Published January 13, 2015
Expressions of sexism and racism emerging from the contest between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barak Obama have been blatant, subtle and perhaps sometimes imagined, and they are renewing the national debate over what is and isn't acceptable to say in public.
Hillary Rodham Clinton's camp has perceived sexism in comments about her appearance and emotions. Supporters of Barack Obama have complained about racial overtones in remarks about his Muslim-sounding middle name, Hussein, and his acknowledged drug use as a young man.
Beyond the back-and-forth between a white woman and a black man seeking the Democratic presidential nominaton, the situation has created a snapshot of the nation's sensitivity — or lack thereof — to certain kinds of comments. Is it more acceptable, for instance, to make a sexist remark than a racist remark?
"It's always been easier," says Marie Wilson, president of the White House Project, which encourages women's advancement in politics. "With women, you can get away with it.
"With race, you can hardly say anything."
Feminist leader Gloria Steinem, argued in a New York Times op-ed last week that gender is "probably the most restricting force in American life" — more so than race.
But others involved in politics suggest the situation is more complex and that both race and gender are used to discriminate against people.
Yvonne Scruggs-Leftwich, a board member of the Black Leadership Forum, said that as a black woman she has experienced both racism and sexism, and suggested there was little point in ranking them.
"In parts of the country, the racist terms fall just as easily off the lips as they always did," she said. "And there are also places that I can't go because I am a woman, and that bothers me just as much."
Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women, said sexist and racist expressions both remain all too common in public discourse, though she said the racism often may be "somewhat coded."
"There's an awful lot of explicit sexist stuff," she said.
Certainly, Clinton's gender has been the spark for criticism, verbal and otherwise, of a sort that Obama has avoided. Available on the Internet are a Hillary nutcracker (the Clinton-like figure cracks nuts between her legs) and a Hillary toilet brush (the sales pitch: "You can have Hillary Clinton as your 'First Cleaning Lady."')
Clinton's wardrobe, figure, hairdo — even her laugh — have generated detailed and often unflattering commentary.
Radio host Rush Limbaugh said of her: "Will this country want to actually watch a woman get older before their eyes on a daily basis?" Chris Matthews, host of "Hardball" on MSNBC, has been accused of repeated sexist remarks about Clinton and other female politicians. For example, Matthews suggested that when female politicians deliver a fiery speech, "it can grate on some men when they listen to it — fingernails on a blackboard."
Asked about the complaints, Matthews told The Associated Press he personally likes Clinton and also likes the fact that "Hardball" generates controversy.
Gandy, however, sees an injurious double-standard.
"The focus on the clothes and the figure and the hairdo — not only are they not used with male candidates, they're used to trivialize Hillary Clinton," Gandy said.
On the racial front, some of the more blatant incidents in recent years did not involve Obama.
There was sharp criticism of a TV ad run in 2006 by the Republican National Committee, in which a flirtatious blonde invited Harold Ford Jr., a black Senate candidate in Tennessee, to "call me." A white GOP candidate in Virginia, Sen. George Allen, stumbled in his campaign for re-election when he referred to one of his rival's volunteers, a man of Indian descent, as "macaca."
For Obama, the issue of racism was raised a year ago when Sen. Joe Biden described the Illinois senator as "clean" and "articulate," then sought to clarify that he meant no disrespect to other blacks.
Since then, though, there has been little overt racism directed at Obama that has percolated into the public domain. Most of the debate has been more nuanced — such as whether there was a racial context to Clinton supporters' references to Obama's acknowledged teenage use of cocaine. There was brief umbrage by some Obama backers over New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo's recent use of the term "shuck and jive" but Cuomo's aides insisted he was talking generally about candidates' evasions, not about Obama in particular.
Limbaugh was criticized last year for playing a parody song on his show entitled "Barack the Magic Negro." But Obama himself drew praise from Limbaugh for laughing off the song and saying he didn't mind people poking fun at him.
Charles Ellison, senior adviser to the University of Denver's Center for African-American Policy, said Obama is benefiting from a pop-culture groundswell — epitomized by the black U.S. president on the hit TV series "24" — that has made the idea of a real-life black president seem appealing.
"The concept of a black president has overtaken the concept of a woman president," Ellison said. "It's very fresh and recent. We've been talking about trying to get a woman president for some time."
However, Ellison said Obama still faces challenges in handling gender and race.
"As a black man, he must be careful not to appear too hostile toward a white woman," Ellison said. "That dynamic has always been there, and I think he is rather aware of it."
Bruce Gordon, former president of the NAACP, said any suggestion that sexism had become a more oppressive bias than racism is "a huge overstatement."
Both are alive and well, he said, "but it would be disappointing if in the course of this campaign the attention of the voting public shifts to gender and race instead of dealing with the substantive issues."