Wednesday, August 27, 2008

A Disturbing Comment

Last night I was glued to my TV and computer screen, watching the coverage of the Democratic National Convention. In the run-up to Senator Hillary Clinton's speech, PBS was discussing the historic nature of her candidacy and the women's vote (it was also the 88th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote). One of the commentators, historian Michael Beschloss, said something that really didn't sit well with me.

He was discussing voting rights and noted that when President Lindon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (which allowed black people to vote a century after they had actually received the right) he noted that the true measure of the law's success would be an increase in black voter turnout and black elected officials. He then went on to say that Johnson would be pleased to see Senator Barack Obama's success, but that it's a shame that it's disgraceful that after all these years there still has not been a woman elected president.

Now, of course, he's right. It is disgraceful. Certainly over the history of our nation there have been women capable of holding our nation's highest executive office. And, judging from the failings we have seen in history I am certain that we would have been better off with those women than with the men we elected in their place (George W. Bush comes to mind). However, the way in which the statement was made, contrasted against some perceived black political success, is what bothered me.

Consider the following. The statements came a few hours after a string of remarks by about eight of the twelve women in the United States Senate – a great underrepresentation but about 1200% more than the number of African Americans in the same body. Yes, there is only one African American in the Senate, and if things go as those gathered at the convention hope there will be ZERO, because that one senator, Barack Obama, is running for president.

Consider that in order to defeat Clinton in their hard-fought primary battle, Obama had to overcome violent racist threats against him, disgusting and untrue rumors, and an opponent who was not above exploiting racial fears to get a vote. Remember that in some states, over a quarter of the voters said that race played a role in their decision making. Obama was walloped in those states.

Consider the Florida fiasco of just eight years ago. Many believe, and there is evidence to suggest, that African Americans were targeted and unjustly barred from the right to vote in that election. Those that were unjustly disenfranchised outnumbered the George Bush's margin of victory in the state, meaning that not only did racial disenfranchisement continue into the modern era, but it changed the course of history. It lead to further erosion of civil rights, an abandonment of our public schools, a further delay in health access for all, more pollution, a crippled economy, and an unjust war.

So, as we celebrate the triumphs of the Women's Suffrage Movement, let us be careful not to re-write history. Let's not forget that while black men received the right to vote before women, it took a century for that right to be realized. Let's not forget that when the 19th Amendment was ratified, many black women did not see an actual increase their rights. As we honor the great achievements of Senator Clinton, let us not in doing so forget the struggles of women like Shirley Chisholm. While it is important to recognized the struggle for rights fought by various oppressed minority groups, it is not appropriate to contrast these struggles against the imagined success of other groups. To do so is to insult that group by ignoring the struggle it is in.

1 comment:

historiann said...

Kevin--I agree with you. I wrote about this early in the primary, especially the Democrats' unseemly self-congratulatory attitude about Obama's successes when the party has done very little to polish and promote African American candidates. (I think it was a post called "What is the sound of N=1 hand clapping?")

And Beschloss is an idiot. He seems to be very ignorant of anything outside of presidential history before Harry Truman.