Monday, January 1, 2007

"Is America Ready for a Black or Female President?"

In anticipation of Senator Obama's pending announcement as to his presidential ambitions, much has been written of the man, his family, his name, and his primary competition (Senator Clinton). And much of what has been written has circled the question, "Is America ready for a Black or female president?"

In my opinion, the most thoughtful response offered thus far was from Al Sharpton, one-time presidential hopeful, who said something to the effect of ... America has never been ready to address race relations in this country. So it matters little as to whether or not the nation is ready. What matters is whether we, women and minorities, are ready because when we get good and ready to act, then we act, and then American must follow. For example, was America ready for the civil rights movement? Ready for the boycotts and the sit-ins? Their violent opposition suggests not. Rather, when we got tired of the segregation, of dissimilar and disrespectful treatment, then we taught America to get ready too. The question is not, then, whether the nation is ready, but whether we are ready.

The question is flawed in more reasons than one.

With regard to Hillary, the question is flawed because Hillary Clinton is no longer just a woman. Think about a stack of shelves. In terms of how we identify ourselves, and how society defines us, there are levels within our complex identities. On the bottom shelf, we are all humans. Above that, some are men, some women. Above that, we may be fortunate enough to add a career shelf from which we derive a sense of self: Lawyer, doctor, advocate, engineer. And then there are those whose religious lives contribute to their identities: Presbyterians, Catholics, Mormons, Jews, etc. Moreover, these identifiers are not equally weighted. For example, if I find my job unfulfilling, I may find it less important in defining who I am. The problem with the question, "Is America ready for a female president" is that it presupposes that the woman herself and society see her preeminent defining characteristic as her womanhood. But that's not the case with Hillary. Her career, her history, her husband, and a myriad of other "shelves" define her more than does her innate womanhood. A former Clinton aide said it best: "People don't view her first as a woman. They view her as a Clinton." Therefore, the question, "Is America ready for a female president?" doesn't come close to gauging Americans' true feelings about Hillary Clinton.

Furthermore, the question doesn't (or shouldn't) even apply to Barack Obama because he's not Black. He is bi-racial, born to a Black Kenyan father and Caucasian mother. Sure, he's dark enough to be Black, but if gradations in skin color is the primary determinant in racial identity, then Adam Clayton Powell was white. No, no, no. The color wheel won't work here. And neither will asinine statutes. I understand that prior to Reconstruction, the "one-drop" rule was necessary to maintain the dichotomous racial hierarchy that slavery necessitated, such that even light-skinned persons were considered slaves if they could not prove their ancestry. But why should such arcane statutes continue to define racial identity today? Aren't we above simple classifications? Aren't we beyond easy generalizations? To lazily lump every bi-racial person into a Jambalaya category we call Black is sloppy, disingenuous, and inaccurate. It deprives us of the opportunity to appreciate the contributions that Obama and other bi-racial Americans have made, including Tiger Woods, Adam Clayton Powell, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, and good gracious alive! Prince!!! All bi-racial. (I threw Prince in for fun.) Anyway, the point is this - The bi-racial experience in American is a unique and challenging one, and often rewarding in its own unique ways. To disregard that is both simplistic and offensive.

So when you ask, "Is America ready for a female or Black president?" I say this: Please rephrase the question. The real question is are you ready for a Hillary or a Barack?