Monday, January 21, 2008

Race and Gender as Positive Presidential Factors

In recent weeks the Democratic primary race has danced around the issues of race and gender in the close race between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. The Nevada caucuses revealed that people of color overwhelmingly voting for Obama and that women going for Hillary. Both candidates have been hesitant to talk about the race or gender issue explicitly since Clinton’s gaffe about Martin Luther King and LBJ, but it is clear that race and gender are real, though largely unacknowledged factors in this race.

Personally, I wish Obama and Clinton would talk about more about race and gender because I think both can be a real positive factor if either is elected president. Obviously if either of them are elected, they will be a “first.” However, beyond that each of them would bring a perspective to the White House that has been sorely missing in our 200+ years of white, male (usually wealthy) presidential leadership.

As the son of a Kenyan father and a white Midwestern mother, Obama brings a perspective as one who has been excluded and oppressed because of his skin color. Moreover, his social and political views were largely shaped through his experiences as a community organizer in the poor black community of Southside Chicago. He has seen poverty and suffering firsthand, and at the same time knows the capacity of normal people to organize and advocate for their rights. Obama’s critique of Clinton’s comment regarding Martin Luther King did not focus on race but rather on the fact that she did not appear to value the power of normal people to organize and make an impact on public policy. Obama has seen that power at work, and knows it can and has made a difference. Furthermore, having spent some of his childhood in Indonesia and having reconnected with his family in Kenya, Obama has a global perspective running through his blood that no U.S. president has ever had. One can only imagine that when Obama goes to speak with leaders from Africa or the Middle East, they will see something of themselves in him that they do not see in George W. Bush or any of his predecessors. These things alone will not assure Obama more success than other presidents, but he brings a worldview as a member of an oppressed group that heightens his sensitivity and could raise his credibility with others. (For insight into Obama’s background read his first book, Dreams of My Father.)

For her part Clinton brings a perspective as a woman that likewise is sorely needed. The short-lived (Fall 2006) TV show “Commander in Chief,” starring Geena Davis as the president, highlighted the fact that women in leadership tend to be more collaborative and inclusive. Studies of women in positions of executive leadership support this view. At the time the show was running Clinton was just exploring the possibility of a presidential run but it was clear to me, as I am sure it was to others, that the show was trying to make the case that a woman could be as effective a president as a man. Clinton doesn’t have the cowboy mentality that often afflicts male presidents in a time of crisis. Bush’s now largely discredited rationale for invading Iraq is only one of many examples of that mentality. Furthermore, as a wife and a mother, Clinton has an inherent concern for the well-being of families, and children and women that men often miss. Her book, It Takes a Village, speaks to her awareness of these issues. And while she is often castigated by the Right for her pro-choice position, she has written and spoken powerfully about the need to reduce the need for abortion by reducing unplanned and unwanted pregnancies especially among teenage girls. As a woman Clinton is constitutionally more connected to victims of war, poverty, and domestic abuse than former presidents. When bills are being considered or foreign policy decisions are being made, it would be a refreshing change to have someone who thinks more of the victims than victory. I believe Clinton brings that perspective.

Now obviously, Obama’s ethnic/racial heritage and Clinton’s gender do not assure that the things I have mentioned are true, or would be operative if either of them became president; but it does increase the likelihood. We all know that in moments of stress and crisis, our true values, beliefs and attitudes tend to emerge. The presidency is a high stress job with many crises. In those times, my guess is that with either Obama or Clinton in the White House, different responses based on their different backgrounds would emerge and would take us in new and positive directions.

Before this election is over in November 2008, race and/or gender will need to be discussed. In this country, we have difficulty discussing these issues without devolving into a shouting match. My hope is that instead of reducing the discussion to the “race card” or the “gender card,” we can begin to appreciate that by virtue of their race or gender that Obama or Clinton might bring to the White House a constructive perspective that has never been there before.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

When Did Amnesty Become A Dirty Word

The word "amnesty" appears to have become as bad a word in the Republican lexicon as the word "liberal." Judging from the New Hampshire debate on January 5, none of the Republicans wanted to have the word "amnesty" stuck to them. When we get to the election, you can bet whoever is the Republican candidate will try to defame the Democratic challenger by calling him/her a "liberal" who believes in "amnesty" for illegal immigrants.

