Hillary Clinton and the Possessive Investment in Whiteness

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Ms. Coleman is Assistant Professor of Black American Studies at the University of Delaware.

Now that the North Carolina/Indiana primaries are over, many are hearing the death knell of the Clinton campaign as Barack Obama’s path to the Democratic nomination appears imminent. Notwithstanding her overwhelming defeat in North Carolina and narrow victory in Indiana, which did nothing to bring her closer to narrowing the delegate gap, Clinton is not ready to cede the race. In her victory speech, even while the news outlets were still reporting that Indiana was “too close to call,” Clinton assured her supporters, “. . . it’s full speed ahead to the White House.”

But with the math, the money and the momentum against her, California Congresswoman Diane Feinstein (D-Cal), a staunch Clinton supporter, inquired of the New York senator “What’s your game plan?” According to Mike Barnicle, Clinton’s only recourse is to deploy a racialize strategy as his article title suggests: “The Only Thing the Clintons Have is Race.” Barnicle asserts, “Now, faced with a mathematical mountain climb that even Stephen Hawking could not ascend, the Clintons -- and it is indeed both of them -- are just about to paste a bumper sticker on the rear of the collapsing vehicle that carries her campaign. It reads: VOTE WHITE. Such a plan became apparent within hours after the May 6 primary results were in, making it the most talked about news story of the day. Nevertheless, while Hillary’s strategy holds significance for the present, the precedents 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.

Race baiting has been a recurring feature of the Clinton campaign as efforts were begun early to brand Barack Obama “the black candidate,” thus raising questions about his electibility. In addition, racially tinged comments made by Bill and Hillary regarding Obama’s candidacy were viewed as personal attacks against the Illinois senator and criticized by many as playing the race card. Consequently, the strategy proved costly for the campaign and the couple as African American voters, feeling a sense of betrayal, withdrew their support. Blacks had helped the Clintons win the White House, twice. They stood with them uncompromisingly during the Lewinsky scandal and impeachment proceedings. They had even dubbed Bill “the first black president.” To employ “the big black scare,” to use the words of Ofari Hutchinson, was viewed by many African Americans as a slap in the face. Certainly, a percentage of Blacks would have defected to the Obama camp as his chances for the nomination increased. Nevertheless, at best the two Democratic candidates would have split the black vote. Well, at least until the Clintons botched things up.

Now that her chances of winning the nomination are down to 2.3% as of this writing as calculated by Slate, it appears that Hillary has assumed a more overt racialized strategy by appealing directly to whites to woo superdelegates and voters in remaining primaries to favor her as the Democratic nominee to face McCain in November. Assessing the North Carolina defeat and slim win in Indiana, the Clinton campaign stated “we are pleased with the outcome.” Why? Because the exit polls, according to their interpretation of the data, demonstrated Hillary’s increasing appeal among white voters. Ben Smith of Politico and other analyst have contested this interpretation. Nevertheless, as reported by M. S. Bellows who participated in a press telephone conference the morning following the primary:

The Clinton campaign's analysis of yesterday's results was largely based on exit polling and a careful parsing along demographic -- mainly racial -- lines that seemed to track the campaign's recent strategy of dispatching Bill Clinton to speak to small groups of rural, almost exclusively white, Southern voters. Wolfson emphasized Clinton's support among white voters, saying, "in North Carolina among the white electorate we started even... and ended up with a 24 point advantage with that part of the electorate." Comparing Clinton's relative performance among white voters in North Carolina yesterday with her weaker performance with white voters in Virginia earlier in the race, Garin said: "Virginia is the closest white electorate in the country to the electorate that participated in North Carolina. We lost the white electorate in Virginia... [but] ended up with a significant vote" among whites in North Carolina. . . .At points, the Clinton representatives' demographic parsing bordered on surreal. Wolfson seemed to imply that gasoline prices are primarily a white issue, suggesting that Clinton's proposal for a gas tax "holiday" had helped her with white voters and promising that she would continue urging that proposal on the stump. In response to a pair of questions about whether African Americans would support Clinton in the general election, Wolfson repeatedly referred to Obama's "passionate supporters," seeming to conflate the two.

To continue the racialized strategy to reinvigorate the campaign, the day after the telephone press conference in an interview with U.S.A. Today, Hillary spoke of her appeal to white voters stating:

I have a much broader base to build a winning coalition on. . . As evidence, Clinton cited an Associated Press article "that found how Sen. Obama's support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again, and how whites in both states who had not completed college were supporting me."

Hillary in a last ditch effort to clinch 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 precedents 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?

