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PETER WICKHAM: Racism, gender in politics

Peter Wickham, [email protected]

PETER WICKHAM: Racism, gender in politics

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IN ANOTHER MEDIA FORUM last week, I declared my support for presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and it might be useful to articulate reasons for my support, if only to further stimulate discussion on this issue. Needless to say my support or the support of any other Barbadian is irrelevant to the outcome of the election campaign in the United States, however, it has become the custom that we citizens of the world take an interest in the American presidency since this individual will have a more profound impact on our lives than any other leader.

The first and simplest basis of my support for Hillary Clinton is the fact that she is a woman and I feel that it is time that the most powerful man in the world should be a woman. This suggestion that one should vote for a person simply because she is a woman might come across as either simplistic or worse insulting and suggestive that she does not have other redeeming qualities. She does have such qualities, of course; however, I am reminded that some years ago America elected George Bush II (twice) and one struggles to identify the quality that propelled him into the post other than the fact that he was a man, born of a woman who was married to a man, who became president. 

Bush II might not have been elected because he was a man; however, were he a woman he would more certainly have been held to a higher standard. Such double standards seem grossly unfair and the ability to strike a blow to this traditional gender discrimination seems attractive in and of itself.

This type of thinking was quite popular in the 2008 campaign that was equally historic as America vetted and elected its first black president. President Obama is clearly intelligent and well-qualified for the job; however, a considerable portion of his support was based entirely on the fact that he was black regardless of whether people were prepared to admit this. The idea of supporting a person because of their race or sex can be both enlightened and unenlightened and here two possible scenarios are offered for consideration.

We can support a person because they are black, or white because we are ourselves black or white and we feel that a president who looks like us would be a good thing (for us). This type of racial voting is familiar to those of us who work in the politics of Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana. 

The problem with this type of thinking is that there is generally little evidence that a person who looks like us would necessarily pursue policies that would enhance our lives. Certainly, this could be the outcome; however, in a country with millions of people who share the same phenotypical characteristic, the likelihood that all of them would benefit from a president who shares their colour is difficult to sustain in the realm of scientific argument.

The other more enlightened perspective was shared in a similar space in anticipation of the election of Obama. On that occasion, I told the story of a former American student who was both white and Republican. He spoke of his fondness for McCain who appeared “decent enough” however, he argued that he would instead support Obama because he was black. His explanation was compelling and today I offer a similar justification of my support for a female candidate who is competing for a nomination against a man whose personal philosophy is closer to my own than hers is.

My student noted that in his work with less fortunate kids, many of whom were black, there was an absence of political role models of the calibre of a president and as such black children growing up were deprived of the hope which every white child could have in their hearts. 

Certainly all white boys would not become president of the United States, but the knowledge that their race would not preclude them from such a lofty aspiration is a powerful psychological tonic.

Equally, the perception that a black boy of equal ability would never achieve such an office because of his race would have the most profound negative psychological impact.

Suffice to say, the possibility that Secretary Clinton could shatter this political glass ceiling in November will do much to advance the cause of gender balance in political leadership and would communicate clearly to every single girl that her sex, which is as much an accident of birth as the colour of her skin would not stand in the way of her achieving political greatness.

Peter W. Wickham is a political consultant and a director of Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES). Email: [email protected]