It's been debated for more than a century. But when this historic presidential campaign comes to a close next week, will we know the answer to the following question with any degree of certainty: Which more fervently permeates the fabric of American society, racism or sexism? I think we will, and I think the answer will be sexism. The 2008 campaign has demonstrated it is more politically correct to be sexist than racist. American culture tolerates sexism to a degree it would never tolerate racism.
Women clearly have made tremendous strides in this presidential race. Sen. Hillary Clinton became the first woman ever to win a state primary (or a series of state primaries, for that matter.) Gov. Sarah Palin became the first female vice presidential running mate on a GOP ticket. No matter what you think of either woman—and most of us have strong feelings one way or the other about each of them—they're both trailblazers, although in markedly different ways. Each has helped to bring the fantasy of a female president closer to reality.
Their various and sundry campaigns have lodged widespread complaints about sexism or racism in the media and in public perceptions of the candidates during this political season. Senator Clinton endured volumes of insults from mainstream media commentators comparing her, for example, to a " she-goat."
One Fox News commentator whined that every time Clinton opened her mouth, all any man could think of was his wife telling him to take out the garbage.
Talk show demon Rush Limbaugh made derogatory comments about Clinton, posing the question whether the nation wanted to watch her age in the White House (as if it's been fun watching him age—no Adonis he.)
Senator Obama has recently been the target of disgusting video pranks showing him at the center of a food stamp surrounded by watermelon and fried chicken. A dead bear cub, festooned with a pair of Obama campaign signs, was left at a prominent spot on Western Carolina University's campus. Obama's campaign has juiced up the skinheads and racists in unthinkable ways. He has clearly been attacked on the basis of his race, but not as thoroughly as was Clinton for her gender.
Even Governor Palin, who draws much more support, according to polls, from Republican men than GOP women, has been treated unfairly in the media, although not nearly to the extent Senator Clinton had to endure. Reuters recently photographed the governor from behind and between her legs, making it appear as though a young male supporter in the front row was peering up her dress. Have we seen Sen. John McCain thusly portrayed? Not quite.
The debate on whether American society is more racist than sexist began more than a century ago, when freed slave, abolitionist, editor, orator, and women's suffragist Frederick Douglass and women's rights activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton came to oratorical blows over it. Although both freedom fighters worked to advance the rights of women and freed slaves, Stanton was outraged that black men were able to vote after the Civil War (even though, for most blacks, the right was fleeting) and women were not.
As one Chicago blogger notes:
Stanton declared it to be a "serious question whether we [women] had better stand aside and see Sambo walk into the kingdom [of civil rights] first." Douglass fired back arguing the horrifying treatment black men endured as slaves entitled them the right to vote before women.
By today's standards, both figures seem preposterously "ist." Douglass should have considered the equally horrid treatment of black women as slaves. Stanton used the racist term "Sambo."
The New York Times reported in March that a poll revealed that "Americans think racism is a more serious problem than sexism in the United States today. In a CBS News poll taken last weekend, a plurality of Americans, 42 percent said racism was a more serious problem for the country compared to 10 percent who said sexism was the more serious problem."
I beg to differ, with the following explanation. White men still feel more comfortable sharing power with men of color than they do with white women or women of color. The 15th Amendment to the Constitution, granting black men the right to vote, was ratified in 1870. The 19th Amendment to the Constitution, granting women the right to vote on the federal level, came 50 years later. Old habits die hard.
I look forward to a time when racism and sexism are nonstarters in American politics. But the legacy of 2008 will be that we made more progress fighting racism than sexism.