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The Conversation Begins

October 11, 2016

Barack Obama will leave a legacy of historic achievement in areas like health care, energy independence, and climate change. His approach to important decisions will be a model for study in political science classrooms for generations, as was John Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban missile crisis. But President Obama’s greatest achievement, even though we won’t be able to measure its full scope for decades to come, has been the American conversation about race that his presidency has prompted.

In retrospect, I freely admit, I was naïve about President Obama’s election in 2008. I was focused on his election as an indicator of racial progress. What I failed to see was that his election would also provoke a massive racial backlash.

I think it is to the credit of race liberals generally, and African-Americans in particular, that we were slow to say out loud that President Obama was being treated differently than previous presidents on account of his race. It was right, tactically and historically, to let the backlash prove its own racial bias.

The Tea Party phenomenon that grabbed hold of the Republican Party within a few months after Obama took office was an early indication of the scope of the racial backlash to come. The backlash has never relented.

Certainly by 2012, we understood that the Tea Party, birtherism, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s promise to keep President Obama to a single term, Congressman Joe Wilson’s “you lie,” absurdly innumerable and futile attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, two shut-downs of the federal government, an all-too-credible threat to default on American credit, and a thousand other acts of hostility to the President were motivated at least in very large part by deep racial biases that remain in this country.

Bill Clinton famously tried to start a “national conversation about race” in 1997, but the conversation never really took off. It turned out that saying we needed to have the conversation wasn’t an effective way to start the conversation. President Obama started the conversation simply by being African-American and occupying the White House.

Obama has taken heat for not talking enough about race, but I don’t agree with that criticism. Just by being our first African-American president, Obama is talking about race 24/7/365.

The Obama presidency – more precisely, the backlash against the Obama presidency – has prompted the previously elusive national conversation about race. The conversation is nearly ubiquitous – it happens on the opinion pages of newspapers, in workplaces, on cable news shows. We have seen an explosion of scientific research into the nature and scope of unconscious biases, racial and otherwise, that changes the conversation from an unproductive conversation about racism to a much more productive conversation about implicit bias.

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On Friday, the Washington Post published a three-minute segment of a conversation between Donald Trump and Billy Bush that was videotaped in 2005. Bush, a minor TV star who is the son of George H. W. Bush’s younger brother and a first cousin of Jeb and George H. Bush, adopted the role of fan-boy and wingman, letting Trump lead the conversation. Trump played the role of himself. The subject was women, in particular Trump’s manner with women, and the tone was vulgar.

The bulk of the conversation consisted of fairly crude objectification of women, and Bush freely joined that part of the conversation, speaking just as crudely as Trump did. But at one point Trump went farther: he described his compulsion “like a magnet” to kiss beautiful women, either without their consent or relying on his celebrity to gain their consent; and he said his celebrity enabled him to “do anything” with or to women, including “grab them by” their genitals.

Trump’s immediate defense of his videotaped comments was that the conversation was just “locker room banter,” presumably implying that such “banter” is harmless. But subsequent events confirm the accuracy of Trump’s description of kissing women whose consent was at best dubious, making that part of the conversation a description of actual conduct, not just “banter.” (No one has yet come forward to say that Trump grabbed her genitals.)

The “locker room” defense was deeply offensive, and not just to women. Professional male athletes, who spend a lot of their time in locker rooms and other all-male environments, expressed indignation at Trump’s implicit assertion that Trump’s brand of predatory sexual crudity is routine.

I’ve been in all-male environments, gym locker rooms and elsewhere, and I can attest that Trump-like objectification of women is quite common. But I can’t remember any instance of “locker room banter” where men talked in the predatory terms that Trump used to describe conduct with women. Men often talk as if their ability to obtain consent is nearly unbounded – which can lead to conduct that is based on a false assumption that consent has been obtained – but I can’t remember any instance where a man talked about proceeding without a woman’s consent.

It’s been just four days since the Trump-Bush videotape was released, and we’re already deep into a national conversation about how men talk about women and how men treat women. The Twitter hashtag #notokay is trending with women’s accounts of sexual abuse at the hands of entitled men. The phrase “rape culture” has begun to appear in the mainstream media.

I’ve long thought that gender biases are even more powerful than racial biases – in fact, I think that’s one way to understand Barack Obama’s defeat of Hillary Clinton in 2008. Both sexual and racial biases are founded on assumptions of differences, whether between the sexes or between the races. Assumptions of race-based differences have become harder to rationalize over the years; assumptions of sex-based differences have proved more stubborn.

Actual race-based differences boil down to the relatively trivial – things like color of skin, texture of hair, timber of voice. But sex-based differences are more profound, most importantly the different reproductive roles of the sexes. Given the objective fact of such a profound sex-based difference, it remains comparatively easy in 21st century American to retain assumptions about other sex-based differences by attaching them to the undeniable differences in reproductive function. Thus we retain biases about a whole range of intellectual and emotional differences, even as we look back with some amusement at the more extreme assumptions about “the fairer sex” of our forebears.

Women are expected to dress and to decorate their faces in a way that appeals to men, to a much greater degree than is expected in reverse. Even (especially?) in formal settings, women are expected to bare more of their bodies than men. Women are expected to wear shoes that unnaturally contort the feet and legs; men’s shoes can be uncomfortable, but they are designed primarily to protect the feet, not to enhance sex appeal. Women are expected to conceal the effects of aging because age diminishes feminine value; male aging is more often a symbol of wisdom and authority. Women are expected to remain as svelte as teenagers – as Trump recently reminded us – whereas men are allowed to conceal weight gain, as Trump does, with loose clothing. Women are expected to compete in beauty pageants that seem always to involve outfits that combine bathing suits and spike heels; the closest male equivalent is bodybuilding competition, involving freakishly muscular men competing for the approval of other men, not of women.

Men are entitled to express anger more freely than women – in fact, men are entitled to express any thought at all more freely than women. Women are expected to pay careful attention when men speak, to wait for their turn and to speak softly when it comes; men are entitled to speak more loudly, to interrupt, to contradict, to curse, to brag, even to taunt. During my career I sat in countless meetings in which men talked over women and ignored their ideas; if women tried to force their way into the discussion, they were dismissed as shrill or emotional – or worse, emasculating.

For about half of American history, women were largely deprived of agency: denied the vote, legally unable to enter into contracts, and treated as property of, and subject to, first their fathers and then their husbands. At the altar, the father “gave” his daughter to the groom; the bride promised to love, cherish and obey, but the groom promised only to love and cherish. That legacy has been no easier to shake than has been the legacy of African-American slavery; both retain powerful influence on all of us to this day.

Women remain badly underrepresented in high positions, both corporate and governmental, and especially so in high executive positions – four percent of Fortune 500 CEOs, 12 percent of state governors, and zero percent of American presidents, ever.

As Barack Obama’s election was an important marker of racial progress, Hillary Clinton’s election will be an important marker of gender progress. But we should assume that the sex-based backlash against Clinton’s presidency will be as pervasive and powerful as was the race-based backlash against Obama’s presidency, and maybe more so.

The upside is this: every morning, afternoon, evening and night, the President of the United States will be a woman. As a generation of American children – black and white – has grown up with an African-American president, a new generation of boys and girls will grow up with a female president. The backlash against our female president will prompt a more serious national conversation about gender. Donald Trump’s antediluvian views of women have given that conversation a head start.


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