Hillary Clinton has officially secured enough delegates to become the presumptive Democratic nominee for president. Many celebrated this as proof of progress in a society that has made violence against women and their exclusion from any important decision-making processes defining features.
Following in the footsteps of President Barack Obama, America’s first black commander in chief, would be especially significant. How symbolic would it be for a country that refused people like Obama the right to vote until 1870, and those like Clinton that right until 1920, to come to vote them in as its leaders one right after the other?
But these breakthroughs necessarily came about in vastly different ways, and each without trickling down to those in the most marginalized in their respective communities. Though black men gained suffrage before white women, black women remained largely shut out from the electoral system until the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Achievements for both black men and white women usually follow this same pattern of leaving out those at the intersection of those identities, even as those who exist in that space overwhelmingly support them both. Moreover, Obama and Clinton show how celebrating those only in the margins can work in insidious and different ways against those in the margins of the margins.
Whereas Clinton embraced and promoted the historic potential of her womanhood and has successfully leveraged it thus far to win important victories this cycle, Barack Obama was never able to run on his blackness. In fact, by the time he was running for president, Obama was distancing himself from his racially controversial pastor, chastising black communities for their shortcomings and insisting on his commitment to colorblind decision-making.
When asked by NPR in 2011 if he had any responsibility to black interests, Obama responded, "I have a special responsibility to look out for the interests of every American. That's my job as president of the United States. And I wake up every morning trying to promote the kinds of policies that are going to make the biggest difference for the most number of people so that they can live out their American dream."
Obama’s colorblind rhetoric naturally translated into colorblind advancements. Though the economy improved under him, those of us who have always been left the most behind had our economic conditions improve the least. Refusing to see color is also the refusal to acknowledge the direness of the racial impact on differing conditions.
Importantly, Clinton lost in 2008 against Obama when she was more muted about the historical significance of her gender. This time around, she reversed course, and her prospects. In the first debate against Democratic rival Bernie Sanders, when moderators asked how her presidency would be different from Obama’s, Clinton replied, “Well, I think that’s pretty obvious. Being the first woman president would be quite a change from the presidents we’ve had, including President Obama.”
Clinton’s ability to leverage her gender to win is something Obama could not do with his race even if he had been interested. In fact, much of his appeal came from the fact that he was not the first black president, but the first truly colorless one.
Under white supremacy, it is distance from blackness that matters, and under Obama, the country could continue distancing itself while he provided cover with his colorblind appeal. He could chastise black America for shortcomings brought about by systematic disenfranchisement without it being seen as an act of racism in a way that many white liberals want to but cannot without repercussion—white liberals like the Clintons.
It is highly significant that Hillary Clinton has not run a gender-blind campaign, and she presumably does not intend on gender-blind policy. This makes her appeal different from her predecessor’s. Some women will benefit from her presidency. Likely, though, they will not be the mothers of the black children she has called superpredators and whose economic situation she helped devastate with the support of welfare reform under her husband. To celebrate this milestone isn’t just to demonstrate a questionable allegiance to ineffective symbolism, but a dangerous allegiance to a branch of feminism that erases those farthest from the top simply to push white women through their coveted ceiling.
Though it has been argued that “white women were treated as the legal property of men similar to enslaved black people” in order to justify support for Clinton’s role in feminism, the important historic distinction is that white women were also allowed to own slaves, and these slaves were black men, women and other-gender folks. Clinton’s role, like the role of the white feminist movement in general (and its sibling, the mainstream LGBTQ movement) is not to fulfill a gender-blind ideal paralleling Obama but to bring marginalized white communities within closer reach of accessing the level of humanity that is guarded by cisgender straight white men. This is always done by placing those communities more firmly onto the backs of black folks.
What is undeniable is the fact that both Obama and Clinton signify a very real shift in American society. At any given black gathering, elders will tell you how they could never have even dreamed that a black man would lead this country. Women have been so long denied an equal role in society, overall still making 79 cents to every dollar a man makes (and black women making 60 cents), that you can feel the glass falling from the ceiling just by saying the words, “Madam President.”
But shattered glass can cut in ways colorblindness cannot, and the shifts signified by Obama and Clinton—what they mean and how they come about—are too often conflated and overvalued. Not only didn’t Obama’s election lead to much material progress for black men, but conditions especially did not improve for black women and queer folks, proving that symbolic breakthroughs into the American empire do not wrest it from its oppressive essentiality. White women winning the promise of material progress does not encourage inclusionary political power; in fact, it's a seismic shift along the fault lines of race and gender that widens the chasm between white folks and blackness.
We have to ask ourselves what that distance will cost.
Hari Ziyad is a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based storyteller and the editor-in-chief of RaceBaitR. Ziyad is also an assistant editor for Vinyl Poetry & Prose and contributing writer for Everyday Feminism. Follow Ziyad on Twitter.