The sorrows of race and gender in the 2008 presidential election

By Robert Jensen

Published in Counterpunch · April, 2008

It may seem odd to talk of sorrows around race and gender in politics when we are a few months away from being able to vote for a white woman or a black man for president of the United States. When I was born in 1958, any suggestion that such an election was on the horizon would have been laughed off as crazy. In the first presidential campaign I paid attention to as an eighth-grader in 1972, Shirley Chisholm — who four years earlier had become the first black woman to win a seat in Congress — was to most Americans a curiosity not a serious contender. Today, things are different.

Today Hillary Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s battle for the Democratic Party nomination suggests progress. Though the pace of progress toward gender and racial justice may seem slow, we should take a moment to honor the people whose struggles for the liberation of women and non-white people have brought us to this historic moment. If not for the vision and courage of those in the feminist and civil-rights movements there would be no possibility of a contest between Clinton and Obama, and the debt we owe those activists is enormous.

But instead of getting too caught up in this moment, we should reflect more deeply on that history — not just on what was won but what has been lost. We have an obligation to those who sacrificed in those struggles for liberation to reflect honestly, and if we do that I believe it will lead to sorrow.

I don’t take this sorrow to be a bad thing. Today one of the most important virtues is the ability to understand sorrow clearly, to confront sorrow openly, to feel sorrow deeply, and in the end to accept the sorrows that come with being human in the modern world. Such sorrow is especially important in a society built on delusional beliefs about manifest destiny and endless expansion, world domination and American exceptionalism. The best of a people is carried not by those who pander to a pathological sense of entitlement, but by those who are not afraid to live with sorrow.

As one of my favorite songwriters has put it, “Those are lost who/try to cross through/the sorrow fields too easily.”[1]

So, let us heed Eliza Gilkyson and not race across those sorrow fields. Let us walk through them deliberately, carefully, and responsibly. Let us learn from that journey.

What are the sorrows to which I’m referring? I don’t mean the disgust and distress that many of us feel when we read the blogs, listen to talk radio, or watch cable TV news — places where some of our fellow citizens and journalists wallow in the sexism and racism that still infects so much of this society. I don’t mean the ways in which, even in polite liberal circles, Hillary Clinton is scrutinized in ways no man would ever be. I don’t mean the ways in which, even in polite liberal circles, Barack Obama’s blackness is examined for either its inadequacies or excesses.

The attacks on Clinton because she is a woman and Obama because he is black should make us angry and may leave us feeling dejected, but for me they are not the stuff of sorrow. We can organize against those expressions of sexism and racism; we can mobilize to counter those forces; we can respond to those people.

Remembering the radicals

My sorrow comes from the recognition that the radical analyses of the feminist and civil-rights movements — the core insights of those movements that made it possible when I was young to imagine real liberation — are no longer recognized as a part of the conversation in the dominant political culture of the United States. It’s not just that such analyses have not been universally adopted — it would be naïve to think that in a few decades too many dramatic changes could be put into place, after all — but that they have been pushed even further to the margins, almost completely out of public view.

For example, when I talk about these ideas with students at the University of Texas it is for some the first time they have heard such things. It’s not that they have rejected the analyses or condemned the movements, but they did not know such radical ideas exist or had ever existed. These students often do not know that these movements did not simply condemn the worst overt manifestations of sexism and racism, but went to the heart of the patriarchal and white-supremacist nature of U.S. society while at the same time focusing attention on the imperialist nature of our foreign policy and predatory nature of corporate capitalism. The most compelling arguments emerging from those movements didn’t suggest a kindler-and-gentler imperialist capitalist state, but an end to those unjust and unsustainable systems.

The irony is that Clinton and Obama, who today are viable candidates because of those movements, provide such clear evidence of the death of the best hopes of those movements. Those two candidates have turned away from these compelling ideas so completely that neither speaks of patriarchy and white supremacy. These are not candidates opposing imperialism and capitalism but candidates telling us why we should believe that they can better manage the system.

I recognize that this may seem condescending coming from a white man living in the American middle class — that is, someone whose material standard of living is enhanced by these very systems of domination and subordination. One might point out that it’s easy for me as a person with privilege (especially one who is not running for office and not appealing for votes in a reactionary country) to talk about liberation and radical movements. What right do I have to demand that Clinton and Obama articulate a radical political vision as they grapple with the reality of a political campaign?

Let me be clear that I am not attacking Clinton and Obama for not sharing my politics; I’m not really attacking them at all, though I disagree with many of their political positions. Instead I’m arguing that these candidates offer a political ideology very different from that which animated the best of the movements that made it possible for them to run. This is not simply a critique of the candidates’ campaign platitudes, not an examination of whether either candidate talks enough about “women’s issues” or “racism.” This is part of a larger examination of the unjust and unsustainable systems — patriarchy and white supremacy, imperialism and capitalism — that we must take seriously if we are to talk seriously about the possibility of a decent future, or of a future at all.

