BLACK MEN cross swords with white feminists at their peril. That's the hard lesson Barack Obama has learned over the last three months.
In Iowa, Senator Obama claimed the support of 35 percent of Democratic female caucus-goers, compared to 30 percent for Hillary Clinton. "Change" and charisma trumped experience, the pundits said, and the Democrats seemed on the brink of giving their presidential nomination to an African-American man. Indeed, when Obama, wife Michelle, and their two children appeared in Des Moines on caucus night in front of his wildly enthusiastic supporters, they almost shape-shifted into the Jack Kennedy family of 1960, with one history-making difference.
Then came the New Hampshire debate in which Senator Clinton reminded the audience that electing the first female president would be "change," too. Democratic women began to shake off the African-American's spell. When Obama, in slightly mocking tone, told Clinton that people "like you well enough," women were offended. Her tears in the Portsmouth coffee shop clinched the deal. Late polls showed Obama again prevailing among women, but Clinton won 45 percent of the final female vote, compared to only 30 percent for the senator from Illinois.
Analyst Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center explained this shift partly by "the long-standing pattern of pre-election polls overstating support for black candidates among white voters." When the conflict heated up again over Martin Luther King's role in the civil-rights movement, Senator Clinton remarked, "I don't think this campaign is about gender, and I sure hope it isn't about race."
Since that time, the contest for the nomination has further polarized the Democratic Party: African-Americans, particularly the men, have rallied to Obama; older white women have kept Clinton in the game. Subtle race-baiting by would-be First Gentlemen Bill Clinton and former vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro has only aggravated the divide. Clearly, the specific relationship between the African-American male and the white feminist within the Democratic "big tent" needs more attention.
The theoretical basis for this part of the Democratic coalition divide probably lies in Gunnar Myrdal's classic 1944 study of black-white relations in the United States, An American Dilemma. An appendix to this book, authored by his arch-feminist wife, Alva, argued that American women, locked by convention into the roles of homemaker and fulltime mother, suffered an oppression similar to that of the Negroes of her day. As the civil-rights campaign gained momentum around 1960, young, idealistic white women from Vassar, Smith, and so on swarmed into the South, eager to fight the common foe: the patriarchal white male.
In practice, however, the coalition didn't work very well. As black-power advocate and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee leader Stokely Carmichael famously explained, "the position of women in SNCC is prone." Historians have shown how many of the disillusioned and angry women who went South abandoned the fight for racial justice to help launch a renewed feminist campaign.
They quickly had their revenge. It came on Feb. 8, 1964, when the American sociopolitical order underwent a seismic shift. The occasion was a debate in the U.S. House of Representatives over the proposed Civil Rights Act of 1964. The aim of the bill on that Saturday morning--as drafted at the Lyndon Johnson White House--was to end discrimination "on the basis of race, color, religion or national origin" in the areas of voting, public accommodations and education, federally assisted programs, and private employment. "Sex" was not on the list.
Reading between the lines, it was clear that the provision on "private employment"--Title VII--would renew an old New Deal goal from the 1930s: to remove those job barriers resting on race prejudice that prevented African-American men …