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Identity Crisis?: Black Women in the Political Debate

smitchells Icon Posted by Shireen Mitchell

January 29th, 2008

With a woman as front runner for the Democratic nomination, gender has been a factor in media coverage from the beginning of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, with media regularly focusing on descriptions of her clothing, hair and makeup, her “cleavage” and her “cackle,” way before her “misty” almost-crying moment made headlines. The gender frame has gotten in the way of substantive coverage of Clinton’s record in office and what her legislative agenda would look like.

I had been sitting back waiting for discussions of race (and, I feared, practices of race-baiting) to become an equally explicit part of the political debate. Obama purposefully kept discussions of race quiet in the earlier part of his campaign, but in our society we are so conditioned to make judgments based on what we see that no one missed that he had dark skin — certainly, media never let us forget it. But up until recently, race hasn’t been as blatant a news frame as gender has been. We’ve seen hints of it throughout election year campaign coverage — remember all that “Is Barack Black enough?” lunacy, summed up by a TIME magazine piece with that same title? — but I knew it was only a matter of time before the issue of race moved from a few nasty sidswipes to the dominant frame for election reporting and commentary… and I worried that when the time came, the coverage would be similarly focused on racial identity over issues. Sadly, that day has arrived.

Recently, media seized upon remarks from Clinton about Martin Luther King Jr. to discover that black women must be having a difficult time deciding who to vote for because of the convergence of race and gender. Story highlights like “Women are torn between voting their race, or voting their gender” on CNN report: Gender or race: Black women voters face tough choices in S.C., as if black women were having an identity crisis.

This oversimplification has angered many but has at least brought cameras into Black beauty salons (as a recent episode of NOW on PBS did before the South Carolina primary) and college campuses such as Spellman and Bennett colleges, Black women’s schools. What are educated young women thinking about this debate? The first question reporters ask is almost always whether they are voting for a woman or a Black man — they are not asked first, and sometimes not at all, about the actual issues that are important to them and their families. That question angered Black women across the country, from daytime talkers Whoopi Goldberg and Sherri Shepherd (who discussed their frustration at the media focus on identity over issues on their chat show, The View) to bloggers like Afrobella, who wrote:

Instead of examining the key political issues at hand, everything is being reduced to race and gender, and disturbing stereotypes are coming into play. To wit — CNN became the topic of their own story after writing a god-awful article that neatly compartmentalized the choices facing black female voters in this problematic sentence — “For these women, a unique, and most unexpected dilemma, presents itself: Should they vote their race, or should they vote their gender?” As though political issues don’t have a factor in making a decision. GTFOH with that, CNN.

Congress woman Eleanor Holmes-Norton was asked about the debate on PBS’s “To The Contrary”, and her answer leads me to believe that she has been disconnected from many woman who live around the capital and wouldn’t agree with the comments she makes here:

The show’s host, Bonnie Erbe (who is not a Black woman), had heard from other women of the African American community who said they wouldn’t agree with Norton’s comment. Although Holmes-Norton may not recognize this, just because “women” or “Black America” are mentioned, this doesn’t mean that the candidates are talking about issues that are important to Black women. However, she does mention that Black women are not looking just for some race or gender debate. “We are far more sophisticated than that” she states:

Media seem to have “found” Black women in relation to this supposed electoral identity crisis. But Black women were getting hit the hardest when the economy first started to go down hill, but reporters and commentators weren’t really interested. Black women were having a hard time getting and keeping jobs. The shift from a labor-based to a knowledge-based economy and the outsourcing of jobs has had an evident toll among many in the African American community. The outcry was only heard locally, though — these issues have rarely made it into major media. Now that the economy is becoming central in the political debate, all of a sudden some in the media seem interested.

Issues about healthcare, the economy, housing, and child care are key topics. Hillary Clinton knew this when she appeared at the Tavis Smiley debate at Howard University and received a standing ovation when she mentioned HIV, and how if young white woman were affected in the same way as young Black women, more would be done about it:

“You know, it is hard to disagree with anything that has been said, but let me just put this in perspective. If HIV/AIDS were the leading cause of death of white women between the ages of 25 and 34, there would be an outraged outcry in this country.”

Regretably, Clinton hasn’t mentioned that in the national debate. If Clinton would have discussed HIV on the national stage (instead of the referencing Martin Luther King Jr. in ways that many feel were trivializing toward the civil rights leader, and that were turned into a contentious, race-baiting firestorm by the media), she could have raised an important issue that Black women would have stood behind. It’s frustrating that Clinton chose to discuss HIV’s disproportionate impact on Black women only at a debate within the Black community, rather than in a forum that is understood to have more “mainstream” attention. If she had, she could perhaps have refocused the campaign itself — and campaign coverage — even briefly on public policies that have impact along race and gender lines, rather than on the identity politics of race and gender that exist simply because a white woman and a Black man are competing for the nomination.

In the Washington, DC area the top three issues that have been identified by Black women (in focus groups by organizations similar to DC’s Women’s Agenda) are jobs, housing, and child care . Not necessarily in that order. If the media would do their research, they’d recognize that a more relevant first question to pose to Black women would be something like, “What issue is most important to you as you decide who will get your vote: the economy or education?” Yet we keep getting stuck with reporting that centers on whether Black women are having an identity crisis choosing between the first “woman” or “Black” president.

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