The Role of a Politician’s Identity: Intellectual Wars on the Left

The intellectual frameworks that feminism and Africana studies present to progressive politics inform Democratic politicians of the rhetoric, policies, and practices necessary to achieve racial and gender equality. Much like how labor movements and socialists have shaped the left, black, feminist, and black/feminist scholars are responsible for making the Democratic Party the “party of minorities, women, and marginalized groups.” I briefly discussed this perception of the Democratic Party in Race and Political Context: The “First Black President” Reconsidered. One of the challenges for politicians on the left whose identity falls into one of these marginalized categories, is demonstrating the extent to which they advocate for their group.

Senator Cory Booker had his racial identity challenged when running for mayor of Newark. His opponent, incumbent mayor since 1970, Sharpe James, referred to him as “the faggot white boy.”  Attacking a candidate’s racial, gender, or religious identity, in my opinion, is morally repugnant and should be off limits in even the most vicious attacks. It is unacceptable that Republican politicians claim that female politicians “play the women card” and wouldn’t get 5% of the vote if they were men. It insults not only the candidate, but voters who make educated political decisions. There does exist however, an appropriate way for one to assess a politician’s relationship with their marginalized identity. I openly admit, that as a black person, it is extremely uncomfortable for a white person to engage in such criticisms of a black politician. As I examine Hillary Clinton’s relationship with feminism, I will try my best to restrain my criticisms, as those who are not white men understand that feeling of violation or misunderstanding that minorities and women experience when assessing candidates that descriptively represent them.**

**(Side note: For a white person to attack a black politician the way Cornel West has, calling Obama a “Republican in Black Face”, would be racist and exemplifies why people should tread lightly in their identity critiques. The sensitivity of this issue is defined by the implications of identity based criticisms. A white politician questioning Cory Booker’s blackness is profusely much worse than a black politician doing the same.)

Ta-Nehisi Coates took the first black president to task on how he addresses black people, specifically black men. Coates rightly notes that some of the president’s comments on the black community mirror conservative dogma on black cultural pathologies. Other black political commentators such as Michael Eric Dyson have also criticized Obama among other black politicians and figures. Such black intellectuals reject the emphasis on blaming the black community for its own problems. Dr. Dyson accuses Obama of “racial procrastination”, claiming that the president has been slow to respond to racial issues, and in affirming the concept of black empowerment. These scholars however, realize that black politicians operate under the constraints of white supremacy. This means that black politicians run the risk of getting attacked in a way described in the prior paragraph, or accused of political favoritism, helping others who share their identity.

Similarly, female politicians such as Hillary Clinton operate under the constraints of patriarchy. As I said before, I as a man feel that it is out of place for me to delegitimize Hillary Clinton’s feminism, to belittle her identity as a woman. But I do recognize and understand feminist critiques of Clinton. Just as black scholars have critically analyzed Obama, feminists have expressed concern with the way Hillary Clinton articulates her policies and views.

Hillary Clinton’s rhetoric on abortion for example, has generated the ire of pro-choice feminists. On abortions she has said they should be “safe, legal and rare, and by rare I mean rare.” Dr. Tracy Weitz states the consequences of what this means:

“…rare suggests that abortion is happening more than it should, and that there are some conditions for which abortions should and should not occur…It implies that abortion is somehow different than other parts of healthcare…We don’t say that any other medical procedure should be rare.”

It would be asinine to compare Republican anti-abortion rhetoric to what Hillary Clinton has said, but it is clear that there is a degree of stigma that she articulates. I realize and accept that just like Obama’s relationship with white voters, Hillary Clinton wants to maximize her chances by not angering men, or conservatives. It is unfortunate that the constraints of patriarchy, just like those of white supremacy, force female politicians into holding their tongue on certain issues. But the question becomes, could Hillary have avoided saying that? Could she have avoided saying that much like Obama could have avoided saying:

“If Cousin Pookie would vote, if Uncle Jethro would get off the couch and stop watching SportsCenter and go register some folks and go to the polls, we might have a different kind of politics,”

