2008 Presidential Election, Race and Racism
Professor Vernellia Randall
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Does Change of Face Mean Change of Pace?


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Professor Lolita Innis

It’s February 5, 2008, and having been on hiatus from this blog during the last few months teaching and writing (see e.g. “A ‘Ho New World...” in my SSRN file), I now return, sticking my head up into the world of comparative racism and the law in Canada and the United States.

What’s been happening? A lot. Take a look at the U.S. There, the news that dominates the airwaves is the primaries and caucuses leading up to the selection of the Democratic and Republican candidates for president. Today is, in fact, Super Tuesday, the day when voters in some 24 states make their candidate selections. Much of America (and the world) is consumed by two historic firsts: in the Democratic contest , the first potential woman nominee, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and the first potential African American nominee, Barack Obama, are within striking distance of one another. Obama’s progress comes as a surprise to many. As a United States senator in his first term in office, many felt that his relative lack of experience and name recognition would cause him to be far outdistanced by Hillary Clinton, a senator in her second term and a former first lady whose husband is still much beloved throughout United States. Not surprisingly, these two historic firsts have caused many to argue whether gender discrimination or racial discrimination is the biggest burden in the United States in 2008. Is a vote for Barack a vote for business as usual, male political hegemony, or is a vote for Hillary a vote for business as usual, white political hegemony? Putting it differently, whose history of oppression cries out most for political redress? As between Hillary and Barack, who can better claim “It’s our turn now?”

The answer isn’t that simple. In the matter of dueling victimhoods, I’m afraid that both women and blacks (or, getting beyond the black/white binary, racialized others) can hold their own, with enough past and continuing slights, mistreatment and outright absolute abuse to fill volumes. The problem is that this isn’t really what’s being measured in assessing these candidates. Despite all of the calls for picking a different kind of candidate who will, as a result of his or her difference, be a change agent, in choosing between Barack and Hillary we’re not choosing them because of their victimhood, we’re choosing them for their triumph over victimhood. The irony here is that when one of them succeeds in being chosen, it signifies that he or she will have convinced a sizable percentage of the electorate that despite any differentness, they are regular enough to do the job of president. Either will owe a large part of his or her success to the fact that he or she has “street cred” of a whole other kind—Wall Street cred, the type of credibility that buoys not just American spirits but American markets. Regardless of the extent to which they may represent communities who have suffered and who continue to suffer hard times, both Barack and Hillary are still, at the end of the day, members of the most august governing body in the United States and Ivy League educated lawyers married to Ivy League educated lawyer spouses. After all, the presidency is no job for the too outcast or the too outraged. A cynical take on this would be to see it all as an elaborate iterative process that fosters regression towards the political mean.

Does this mean that we shouldn’t celebrate the ascension of Hillary and Barack? Of course not. But we do need to keep in mind that while the victor of this contest may take the spoils they are little likely, at least at first, to roil—too much change could be hazardous to their political health.


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