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Obama defeated racism, can we transcend caste?

"The obvious comparison with Indian politics is the issue of caste. Caste and race are similar (in that they reflect lower status, hierarchy and discrimination) although not synonymous, in that race is genetic, while caste is based on social hierarchy."

by Jayanthi Natarajan

(November 12, New Delhi, Sri Lanka Guardian) Barack Obama has won the battle and, as one columnist put it, this is an "emotional, incandescent moment" not just for Mr Obama, but, in a sense, for the entire world. The significance of Mr Obama’s victory for African-Americans, oppressed minorities all over the world, is immeasurable. The issue of Mr Obama’s race is foremost on everybody’s mind as the world and America rejoice that US voters have perhaps, cleared, the greatest hurdle of racial discrimination and carried forward the battle that was started by Rosa Parks, who refused to vacate her bus seat for a white man, and Dr Martin Luther King, to put, in the ironically-named White House, America’s first African-American President.

Tonnes of newsprint have already been used up to analyse, and comment on the Obama phenomenon. Mr Obama himself spoke to the hearts of his countrymen and women, and indeed the world, with his now immortal speech on race and other issues. To his eternal credit, Mr Obama did not run a campaign solely on the race issue. Instead, he articulated a dream for America that resonated with millions of Americans, particularly the young.

There is no escaping in the US presidential campaign of 2008 race was a major issue. And the most fascinating aspect of Mr Obama’s victory is how he managed to somehow transcend the stereotype of African-American racial politics and capture the imagination of Americans above and beyond the concerns of the civil rights movement. The answer to this will, undoubtedly, contain the defining moment of modern America’s political evolution.

The obvious comparison with Indian politics is the issue of caste. Caste and race are similar (in that they reflect lower status, hierarchy and discrimination) although not synonymous, in that race is genetic, while caste is based on social hierarchy. The debate on caste and race is multifaceted, but the most important distinction between the two is that while it may well be accepted that Mr Obama managed to transcend race, while still symbolising victory of the civil rights movement, can and will an Indian politician be able to transcend caste? Can identity politics in India rise above electoral compulsions, and become truly inclusive of national concerns? If indeed the miracle happens, can our democracy sustain it without allowing inclusiveness to fail at the altar of divisive and competitive politics? These are compelling questions before our democratic polity today.

while Mr Obama and his supporters justifiably take pride in their incandescent moment, my thoughts go to that less talked about and somewhat disheartened undercurrent of this particular US presidential election, namely gender. In the face-off between race and gender, it is clear that race was a far more compelling justification to the mind of the American voter.

Gloria Steinem, the inimitable icon of feminist writing, summarised it perfectly in an article for the New York Times. She starts by saying that if Barack Obama had been a woman of biracial descent who first worked as a community organiser, then became a lawyer, married a corporate lawyer, was the mother of two little girls aged nine and six, and served as a state legislator for eight years, could she be elected to the US senate? And after one term as senator, could she become the President of the US? The answer is a resounding "No". Because "gender is the most restricting force in American life, whether the question is who should be in the kitchen or who could be in the White House… Black men were given the vote a half century before women of any race were allowed to mark the ballot, and have generally ascended to positions of power from the military to the boardroom before any women… So why is the sex barrier not taken as seriously as the rascist one? The reasons are as pervasive as the air we breathe: because sexism is still confused with nature as racism once was; because anything that affects males is seen as more serious than anything that affects only the female half of the population".

Consider the heavy sexist bias during the presidential debate Chris Matthews of MSNBC called Hillary Clinton a "she-devil". The New York Times wrote about her "cackle" of a laugh. The Washington Post wrote about her cleavage, while David Schuster of NBC said that Chelsea campaigning for her mother seemed as if she (Chelsea) was being "pimped out". In Salem, New Hampshire, two hecklers got up and told Hillary to come home and iron their shirts, while Maureen Dowd (yes, a woman) called her "unapologetically emasculating". The worst was when a woman called asked McCain how "can we defeat the bitch", and instead of protesting, McCain joined in the general laughter.

Hillary Clinton simply could not get it right. The irony was that she tried to become the "tough guy" in American politics with a hard stand on everything from the war in Iraq to welfare issues, while Barack Obama finely honed a language usually associated with women namely "the uniter, not the divider". Hillary thought, as Susan Douglas says, that "she should be more like a man in her demeanour and politics, leaving some basic tenets of feminism in the dust. Unfortunately for Hillary, the collaborative compassionate, so-called feminine virtues had become far more attractive and inspirational to the younger generation. Especially, when displayed by a man… in this case, Barack Obama.

Her campaign failed, although she made 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling, and ensured that women will no longer be considered as token or novelty candidates. As for today, we wish Mr Obama well in his challenging task with a final eloquent quote from Ellen Goodman: "So, has the women’s movement made life easier? For another man?"

[Jayanthi Natarajan is a Congress MP in the Rajya Sabha and AICC spokesperson.The views expressed in this column are her own.]
- Sri Lanka Guardian

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