Admittedly, my colleague Jack makes some great points against feminist Gal Collins, in Billary. But as I noted previously, a good amount of male voters will only see Hillary Clinton through a lens that only captures the success of her husband. Conversely, as Trump has foreshadowed, the negatives of Bill Clinton’s administration will also be used against Hillary. As Jack rightly proclaims, Hillary Clinton is not responsible for her husband’s policies. Unfortunately however, as we have seen with liberal attacks against Hillary Clinton that unfairly tie her to her husband’s policies, Republicans will undoubtedly do the same. By clinging to Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton will get a boost in the polls. But even with Bill Clinton’s popularity, it is still unclear if this will be as effective and practical as conventional wisdom says it will be, especially with a loose cannon such as Donald Trump being her opponent. The free-trade bashing demagogue will certainly go after Bill Clinton’s most famous trade policy, NAFTA. That along with Hillary Clinton’s  support for free trade deals makes for a much more precarious election.

Returning to feminism, and the specific issue of Hillary Clinton utilizing Bill Clinton, Jack says that on misogyny “If she can cancel some of that out by appealing to people who think Bill will be running the White House behind the scenes, all the power to her.” But for many feminists, this area is just one of many where Hillary Clinton appears to be lacking. Jack says that “The ultimate feminist move for Hillary Clinton is to become the first female President…”, but several other groups of feminists would beg to differ.

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Because of the long argument in the comments section, here’s a summary of the complicated points of the post:

My thesis: people outside of a marginalized group need to be careful and sensitive when discussing certain issues relating to the group, and additionally aren’t allowed to comment on *certain* things. Additionally, marganlized (black, women, gay, etc) perspectives have inherently more value when discussing their marganlization.

 

 

For Jack in the comments section, besides the Ras Baraka video I posted, this would be another example of something a white person shouldn’t say regarding blackness, as I stated in my existential argument. Note that it would be acceptable for a black person to say this, but not a white person.

Additionally, a white person criticizing Beyonce for not being vocal on racism since the start of her career is another example of the privilege bias. A person outside of a marginalized group can be an ally of the community, not a part of it.

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To better illustrate everything I said in this article, specifically the added conclusion with Beyonce, if the white author added to her article and stated that Catherine Pugh, the black woman running for mayor, would be a bad politician for the black community because she didn’t address race enough, that would be an inappropriate thing to say. As a white person she cannot make those value based judgments for the black community. If Pugh won the mayor race and black vote, it may mean that symbolic successes such as descriptive representation are valued by the black community in a way that she can almost never understand. This point is similar to the historic election of Obama, the first black president, considered “deracialized” or having a “post racial, colorblind campaign.” A white person in 2008 saying Obama should not be elected by the black community because of a lack of race specific appeals has no say in the internal struggles of the marganlized community. As I said quoting this tweet:

Here’s a prime example of the paradoxical and paternalistic nature of outside support of marganlized groups

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15 thoughts on “The Role of a Politician’s Identity: Intellectual Wars on the Left

  1. I want to defend your criticism of Clinton here. Nothing you’re comes close to saying “belittles her identity as a woman.” Sharpe James is 1000 miles from anything resembling legitimate criticism that it doesn’t serve as good example of how bad criticism could work. Ex this is pretty strongly negative about Baltimore’s black female mayor on race from a white women but there’s nothing wrong with it, IMHO. Also received well on twitter if I recall. http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/metropolis/2016/04/baltimore_s_next_mayor_doesn_t_want_to_talk_about_racism_almost_every_issue.html

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    1. Also, key point to be made here. Just as you say it is more important that Hillary Clinton becomes president despite how she does it, that equally applies to the Baltimore situation. The difference is, is the identity of who is suggesting what. As a white person outside of Baltimore, the author misses that said black mayor might be the best option for black people in the community. She might be the best for any number of reasons, policy-wise or ideological(black existential/descriptive representation).

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      1. OK yes arguments exist that could rebut her “said black mayor might be the best option for black people in the community. She might be the best for any number of reasons, policy-wise or ideological(black existential/descriptive representation).” but 1) do you agree with them? and more importantly 2) do you think it’s in any way an offensive article?

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      2. I don’t know enough about Baltimore politics, and am not a resident of the city so I don’t have any judgements. The article was not offensive to me but that type of article from a white author could very easily be construed as such.

