed’s instantly seminal dissection of race and gender in this campaign, Professor Patricia Hill Collins sums up this disappointment: “Clinton has manipulated ideas about race, but Obama has not manipulated similar ideas about gender.”

And it can’t be an accident that no less staunch figures and rising woman stars of the Democratic party, Senator Claire McCaskill, Governor Janet Napolitano, and Governor Kathleen Sebelius, in addition to Democratic icon Caroline Kennedy and Oprah Winfrey, billionaire and unofficial spokesperson of white women worldwide, all early on endorsed Obama’s candidacy over Clinton’s, though no one could have faulted them had they gone the other way. I will take their vision over that of former Representative Geraldine Ferraro, who I once proudly quoted in my first job interview, but who now I can only feel was “lucky” that she only lost in 49 and not 50 states when she was on the Democratic ticket in 1984.

Everyone seems to be worrying about how to bring disaffected white women back into the Democratic fold — a valid concern, to be sure. But why is there less consternation among the political cognoscenti about how to keep African Americans within the Democratic fold if the Clintons, the Party, or these same white women pull the rug out from under Obama in the coming months? African Americans voted nine to one for Bill Clinton — twice. Only African Americans voted 90 percent for Al Gore and John Kerry. If every demographic group voted along the lines of African Americans, the world would be a different place right now. Perhaps it’s time to at least consider the sentiments of the Party’s most loyal voting bloc on par with the sentiments of women, another loyal Democratic constituency.

Theories abound as to why Obama was able to rapidly rise to the top, particularly in the opening stages of the campaign, when he opened up a sizeable delegate lead over Clinton. For starters, he did a better job of stereotype management. Not only did he not do or say anything to feed into frequently pernicious stereotypes of black men, but he went out of his way to go in the other direction. His mastery of the stereotype goes beyond his oratorical skills — the “he speaks so well” syndrome. Obama has, with his résumé, his upbeat tone, and even his nondescript “even Steven” haircut, positioned himself as the metaphorical love child of Al Gore and Will Smith — the perfect brew of debonair and nerdy that is the only formula possible for a black man trying to win the US Presidency. The signature moment perhaps being his dance with Ellen DeGeneres in the intro segment of her show, immediately recognizable as the rhythmically proficient, yet stylistically bland “white boy shuffle” that cast him as somewhere to the left of Pat Boone but far to the right of Rick James.

Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama speaks at a campaign rally at the Bank Atlantic Center in Sunrise, Florida, Friday, May 23, 2008. (Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun-Sentinel/MCT)

By contrast, early on Clinton did not do enough to dispel stereotypes associated, rightly or wrongly, with women. When Clinton courted voter sympathy after her third-place finish in Iowa, she embraced the role of the beleaguered woman. When she complained at the February 26th debate in Cleveland that “I seem to get the first question all the time,” she portrayed herself as the girl candidate instead of the frontrunner and presumptive Democratic nominee. When racial tension entered the campaign in the form of Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Obama obliged the public with a plenary address on his views about race. Clinton never availed herself of the same opportunity to lay out her vision of what, specifically, a woman would do in The White House the way Obama did with his Philadelphia speech.

The silver lining is that there will almost surely be a woman President one day. Any notion that there’s no one ready to come off the bench after Clinton leaves the game is unfounded. Expect to see a Chelsea Clinton Congressional campaign before long. If a mother can serve in the Senate while her daughter serves in the House under a woman Speaker, then a Sebelius can make it to the Oval Office — if she courts everyone’s votes the way Obama has in the current campaign.

African Americans are waning as the major minority group in the US. In sheer numbers, the country looks more and more like its largest state, California, which for some time has had more Latinos and Asian Americans than blacks. Demographically speaking, this really is the last chance for an African American to reach The White House. The third time may be the charm, but Obama can’t get there without support from an assortment of constituencies, including white women — it takes a village — that’s part of what coalition politics is all about.

It’s probably fair to say that when Jesse Jackson ran for President, he wasn’t planning on writing the anti-playbook for the future candidacy of a biracial Harvard guy 20 years his junior, but he did. So while Clinton is running out of options to be the “first” something — every big job other than Senate Majority Leader, including Governor, Attorney General, and Supreme Court Justice, has been occupied at least once by a woman — her greatest contribution, in the end, to women, may be laying the groundwork for the first woman President. Someone who has all of Clinton’s strengths, and a little less of her baggage. In other words, Clinton has made it that much easier for the woman Barack Obama, whenever she comes along.

David Swerdlick is a former contributor to Creative Loafing, Charlotte’s independent weekly newspaper. His writing has appeared in The American Prospect and AlterNet.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) speaks at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference in Washington, D.C., Wednesday, June 4, 2008. (Chuck Kennedy/MCT)