Friday, May 23, 2008

Hillary Clinton and the "Possessive Investment in Whiteness"

Here is an interesting essay from Arica L. Coleman over at the History news Network, titled, "Hillary Clinton's Possessive Investment in Whiteness." She writes,
... while Hillary’s strategy [to play the race card] holds significance for the present, the precedence for her campaign tactic can be found in the late 19th century women’s suffrage movement as white women, in competition with black men for the vote, argued if they could not be given the vote because they were women, they should be given the vote because they were white.

And goes on,
Hillary in a last ditch effort to clench the nomination is spinning the election narrative to demonstrate her appeal to white Americans and to appeal to white Americans in staunch language which suggests that a vote for Hillary Clinton is a vote for whiteness. Because whiteness is constructed in this society as the norm, race is often viewed as something people of color have, but that white people do not. Hence, Clinton, throughout this protracted campaign has been given a pass on her race. As writer Alice Walker stated:

One would think she is just any woman, colorless, race-less, past-less, but she is not. She carries all the history of white womanhood in America in her person; it would be a miracle if we, and the world, did not react to this fact. How dishonest it is, to attempt to make her innocent of her racial inheritance.

Hillary’s attempt to claim her racial inheritance, by appealing to white solidarity, has its historical precedence in the 19th century suffrage movement led by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. During Reconstruction, as the issue changed from abolition to equal rights, the question of racial equality and women’s rights became competing ideals in American politics. At this time, the 15th amendment was being considered which would grant voting rights to black men, excluding women regardless of race. Although white women had a gender disadvantage, they benefited from the patriarchical system of white supremacy, granting them a status in American society only second to white men. However, the ratification of the 15th Amendment, as white women saw it, would threaten that status. Therefore, it was upon the premise of race and not gender that the woman question emerged. If black men were enfranchised leaving white women disenfranchised what would be the status of white women?

While black women activists varied in their views concerning their support of the 15th Amendment, a majority were not ready to align themselves with white women in the name of gender solidarity. Women, such as Frances E. W. Harper, believed the plight of black people in general, and black women in particular would fare no better by locking arms with white women. She believed black woman's activism was based on the uplift of the race, while white women’s activism sought to uplift themselves. Harper saw this as counterproductive stating, "The white women all go for sex [gender], letting race occupy a minor position...but...being black means that every white, including white working‑class women, can discriminate against you" (Giddings 68).

Anthony and Stanton proved Harper’s assessment of black women’s double jeopardy to be correct. When it became apparent that Congress would not grant both black men and white women the suffrage, but rather would choose between the two, Stanton and Anthony laid claim to their racial inheritance by urging Congress to grant them the vote not because they were women, but because they were white. After the 15th amendment was ratified on February 3, 1870, Anthony published an article in a feminist newsletter, The Revolution, which she and Stanton launched with the financial backing of a wealthy Democrat stating:

While the dominant party [Republican party] have with one hand lifted up TWO MILLION BLACK MEN and crowned them with the honor and dignity of citizenship...with the other they have dethroned FIFTEEN MILLION WHITE WOMEN...and cast them under the heel of the lowest orders of manhood. (Giddings 66)

Anthony’s articulation of the defeat of women’s suffrage in such staunch racial terms was not uncommon in the 19th century and for much of the twentieth century. Her disappointment reflects not only her frustration of a dream deferred, but more important the failure of Congress to uphold the possessive investment in whiteness, to use George Lipsitz’s term, a racial inheritance that would be denied to white women for another fifty years. Yet, in this first decade of the 21st century, as America continues to struggle to come to terms with its racist past and present, Hillary’s use of the same overt language to garner support for the Democratic nomination has been widely criticized as reckless. Her statements violated a code of silence by articulating what many believe should remain unspoken. As Lipsitz states in his article “The Possessive Investment in Whiteness,” “As the unmarked category against which difference is constructed, whiteness never has to speak its name, never has to acknowledge its role as an organizing principle in social and cultural [and political] relations." (61-62) And either should it as Lipsitz further explains, “. . . since the passing of civil rights legislation in the 1960s, whiteness dares not speak its name, cannot speak on its own behalf, but rather advances through a color-blind language radically at odds with the distinctly racialized distribution of resources and life chances in U.S. society.” (80) Hence, the wide condemnation Hillary Clinton received for deploying nineteenth century Anthony/Stanton politics was not because she laid claim to her racial inheritance, but rather because she violated the code of modern day polite society by voicing it in public.

Whether the results of the current Democratic primary will parallel the results of the 19th century political schism between black men and white women remains to be seen. While black men indeed gained the suffrage before white women, the emergence of Jim Crow delayed their ability to exercise the franchise for almost a century. The struggle for women’s suffrage would continue for another fifty years before white women nationwide received the franchise with the ratification of the 19th amendment in 1920. The pressure for Hillary to cede the race is mounting. Many believe the longer she remains in the race, the more she hurts Obama’s chances of defeating McCain in the general election. If that happens we will once again squander a historic moment which may take generations to recapture. Let’s hope not.

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