Radical feminism, which I think was the crucial core of that movement, offered a critique of patriarchy and the hierarchy created by patriarchal values. Those activists spoke not only of equal rights for women but of an end to all hierarchies. The radical civil-rights forces, which I think were at the core of that movement, offered a critique of white supremacy and the hierarchies reinforced by white-supremacist values. Those activists spoke not only of equal rights for non-white people but of an end to systems of domination more generally. The most powerful articulations of feminism and the civil-rights movement did not simply say, “Let’s leave these fundamentally unjust and unsustainable systems in place but put some women and non-white people in positions of power.” They argued for a transformation of the systems.

For example, as the U.S. pursued its brutal attack on the people of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia in the 1960s and ‘70s, these movements argued for the end not only of that war but of U.S. imperialism. Radical feminist and civil-rights activists weren’t dreaming of the day that Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice, and Colin Powell could be appointed Secretary of State to help run an imperialist U.S. foreign policy that would continue to engage in crimes against peace, crimes against humanity, and war crimes — as all three did during the administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. The goal was not simply to change the players, but to change the nature of the deadly game.

Albright, Rice, and Powell are not the fulfillment of a liberatory dream but are part of our long national nightmare. If Clinton or Obama were elected and continued the same basic policies that allow the United States to consume a disproportionate share of the world’s resources — as they both indicate they will — then they will haunt us as well.

More radical understandings of the source of social problems were common in the civil-rights movement. Martin Luther King, Jr. made that clear in his April 4, 1967, speech in opposition to the Vietnam War:
I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.[2]

Feminists routinely argued that patriarchal conceptions of power would prove to be the end of the world if not challenged. The poet Muriel Rukeyser identified the nature of this power and why we should reject it:
Dead power is everywhere among us — in the forest, chopping down the songs; at night in the industrial landscape, wasting and stiffening a new life; in the streets of the city, throwing away the day. We wanted something different for our people: not to find ourselves an old, reactionary republic, full of ghost-fears, the fears of death and the fears of birth. We want something else.[3]

Many of us still want something else. At this moment in history, the writers and activists who carry forward the radical vision of the feminist and civil-rights movements, such as bell hooks, argue against nationalism and for a vision of self-determination rooted in a critical analysis of race, gender, and class:
It’s no accident that people like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were destroyed at those moments of their political careers when they had begun to critique nationalism as a platform of organization; and where, in fact, they replace nationalism with a critique of imperialism; which then, unites us with the liberation struggles of so many people on the planet. If we don’t have that kind of global perspective about our social realities, we will never be able to re-envision a revolutionary movement for Black self-determination that is non-exclusive, and doesn’t assume some kind of patriarchal nationhood.[4]

This vision of the world rejects patriarchy and white supremacy, in the context of a critique of U.S. imperialism and capitalism. It is not the vision of the Democratic Party or its candidates. I don’t know what Clinton and Obama really think about such an analysis, but whatever they may think they do not articulate such ideas in public. While they have plans that may help curb the worst excesses of the imperial state and corporate capitalism, they do not confront the brutal nature of these systems.

The problem isn’t that they fail as revolutionaries (one doesn’t expect revolutionary rhetoric from mainstream candidates), but that their calls for reform have no radical — and therefore no realistic — analysis at their core. Clinton and Obama offer rhetoric about empowering people and protecting the environment, but both propose to do that without coming to terms with the nature of the institutions that disempower people and draw down the ecological capital necessary for life. Both candidates offer more of the same failed “solutions,” trying to take their place among the gang that exercises “dead power.”

A plea for politics

While this is not the first time the human community has faced trying times, the stakes have been raised in new ways. Dead power has put us on a trajectory that can end only one way. When I was younger, I thought that trajectory would play out over many decades, maybe even centuries. As we see the consequences of dead power mounting — in human and ecological terms — I now think we have decades, maybe only years, to correct our course. But most of the modern world, especially the narcissistic United States, is unwilling to even think about what it will take to change that trajectory. Political leaders, including Clinton and Obama, cater to these delusional fantasies rather than confront difficult realities.

The sorrow of which I speak flows not from the fact that liberation has not yet been achieved but from a fear that the possibility of liberation may be lost forever, that our world may have passed the point of no return, psychologically and ecologically. Such fears are not grounds for abandoning politics, however. If you believe there is something to what I’ve said, it suggests only that we should think more carefully about where we put our political energies. I believe that the last place we should be sinking our energy is into presidential politics. When the political leaders vying for our votes make it clear they are committed to systems and institutions that keep us locked in the death trajectory, why should we offer them anything that is precious to us?