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    2. To better illustrate everything I said in this article, specifically the added conclusion with Beyonce, if the white author added to her article and stated that Catherine Pugh, the black woman running for mayor, would be a bad politician for the black community because she didn’t address race enough, that would be an inappropriate thing to say. As a white person she cannot make those value based judgments for the black community. If Pugh won the mayor race and black vote, it may mean that symbolic successes such as descriptive representation are valued by the black community in a way that she can almost never understand. This point is similar to the historic election of Obama, the first black president, considered “deracialized” or having a “post racial, colorblind campaign.” A white person in 2008 saying Obama should not be elected by the black community because of a lack of race specific appeals has no say in the internal struggles of the marganlized community. As I said quoting this tweet:

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  2. Another thing all those pieces at the end assume Sanders is still in the race I’m talking about Trump vs. Clinton. Also this seems to be the whole “arguments exist” frame instead of making those arguments. I can find my own links too it doesn’t really prove anything.

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    1. I think what you keep missing is that I present other arguments, because they are stronger coming from women. It really isn’t my place as a man to define what the feminist agenda should be.

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  3. Race and gender debates in politics tend to be tricky, and can get it convoluted based on the identity of an author or speaker. I would like reiterate what I said in my side note, that the implications of identity criticisms matter, and also depend on the identity of said critic. What I mean by this is that Bernie Sanders really can’t critique Obama the way Coates did. The reason why the identity of the critic matters is because the debate quickly becomes an existential question about a marginalized group. In terms of black existentialism(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_existentialism), it is unacceptable for a white person to enter the black domain and criticize black leaders regarding their blackness in their quest for racial change.

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    1. So does that Slate piece qualify as a white person “entering the black domain and criticizing black leaders regarding their blackness in their quest for racial change.”

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      1. No, because she does not talk about her blackness, and Catherine Pugh appears to not be in a quest for racial change, as evidenced by her reluctance to mention racism as an issue. Interestingly though, her success in the polls so far maybe because black voters(not just people) don’t see racism at the local level in their communities as a top issue the way the author does. (http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2010/01/12/blacks-upbeat-about-black-progress-prospects/) Additionally, that author as a critic should beware of her tone. Imagine her criticizing current mayor of Newark Ras Baraka on race, who is considered very culturually black by Newark residents. That specific black community who holds Baraka in high regard racially, would be very offended by Ms. Cohen.

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  4. Finally, about the abortion thing, it’s just meh. 1) I think she’s been pretty strong making this an issue in the campaign and in general that’s why Planned Parenthood endorsed her. 2) She’s obviously trying to get to appeal to the moderate middle on this issue. This vox piece really good: http://www.vox.com/a/abortion-decision-statistics-opinions 39% of Americans don’t identify as stictly pro-life or pro-choice. And saying abortion should be rare may not be the most liberal framing but it doesn’t have any negative policy consequences. While this isn’t necessarily the choice and I think criticism is legit obviously it’s better to have her saying Abortion should be rare than Trump getting elected and repealing roe vs wade

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  5. 1) I don’t think a 2010 Pew study supports your point about black not caring about racism in their communities.
    2) I don’t understand your criteria here. If someone is “culturally black” what does that change? I assume you’re comparison holds everything else equal, i.e, if Ras Baraka said the same things Pugh did would the same article be inappropriate?

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    1. Trust me, I’m aware of how important black people think dismantling structural racism is. I’m saying at the *local* level, in this particular case a black politician in a majority black city (Baltimore) may need to emphasize *immediate* demands by voters. One can look to any case study in black politics in majority black cities, where black mayors’ campaigns center around universal themes listed in the Pew survey such as jobs, education, and crime.
      And on point 2, the significance of a politician’s cultural blackness is just more so to help you and others understand how ethically tenuous it is for a white critic to scrutinize a black politician’s relationship with blackness. I think there is a fine distinction between policies and rhetoric, as I discussed the latter in my post. Coates also delineates between the two, as he reminds readers that Obama and Paul Ryan had similar rhetoric, but different policies regarding black people. If Ms. Cohen were to say Ras Baraka shouldn’t talk to black people like this (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xCm_Oqg12h8) it would not be her place to say that.

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  6. This tweet sums up the sometimes paradoxical relationship between progressives and marginalized communities:

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