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Beyond identity politics

By ELLEN GOODMAN Washington Post Writers Group
Published May 18, 2007


BOSTON - I don't doubt Oprah Winfrey's marketing magic, although we don't know yet whether she can do for politics what she's done for publishing. Her endorsement of the candidate Obama may not be as successful as it was for the author Obama.

But ever since she gave a nod to Obama on the Larry King show, Oprah has brought some extra attention to a familiar and not always welcome question. Are African-American women, a large and loyal subset of the Democratic Party, going to be torn between two firsts? Will they be black-while-voting or female-while-voting? Or both? Or neither?

Right now, black support is split about evenly between Hillary and Barack. But while the polling numbers are small, there's strong evidence of a gender gap. Obama has a comfortable lead among black men while black women - Oprah notwithstanding - overwhelmingly favor Clinton.

There are, surely, many reasons for the support of either candidate. War and peace rank beside race and gender.

But I raise this question because black women in America have historically had the pieces of their identity sliced and diced - and they've been asked to pick one. They've been subject to loyalty oaths or disloyalty taunts. They've been talked about as a two-fer minority or a torn-in-two minority.

This tension goes back to Sojourner Truth's famous response to the ministers at the Women's Rights Convention in 1851. After listening to the white men defend women's inequality and gentility, the former slave reportedly asked, "Ain't I a woman?"

There were racists in the women's rights movement, but there were also sexists in the civil rights movement. After the Civil War, black women were expected to step back and support an amendment extending suffrage only to black men. When Truth rose again in protest, she warned, "There is a great stir about colored men getting their rights, but not a word about the colored women; and if colored men get their rights and not colored women theirs, you see the colored men will be masters over the women and it will be just as bad as it was before."

Of course, we don't need to go back that far to see these tensions. In his infamous confirmation hearings, Clarence Thomas described the sexual harassment charges against him as "a high-tech lynching, " thereby defining his opponents as racists. His African-American accuser, Anita Hill, was cast in female terms as "a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty."

Hill, now a Brandeis University professor, remembers many people who thought that believing her would "be denigrating to African-American men. They couldn't understand about the denigration of African-American women. They didn't even see my race, they saw me as a woman."

Time and again, whether during the O.J. Simpson trial or the Mike Tyson rape case, black women were often expected to take "sides."

Now, in the presidential race we have both a white woman and a black man in the top tier of contenders. At the same time, these are candidates who have, in many ways, transcended their race and gender.

Some folks are still asking whether the country is "ready" for a black or a female president. But for many African-American women, facing two attractive candidates is a pretty nice dilemma.

"I'm really a Pollyanna, " says Hill. "I really want this to mean that we've kind of broken through our set ideas that you have to choose, and that now we can look at people as individuals. Because we have options, it's a great place."

It would be ironic if these transcendent candidates heightened our tired identity politics. I'm betting, or hoping, they may help lay these conflicts to rest. But it's early in a campaign and in a conversation likely to offer juicy fodder for a talk show nation. Oprah, are you listening?

Ellen Goodman's e-mail address is ellengoodman@globe.com.

2007, Washington Post Writers Group