04/23/2008 07:01 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Sexism, Racism and Why Neither Should Matter in the Clinton-Obama Race

It is disturbing that so many Democrats have come to think about the Clinton-Obama race in terms of whether blacks or women need advancement more. Gloria Steinem has argued that voting for a woman is critical because sexism is still taken less seriously than racism. A former colleague of Martin Luther King retorts that "it wasn't women as a gender that were shackled and put in slavery." Growing numbers of voters seem to see this nomination fight as a "statement" about how seriously their party takes race or gender issues. A poll in Pennsylvania last week even suggested that a quarter of Clinton's supporters and almost 20 percent of Obama supporters would vote for John McCain if their candidate did not receive the nomination.

How do we quantify who "needs" advancement more? Social inequality seldom works in a unilineal way that can be neatly summed up in a hierarchy of oppression. One group may have relative advantage over another in one arena but suffer worse discrimination in another. A few months ago, two men showed up at a Clinton rally with a large sign saying "Iron My Shirt." The press largely ignored the incident. But if someone had unfurled a banner saying "Shine My Shoes" at an Obama rally, or if a wrestling show regularly portrayed black men rather than white women being stomped on and having their clothes stripped off because they were acting "stuck-up," it would make front page news, and politicians would race to the microphones denounce such racism.

But does this mean the disadvantages of gender outweigh those of race? Today women in their 20s out-earn men in at least five major cities, while blacks continue to face hiring and wage discrimination. Recently, researchers randomly assigned names associated with African-Americans or whites to fictitious resumes that were otherwise identical in qualifications. Names such as Greg and Emily received 50 percent more callbacks for interviews than names like Lakisha and Jamal.

A black male executive may have the power to hire and fire white employees, but still be unable to get a cab to stop for him on a city street. A white female politician will have no trouble hailing a cab but may be thought of as a "bitch" for asserting herself in ways that would be admired in a male colleague of any race. Do we really have to decide whether a black man or a white woman "needs" the nomination more -- especially when the issues facing black women always get ignored in such debates?

We've had these debates before, and the only winners have been the people who profit from denying equal rights to African-Americans, women, and working people in general. Prior to the Civil War, black abolitionists and white women rights' activists were strong allies. In 1839, more than 14,000 women signed a petition to the Massachusetts legislature demanding the repeal of laws that discriminated against blacks and prohibited interracial marriage. Feminist and abolitionist Abby Kelley wrote: "We have good cause to be grateful to the slave for the benefit we have received to ourselves in working for him. In striving to strike his irons off, we found most surely, that we were manacled ourselves."

African-American abolitionists returned the sentiment. Former slave Frederick Douglass was a vigorous defender of women's rights. 'Right is of no sex," declared the first issue of his abolitionist newspaper, the North Star, in December 1847. The black abolitionist leader Francis Maria Steward insisted that the struggles for racial and sexual equality were inextricably intertwined.

But after the Civil War, when Republicans proposed the Fourteenth Amendment in 1866, penalizing any state that denied suffrage to its male citizens, the old coalition divided. Some were willing to support black male suffrage, in Frederick Douglass's words, "as the culmination of one-half of our demands." Others, like Sojourner Truth, urged pressing for universal suffrage "while things are stirring." In Kansas in 1867, the Republican-controlled legislature proposed two separate amendments to the Constitution, one for woman suffrage and one for Negro suffrage. Originally, the legislature urged a vote for both. As the campaign progressed, however, the Republican leadership took the position that both measures could not be passed, and actively worked against female suffrage. In retaliation, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony accepted the support of a notorious racist, George Francis Train, and published his anti-Negro comments in their pro-woman suffrage paper. In the end, both measures were defeated, and it took 20 years to re-establish the alliance between the two sides in the battle.

We saw the same divisiveness during the 1950s, when some leaders of women's rights argued that women needed political action on their behalf more than blacks did, and some black leaders responded that women's issues were frivolous because white women could at least marry into money and power. Supporters of Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities gleefully used the comments of each group to support their red-baiting of the other.

History clearly shows that the advancement of one group need not and should not come at the expense of another. The last thing we need now, at a time when working-class Americans of both genders and all racial-ethnic groups face so many mounting problems, is to turn the contest between Clinton and Obama into a referendum on whether the struggles of women or African-Americans are more important. We would do well to recall the nineteenth-century black abolitionist Charles Remond's plea for unity between supporters of woman suffrage and Negro suffrage. "Do not moral principles, like water," he asked, "seek a common level?"