Republicans, particularly Mitt Romney, have made illegal immigration a primary issue in the campaign, and yet their solutions to the problem are completely out of touch with reality. I went to all the websites for the major Republican and Democratic candidates to see their proposed solutions for addressing the issue of illegal immigration. What I found was quite revealing and troubling.

The Republican candidates have generally framed the issue in terms of law and order, and anti-terrorism. For instance, Romney’s website says that "[w]e must secure the border, implement an enforceable employer verification system, punish sanctuary cities and reject amnesty if we are to restore Americans’ faith in the rule of law." [All italics are mine.] Huckabee’s statement adds, "immigration is not only an economic issue, but also a national security issue." Giuliani expresses the same sentiment when he says we need to "protect our citizens by controlling America’s borders." Fred Thompson uses much the same language. The only Republican dissenter is John McCain (I will come back to him).

By listening to the Republicans one would think that these 12 million undocumented immigrants are running roughshod over our communities, vandalizing city streets and terrorizing mothers and their children. While technically they are breaking the law, the immigrants are the ones who live in fear and are exploited because of it. The overwhelming majority are not terrorists or criminals, but humble law-abiding citizens seeking to eke out a living for themselves and their families back home. Because of their illegal status, they are easy targets for coercion and manipulation by unscrupulous employers. But the Republicans would have us believe otherwise.

The Democratic candidates frame the issue quite differently. All four of the major candidates (Obama, Clinton, Edwards and Richardson) start by acknowledging the current immigration system is broken and dysfunctional. Second, they affirm the historic American tradition of supporting the family, and seek to preserve immigrant family integrity. Third, they talk about creating a pathway to citizenship for million illegal immigrants. Finally, they talk about working with foreign governments, particularly in Latin America, to help strengthen their economies. While they acknowledge that a dimension of the issue is border security, this is not their major focus. I think Bill Richardson sums up the Democratic position when he says:

"Building a fence will not increase security, just as attempting to deport 12 million illegal immigrants is not feasible or reasonable. I believe a realistic immigration reform plan must address the problem from all sides -- securing the border, penalizing employers for knowingly hiring illegal workers, offering a tough but reasonable path to legalization, engaging Mexico in the reform process, and improving our current immigration quota system."

On this issue John McCain is more of a Democrat than a Republican. While acknowledging the border security issue, McCain goes on to give a realistic assessment. He says we must recognize...
- the importance of building strong allies in Mexico and Latin America
- the importance of pro-growth policies
- the importance of a flexible labor market
- the importance of assimilation of our immigrant population.

Then like the Democrats he advocates a pathway to citizenship, and for that he is branded with the scarlet letter “A” for Amnesty.

The Republican (minus McCain) position on immigration reminds me of the Know-Nothing Party of the 1850’s who opposed all Irish and Italian immigrants, and whose solution to the slavery issue was to ship all blacks back to Africa. Their philosophy was that the U.S. should remain an Anglo-Saxon country (while conveniently ignoring the fact that the European invaders had stolen the land from its Native American inhabitants). The Know-Nothing party was a last gasp before a dramatic change occurred in the U.S. culture, starting with the emancipation and enfranchisement of the slaves and then continuing with the mass immigration of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Today, we are on the verge of as significant a change in U.S. culture. The notion of America as the "melting pot" where all peoples leave their former culture and to take on an "American" identity is going by the board. We are now in a global society where the fastest selling cars in the U.S. are made by Toyota and where most of what we buy and use is not produced here. Our telephone and consumer service centers are located in India, and telemarketers call us from anywhere in the world. We are at a point where, as sociologist Ronald Takaki says, we must look at our society through a "different mirror," a multicultural, pluralistic mirror.

The illegal immigration issue is a sign and a symptom of the change that has taken place in our society and our world. Except for McCain, the Republicans don’t seem to have a clue that the ground is shifting under their feet. The Republican emperor has no clothes.

As I have written before, in my view the immigration issue is a direct result of the NAFTA agreements of the early 1990’s. As long as capital can flow freely across borders, it only makes sense that labor be given the same privilege. Illegal or not, the 12 million undocumented workers are part of a major shift taking place in our world and in American society. So if that means I must wear the scarlet letter “A,” that’s okay; most people already think I’m a liberal as it is.