The most common response I get to that challenge is the claim that these candidates actually have a more radical agenda but realize that they must keep it under wraps in order to get elected. Just wait, I’m told, until after an election victory. That is likely to be a long wait, for there is no historical precedent for such a development, and nothing in the biography of either candidate that suggests a break with history. This observation typically is dismissed as cynicism, but I am not cynical. I am simply trying to deal with reality.

If only a center/right candidate who plays to the greed and delusional self-indulgence of the United States can win, that is more evidence that this empire cannot be transformed into a decent society in the time available and that it is time to say of conventional politics, simply, “game over.” If that is the case — and I believe it’s a reasonable account of our society — more than ever the work is not to turn over our time, energy, and resources to any political candidate but to build alternatives on the ground. That is a political response to a political problem. It isn’t a question of hope v. no hope. It’s a question of reality v. delusion. To believe that an unsustainable system can be sustained indefinitely — and to support political candidates who believe that — is a sign not of hope but of desperation and defeat. To be realistic and hopeful, one must be radical.

Yes, we can

Let me end with the popular call to action, “Yes, we can/Sí, se puede.” I agree that we can, but the slogan is incomplete. Yes, people can do things, but what is it that we believe we can do? Can we remain an imperial state — as both Clinton and Obama want us to remain — but somehow become a force for peace in the world? By what logic is that possible? What historical example is there to support such an assertion? Can we remain a corporate capitalist economy — as both Clinton and Obama want us to remain — but somehow eliminate inequality? By what logic is that possible? What historical example is there to support such an assertion? It is in the nature of imperial states and capitalist economies to be predatory and destructive, and the affluence of the United States is based on those predatory and destructive practices. To pretend these systems can remain in place but be transformed into vehicles for justice and sustainability is, quite literally, insane.

There is no easy route to a different future. In our laziness and greed we have narrowed the range of our choices and eliminated too many options for us to pretend there are easy solutions. I can’t predict the future, but I am relatively certain that the future will be hard. There is sorrow in coming to terms with all of this, but sorrow is not the same thing as despair. Sorrow need not lead to paralysis; sorrow isn’t the end. Sorrow is simply a part of life, which can help us understand where we’ve been and in what direction we must move.

So, is there hope? Of course, but hope is not the kind of thing one gets from speeches and slogans, from rock-star political rallies and emotionally charged music videos. Hope, like anything of value, must be earned. Hope comes not from believing but from doing. If we want to feel a sense of hope, we should study the world and come to our own conclusions about the systems and structures of power in which we live. We should decide whether those systems and structures are compatible with justice and sustainability. If they are not, then we should work to build alternatives on the ground where we live.

Yes, we can. We can name honestly the death trajectory of this culture.

Yes, we can. We can stop pretending that rhetoric — no matter how inspirational — will mask the fundamentally unjust and unsustainable nature of the systems in which we live.

Yes, we can. We can stop looking to those who peddle delusional hope and start creating the conditions that make authentic hope possible.

Yes, we can. Sí, se puede.

But if we are to do this, first we must not turn away from the sorrow. We must grieve.

Shortly after September 11, 2001, the writer Alice Walker reminded us that:
To grieve is above all to acknowledge loss, to understand there is a natural end to endless gain. To grieve means to come to an understanding, finally, of inevitable balance; Life will right itself, though how it does this remains, and will doubtless remain, mysterious. … It is this natural balancing of life that we fear.[5]

We are out of balance, within the human community and with the non-human world. We are reaping what we have sown in the fields of greed and self-indulgence. If we are to live in a decent future — if there is to be a future for our children — it will be because we moved out of those fields left dead by power and into fields of liberation to plant anew.

Between those two fields lie the sorrow fields. It is time — long past time — that we begin the difficult journey through those fields. If we are deliberate, careful, and responsible in that journey there is no guarantee, but there is hope, that yes we can find our way.

[This is an expanded version of a talk given to the University Democrats at the University of Texas at Austin, April 16, 2008.]


[1] Eliza Gilkyson, “He Waits for Me,” from the CD “Beautiful World,” Red House Records, 2008.

[2] Martin Luther King, Jr., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., James M. Washington, ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), p. 240.

[3] Muriel Rukeyser, quoted in Adrienne Rich, What is Found There, (New York: W.W. Norton, 1993), page preceding preface. Originally published in The Life of Poetry (New York: Current Books, 1949).

[4] “Challenging Capitalism and Patriarchy,” interview with bell hooks.

[5] Alice Walker, Sent by Earth: A Message from the Grandmother Spirit (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2001), p. 42