We enjoy stories of firsts. The first African American baseball player. The first female astronaut. The first Hispanic Supreme Court justice. These people and the thresholds that they cross are held up as symbols of progress and they are regarded as both personal and cultural achievements. But do these firsts actually symbolize anything tangible? And when it comes to politics and elected officials, do these firsts actually mean anything at all?
We are in the midst of a presidential election in which there are a number of potential “firsts” among the candidates. It’s possible that in January 2017 we could witness the inauguration of the first woman, the first Hispanic, or the first Jewish president.
But should we believe that any of these candidates would actually change anything? Is there any reason to believe that anti-Semitism will fade in light of the first Jewish president? Will we get improved border security or an overhaul of the immigration system under the first Hispanic president? Will women achieve equality and have their rights better preserved under a female president? The impulsive response to those questions is “of course.” After all, a candidate from those backgrounds will bring his or her unique experiences to bear on the job, right?
Not necessarily. We are now in the final year of the presidency of Barack Obama and if we should take anything from the administration of the first African American president it is this: electing a black man to the highest office in the country had no tangible benefits for the African American community nor did it in any significant way improve the condition of ethnic minorities.
That’s not to say there weren’t accomplishments. The Affordable Care Act, the improved relationship with Cuba, the legalization of same sex marriage, and the economic recovery (anemic as it may be), will be noted by historians and become test questions for future generations of social studies students. But notably absent from the legacy of the first black president were initiatives specifically aimed at addressing systemic racism.
Who knows the reason? It may be that between the economy and the wars, President Obama simply had bigger and more immediate problems to solve. It could be that when Obama did try to engage with race it blew up in his face, as it did with the Henry Louis Gates incident, and so he chose to avoid it from then on. Or, as the president has said, he saw himself as responsible for the whole country, not just black America, and racial issues were not a priority for him. But there is a sense among some prominent academic black voices, such as Michael Eric Dyson and Cornel West and Melissa Harris-Perry, that Obama squandered his position or otherwise sold out the hopes that the African American electorate invested in him.
Those hopes may be the real problem. It’s a mistake to hope for a savior, whether he or she comes from Nazareth or Chicago, and that’s exactly how Obama was perceived by liberal voters in 2008. The campaign never said this overtly but they didn’t try to dispel this perception either and the iconic “hope” poster certainly encapsulated the savior appeal that was a key part of Obama’s first presidential campaign.
But it’s not as though Obama would have had to go out of his way to find a racial cause to fight for. Mass incarceration, police brutality, campus racism, the drug war, and the death penalty were in the news over the last seven years and they offered the Obama Administration ample opportunities to act or at least to comment. But he didn’t and the work that has been done on these issues, such as the rise of social justice movements like Black Lives Matter, occurred not because of the president but in spite of him.
All reasonable people understand that we have to judge political candidates more deeply than their gender or flesh tone. Truisms like that are usually said as a way of fending off negative stereotypes. But it’s also worth applying that wisdom to our benign stereotypes and especially onto our hopes. Because hope, especially when it is baseless, is a vice and it’s all the more insidious because hope is actively encouraged by all aspects of the culture.
Hillary Clinton in particular has entertained the hope we associate with “firsts.” In many cases those hopes aren’t even disguised. It’s quite clear in the way that surrogates talk about her and the way Clinton talks about herself that she intends her candidacy to embody the hope for gender equality. That’s a noble hope but do Democratic voters have any reason to think that they will get a better deal on women’s rights from Clinton than they would from any other candidate, namely Bernie Sanders? There is a temptation to assume that because Hillary Clinton is female that women’s issues would be a priority for her presidency more so than in a male-led administration. But looking at their platforms and voting records, Clinton and Sanders score quite evenly. They both have sponsored and voted for legislation related to pay equality, prevention of violence against women, and reproductive rights. They both score 100 percent by the Planned Parenthood Action Fund. There is simply no reason to believe that one of these candidates is substantively better than the other on women’s issues.
The desire to see a woman president is understandable. Both domestically and internationally, women are treated as second class citizens. Although things are considerably better for women now than they were fifty years ago, sexism is still a very real part of American life. The image of a woman in the oval office is satisfying but it would also be hollow and largely meaningless. Those of us who care about women’s rights—and that includes voters of both sexes—should not confuse electing a woman to the presidency with a meaningful change to women’s position in the culture.
A vote for a symbolic candidate is a form of immediate gratification. And for a repressed group, seeing one of their own make it to the presidency feels like progress. Think back to November 2008. There was a brief but bright glow about much of the country immediately following the election of Barack Obama. We felt good about ourselves, at least for a few weeks. But the novelty wore off and in the months and years that passed very little actually changed. In fact, Obama proved to be the establishment’s man as he refused to prosecute torture and instead went after whistleblowers, passed a Republican health care plan, doubled down on our commitment in Afghanistan, and protected the financial class instead of punishing them for the fraudulent schemes that caused the recession.
Just because a politician comes from a repressed group does not mean that he or she will necessarily avenge the injustices against that group. Nor does it mean that such a person would necessarily bring a fresh perspective to the table. The real indicator of a candidate’s potential for social progress is found in his or her relationship to the power structure. If the candidate’s ideology is synchronous with the institution and if he or she is invested in the existing power structure and relies upon it for legitimacy then that candidate is unlikely to challenge the institution or even understand that it needs to be fixed.
It is delusional to expect change from a candidate who would expand the surveillance state, keep us in a perpetual war in Afghanistan, would support fracking, and maintain the economic status quo. And voting for such a candidate to contrive a historical anecdote is superficial at best. There’s no point in smashing the glass ceiling if the house is burning down.