Susan B. Anthony along with Elizabeth Cady Stanton approached long time abolitionist and women’s rights advocate Frederick Douglass concerning the forging of an alliance that would bring before Congress the issue of the enfranchisement of blacks and women jointly. The women approached Douglass not only because he was a black male leader, but also because black men supported women’s suffrage far more than their white male counterparts. In 1867, Douglass, along with various black male activists, attempted to an alliance with Anthony and Stanton by forming the American Equal Rights Association (AERA). Anthony and Stanton, in an effort to gain the support of black women, encouraged them to seek the vote lest they become slaves to black men. According the Paula Giddings’s When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America (1984), “Stanton warned that if black women weren’t given the ballot, they would be fated to a triple bondage that man never knows. . . . It would be better to be the slave of an educated white man, than of an ignorant black one,” (65). Ironically, Stanton’s statement subordinates gender to race by placing a premium on whiteness, betraying a less than genuine concern for the interest of Black women as 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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Jeremy Young - 5/23/2008

Professor Coleman, don't let the other commenters get you down. This article is a masterpiece. I'll be writing it up at my own blog momentarily.

Oscar Chamberlain - 5/22/2008

"But race was not the issue they ran on."

Sometimes at the state level advocates of women's suffrage did run on race. At the 1895 South Carolina state constitutional convention, advocates of women's suffrage argued that allowing women to vote would increase the number of white voters more than the number of black voters and this would be a better way to reduce the black vote's influence than the more fraudulent approaches advocated--and implemented---by the majority.

However, I do agree with your main point. To simply state that many suffrage advocates were racist is misleading unless one remembers that the vast majority of whites of all political persuasions at this time were racist.

Lori Rogers-Stokes - 5/22/2008

The fact that women's rights advocates were racist does not mean that they asked for the vote because they were white. They did this only in the context of comparing themselves to black men given the right to vote. Doesn't make that racism right, of course! but it does contextualize it.

Women primarily asked for human rights because they were human beings, not because they were white. Racism dogged the 19th century organizations. But race was not the issue they ran on.

arica coleman - 5/22/2008

I apologize for putting out a less than perfect article, but your inference is incorrect and unfair. I proofread the article several times in fact and sincerely regret that I did not catch the missing words that you point out. However, your title "Write better" does not come across as constructive criticism, but rather an insult. I am certainly embarassed that there are glitches in the article. I am sure the editor regrets it as well. I have brought it to his attention but I am unsure if there is anything he can do about it at this point. Thanks for bringing this to my attention. I will certainly do my best to avoid such mistakes in the future. In the meantime, if you truly have concerns about the overall quality of the work submitted here on HNN, you should contact the editor yourself at editor@hnn.us. Perhaps you can volunteer your services as a proofreader?

James W Loewen - 5/21/2008

This piece continues a recent spate of careless writing errors in HNN articles. Words are left out, wrong words are used, etc. Either HNN should edit them, or you need to ask authors to revise and resubmit. These errors merely make it clear that the author did not bother to reread her work. If she didn't read it, why should we? -- that's the logical inference.

James W Loewen - 5/21/2008

The racism shown by some suffragists during and after Reconstruction was much worse than the more subtle ways the Clintons have played the race card. Indeed, it split the women's movement, with a minority, the "American Woman Suffrage Association," including Lucy Stone and Julia Ward Howe, leaving Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and the "National Woman Suffrage Association," unable to take their open racism.

Lori Rogers-Stokes - 5/20/2008

It's unfair to portray women's suffragists as primarily playing the race card in an attempt to make Congress "vote white." That's because it is dubious in the extreme to say that "although white women had a gender disadvantage, they benefited from the patriarchal system of white supremacy, granting them a status in American society only second to white men."

Women were, before the vote, as the Seneca Falls Convention so succinctly put it, "legally dead." What exactly were the benefits of white patriarchy? Not being able to own property, bring a lawsuit, sue for divorce, own money, have custody of one's children, work when married, resist the unwanted sexual advances of a husband... or vote.

The "advantage" white women had was being publicly celebrated as "angels" but, on a daily basis, humiliated and subjugated.

The "two million black men v. 15 million white women" argument the suffragists were making was not that white trumps black, but that if a government claims to be democratic, it cannot empower a minority of its populace (black men) on the basis of sex while continuing to subject the majority of the populace (white women) on the basis of sex.

I agree with every depressing thing you say about the Clintons, but to paint women's rights activism and activists as 19th-century Hillarys is just too inaccurate.