by Unknown | 5/23/2008 12:50:00 AM
I'm supposed to be writing a book review right now, but I had to drop in and alert you to this masterpiece of an article by Arica L. Coleman, an Assistant Professor of Black American Studies at the University of Delaware. An excerpt from the article, titled Hillary Clinton and the Possessive Investment in Whiteness:

[Susan B.] Anthony’s articulation of the defeat of women’s suffrage in...staunch racial terms was not uncommon in the 19th century and for much of the twentieth century. Her disappointment reflects not only her frustration of a dream deferred, but more important the failure of Congress to uphold the possessive investment in whiteness, to use George Lipsitz’s term, a racial inheritance that would be denied to white women for another fifty years. Yet, in this first decade of the 21st century, as America continues to struggle to come to terms with its racist past and present, Hillary’s use of the same overt language to garner support for the Democratic nomination has been widely criticized as reckless. Her statements violated a code of silence by articulating what many believe should remain unspoken. As Lipsitz states in his article “The Possessive Investment in Whiteness,” “As the unmarked category against which difference is constructed, whiteness never has to speak its name, never has to acknowledge its role as an organizing principle in social and cultural [and political] relations." (61-62) And either should it as Lipsitz further explains, “. . . since the passing of civil rights legislation in the 1960s, whiteness dares not speak its name, cannot speak on its own behalf, but rather advances through a color-blind language radically at odds with the distinctly racialized distribution of resources and life chances in U.S. society.” (80) Hence, the wide condemnation Hillary Clinton received for deploying nineteenth century Anthony/Stanton politics was not because she laid claim to her racial inheritance, but rather because she violated the code of modern day polite society by voicing it in public.

Whether the results of the current Democratic primary will parallel the results of the 19th century political schism between black men and white women remains to be seen. While black men indeed gained the suffrage before white women, the emergence of Jim Crow delayed their ability to exercise the franchise for almost a century. The struggle for women’s suffrage would continue for another fifty years before white women nationwide received the franchise with the ratification of the 19th amendment in 1920. The pressure for Hillary to cede the race is mounting. Many believe the longer she remains in the race, the more she hurts Obama’s chances of defeating McCain in the general election. If that happens we will once again squander a historic moment which may take generations to recapture. Let’s hope not.

There's much more, and I urge you all to head on over there and read it. Idiot commenters over there are attacking Coleman on her grammar (which is generally fine) rather than the substance of her searing critique of white feminism. I hope we at this blog can do better.




Blogger Lexington on 5/27/2008 8:28 AM:

While Professor Coleman makes an interesting argument I can't help but see the justice in the comment Oscar Chamberlain made over at the HNN site, viz.: "To simply state that many suffrage advocates were racist is misleading unless one remembers that the vast majority of whites of all political persuasions at this time were racist."

How do historians amuse themselves? They put a feminist historian and a historian of race in a room together and watch them engage in pointless, sterile arguments about whether Susan Anthony and Elizabeth Stanton were more racist than feminist. To people like me who don't have an ideological dog in this race it seems the height of absurdity: can't we just agree that in some measure they were both and move on?

Ah, but there's the rub. If you engage in what might be called "identity history" the question is crucially important, since nothing less than the relative status of gender or race as the quintessential "basic unit" of the historian's craft is at stake. And as our physicist friends like to say, two objects cannot occupy the same space.

A broader, more traditional approach to history might allow that someone can be (for example) female, racist, white, American, Protestant, upper middle class, and a host of other things all at one time, and is comfortable with the ambiguity inherent in the implication that a person's identity and behavior is be a reflection of all of these things (though of course not always in the same measure at the same time). Identity history rejects this disturbing pragmatism in favor of the doctrine that a person is ultimately reducible to just one aspect of their identity, to which all other aspects are subordinated. At this point we are just arguing about whether that fundamental aspect is gender or race -for reasons we have already discussed it cannot be both. Call me old fashioned but I can't help but feel this leads to a simplistic, one is tempted to say almost unidimensional, understanding of people.

Note that I'm not necessarily disagreeing with Coleman's point about "the possessive investment in whiteness" as it applies to the political calculus of 2008 Democratic primaries, but it seems to me that this argument stands even without gratuitously joining it to an argument about the racism of 19th century suffragists. It's almost as if Coleman is using a topical subject as an excuse to grind her ideological axe on a somewhat extraneous issue.

There are points in which I'm more than prepared to criticize feminist historiography - for example the tendency to regard the experience of middle class women as normative- but in this particular case I don't see that Coleman's particularism is really an improvement (or different in type) from that advocated by many feminists.


Blogger Unknown on 5/27/2008 7:05 PM:

Lexington, thanks for a well-thought-out comment. I don't disagree with you that identity-group history has limited usefulness in the scheme of things. Where we may differ is that I don't see Coleman ignoring the pragmatism and complexity of Susan B. Anthony and other suffragists. She's not suggesting that Anthony was nothing but a hateful racist animated chiefly by her love of the privileges of whiteness; she's saying that Anthony was, among other things, a hateful racist animated by her love of the privileges of whiteness. That is, she's not ignoring the complexity of Anthony's, or Hillary Clinton's, personalities -- she's simply stressing one aspect of those personalities that holds particular relevance for today. As such, I think she's making an important point without ignoring the nuance inherent in all historical figures and movements.