The election of Barack Obama to the US Presidency in 2008 did not mean that racism had ended in the United States. And neither will the election of former First Lady and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to the same post mean the end of sexism in that country. Whether she will be the first woman to ever be President of the United States is, in the first place, itself problematic.
Before Barack Obama, every US President since George Washington had been from the majority white community. And no woman has ever been US President. Among the world’s most developed countries, the United States is almost alone in never having had a woman head of state (Germany has Angela Merkel; the United Kingdom had Margaret Thatcher). Even the less developed countries of Asia have had women heads of state, among them the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, India and Pakistan.
Barack Obama’s election as the first African American to ever hold that post was itself widely celebrated in much of the world and among the black community in the US as an indication that not only had the color barrier been breached, it also meant that racism was in retreat across all 50 states of the Union. But the latter has proven to be an illusion. Not only has Obama himself been the subject of virulent racist attacks; assaults, harassments, and even the killing of non-whites in the US have continued, at times by police forces. Numerous public opinion polls have also established that the white majority is prejudiced against people of color, particularly African Americans.
But why did Obama win the popular vote in 2008 and again in 2012 despite the vast reservoir of racism in the US? One of the reasons is his campaign’s being more organized, and his opposition to the invasion of Iraq and pledge in 2008 to send US troops home, which appealed to the educated and more enlightened segments of the population. But it also had to do with the fact that Obama’s campaign boosted the number of black voters who trooped to the polls to remove the Republicans from the Presidency.
Also among the reasons is that although Obama won 69 million votes (53%) out of 131 million votes cast in the 2008 election compared to his opponent John McCain’s 46%, the number of people who actually voted in that election represented only 64% of those eligible to vote. (In contrast, there have been elections in the Philippines with close to 80% voter turnouts.)
The above figure was already an increase over the number of those who voted in the elections of 2000 and 1996. Historically, only some 60% or less of those qualified to vote in the US have voted in US presidential elections. The figure in 2008 (131 million) — which declined in 2012 to 117 million — meant that some 46% of those qualified to vote, among them many whites, didn’t. Obama received only 40% of the votes of white male voters who did vote, while he received practically no votes among Southern white male voters.
In 2012, Obama’s votes were 100,000 less than those of McCain’s in 2008, although he did win over Mitt Romney by winning 50% of the popular vote compared to Romney’s 48%.
Among the implications of these numbers is that most of those who voted in both elections were committed to electing Obama in 2008 and re-electing him in 2012, while many of those antagonistic to having an African American for President did not vote at all.
The indicators of post-election resistance to a non-white President, once Obama had been elected, included the formation of the Tea Party and “Birther” movements, whose members’ attacks against Obama have had a strongly racist undertone. (Among their calls: “Bye, bye black sheep” and “Go home, Kenyan.”)
Obama won the Democratic Party’s nomination as its candidate in 2008 by defeating Hillary Clinton — primarily, said US pundits at the time, because party leaders thought that Obama had a better chance of winning the Presidency, which suggests that they believed that it would be more difficult for a woman to win against the Republican candidate. This has moved some US commentators to suggest that sexism is more difficult to address than racism. Some studies have established that Americans can more easily look at, say, black athletes as athletes rather than as blacks, but can’t ignore an athlete’s being female rather than male.
US history and current reality tend to validate how much more difficult sexism is to deal with. American women won the nationwide right to vote only in 1920 (in the Philippines, women won that right in 1937), after being repeatedly denied that right in the late 19th century. And as The Nation has pointed out in Steven Hill’s “Why does the US still have so few women in office?”, “the alarming reality is that American women are still vastly underrepresented in elected offices all across the nation… women still hold less than 20% of congressional seats, despite composing a majority of the US population.”
Hill continues: “Compared to other nations, the United States is losing ground. (The US) now ranks 98th in the world for percentage of women in its national legislature, down from 59th in 1998. That’s embarrassing: just behind Kenya and Indonesia, and barely ahead of the United Arab Emirates. Only five governors are women, including just one Democrat, and twenty-four states have never had a female governor. The percentage of women holding statewide and state legislative offices is less than 25%, barely higher than in 1993. Locally, only 12 of our 100 largest cities have female mayors.”
The implication of these numbers for the candidacy of Hillary Clinton should be clear: she’s going to have a difficult time winning the US Presidency in 2016, first because she’s a woman, and, second among other reasons, because she has been identified with the administration of the first African American to ever become US President (she was Obama’s Secretary of State). She’s going to have to contend with racism and sexism.
What’s in a race or a gender? In the country that claims to be the leading democracy on the planet, and which for over a hundred years has arrogated unto itself the right to impose on other countries what its leaders think is best for them — why, nothing less than the chances of one’s winning or losing an election, and the difference between mocking the claim to democratic governance and making it credible.
Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).
The views expressed in Vantage Point are his own and do not represent the views of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility.
Published in Business World
April 16, 2015