The big­otry of worn-out stereo­types

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - Suzanne Fields

“Amer­i­cans are too racist for Barack/Amer­i­cans are too sex­ist for Hil­lary.” Says who? So says Ben­jamin Wal­lace-Wells, an es­say­ist promi­nently dis­played in The Wash­ing­ton Post. The head­line makes the case that red­necks, male chau­vin­ists and se­cret seg­re­ga­tion­ists in the sub­urbs are in­sur­mount­able ob­sta­cles block­ing the path to the White House for Hil­lary Clin­ton and Barack Obama.

The Post puts no ques­tion marks af­ter his as­ser­tions that the Amer­i­can pub­lic may not be ready for ei­ther of them to lead be­cause of his race and her sex. But, per­haps think­ing bet­ter of it, The Post added ques­tion marks in its on-line edi­tion. But even as ques­tions th­ese ideas are rem­nants of an outof-date big­otry. They clearly don’t ap­ply to the sen­a­tors from New York and Illi­nois, and there’s grow­ing ev­i­dence that they don’t ap­ply to any­one else, ei­ther.

“Re­cent polls have found that the per­cent­ages of Amer­i­cans who say they would not vote for a hy­po­thet­i­cal black or fe­male pres­i­den­tial can­di­date, long for­mi­da­ble, have dwin­dled into sin­gle dig­its,” con­cedes Mr. Wal­lace-Wells. In­deed. Stereo­types pro­vide short­cuts for big­ots, who ar­gue with ex­ag­ger­a­tion and sim­pli­fi­ca­tion, but nei­ther Barack nor Hil­lary — to use the first name fa­mil­iar­ity now af­flict­ing pub­lic dis­course — suf­fers from pub­lic gen­er­al­iza­tions about race or “gen­der.” They have been ex­am­ined and tested in the pub­lic fo­rum. Barack talks about him­self as a walk­ing sym­bol of “di­ver­sity,” with a white mother from Kansas and a black fa­ther from Kenya, the tri­umphant ex­am­ple of Amer­i­can pos­si­bil­ity. He’s no Char­lie Ran­gel or Jesse Jack­son; it’s easy to lis­ten to him and never think of his color. He may suf­fer from lack of ex­pe­ri­ence, but not his race.

Hil­lary suf­fered, lit­er­ally and fig­u­ra­tively, as Bill Clin­ton’s up­pity wife in the White House, a mov­ing po­lit­i­cal tar­get, but she’s been elected on her own in New York and it’s not her gen­der that’s a prob­lem so much as the in­con­sis­ten­cies of her leaps from mod­er­ate to lib­eral to con­ser­va­tive and back again to lib­eral, and her ob­tru­sive, ob­streper­ous, phi­lan­der­ing hus­band who has noth­ing to do now but talk, talk, talk. “Buy one, get one free” won’t be a Clin­ton slo­gan for ‘08. Nor is Hil­lary a Geral­dine Fer­raro, who was fairly un­tested in the na- tional eye when she ran for vice pres­i­dent on the Demo­cratic ticket in 1984, and who was re­duced to talk­ing about her muf­fin recipes.

Jews are large stereo­typ­i­cal tar­gets of big­ots, and yet in his cam­paign as an in­de­pen­dent for the Se­nate Joe Lieber­man suf­fered none of the pub­lic prej­u­dice that of­ten be­dev­ils Jews. This wasn’t a prob­lem when he ran for vice pres­i­dent with Al Gore in 2004, ei­ther, not even among the de­vout sec­u­lar­ists who thought he talked too much about God.

Mitt Rom­ney, a Mor­mon, how­ever, is one pres­i­den­tial pos­si­bil­ity who might be vul­ner­a­ble to stereo­typ­ing. The gov­er­nor of Mas­sachusetts (not Utah) could suf­fer the slings and ar­rows tossed around on “Big Love,” the raunchy television sit­com on HBO about a Vi­a­gra-pop­ping Mor­mon hus­band with three needy wives and lots of whin­ing in­laws. The Church of Je­sus Christ of Lat­ter-Day Saints no longer per­mits polygamy (nor does the law), though some “jack Mor­mons” in Ari­zona and Utah still prac­tice it in re­mote places on the shady side of the law. Mitt Rom­ney ought to be able to fi­nesse the re­li­gious is­sue with a Jack Kennedy-like state­ment: “I am not the Mor­mon can­di­date for pres­i­dent. I am the Repub­li­can Party’s can­di­date for pres­i­dent who also hap­pens to be a Mor­mon. I do not speak for my church on pub­lic mat­ters — and the church does not speak for me.”

But the jokes, some fun­nier than oth­ers, would be mer­ci­less. Are there still racists and male chau­vin­ists in our midst? You bet. (Bo­rat is get­ting rich as a make-be­lieve bigot.) But they don’t have the im­pact they once did. Nancy Pelosi draws at­ten­tion to the fact that she’s a grand­mother in the House, con­jur­ing as­so­ci­a­tions that run against type in dis­cus­sions of lead­er­ship. Barack Obama gives strong voice to Bill Cosby’s re­minders that ac­cept­ing per­sonal re­spon­si­bil­ity and civil be­hav­ior is the short route out of the ghetto, that real men prove their man­hood by tak­ing care of the chil­dren they sire. His crit­ics sneer at Mr. Cosby as part of the “Afris­toc­racy,” the black elite, play­ing to the stereo­types of the racists, but both he and Mr. Obama im­press ev­ery­one else as con­fi­dent, com­pe­tent and ready for prime time.

Con­fi­dent and com­pe­tent blacks and women are no longer the ex­cep­tions on the land­scape. They grew up from the grass-roots that gave them le­git­i­macy based on merit and ac­com­plish­ment, not ap­peals to pity and char­ity for over­com­ing past prej­u­dice. The old car­i­ca­tures, like the soft big­otry of low ex­pec­ta­tions, are out. They’ve come a long way, baby. So have we all.

Suzanne Fields, a colum­nist for The Wash­ing­ton Times, is na­tion­ally syn­di­cated.

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