Divide and conquer

Equality shouldn’t be an ‘either/or’ choice

Anna Barela is a Sacramento freelance writer with a day job in accounting.

Today’s Democratic primary race has elements of the suffrage battle brought forward, but this time Hillary Rodham Clinton replaces Elizabeth Cady Staton, and Barack Obama stands in for Frederick Douglass. Who came up with this idea to pit women against blacks once again, as a means to divide and conquer the progressive vote?

In the 19th century, political leaders stood to gain from continuing an imbalance of power. Radical Republicans wanted black suffrage to weaken the ex-slaveholders’ power in the South. Those opposed to the black vote campaigned for opening the polls to white women. Suffrage became a competition, with the vote offered not to all the disenfranchised, but to either blacks or women, ignoring those who were both.

Here we are again, at a time when the fight to end discrimination continues, making adversaries of the white woman and the black man, and leaving the black woman out completely. Where is a woman of color in this race? In 2004, Carol Moseley Braun, the only black woman senator in history, disappeared at the onset of the presidential race. Is there no one else to raise the standard? Has anyone asked Oprah to run for office instead of raise money?

We should note that the woman’s suffrage movement at first coincided and cooperated with the abolitionist movement. As both gained momentum, they borrowed resources, methods and activists from each other. Sojourner Truth and Douglass, both born in slavery and devoted to the abolition of slavery and full equality for blacks, worked side by side with Cady Staton and Susan B. Anthony for women’s suffrage.

Suffrage became a key goal for both white women and people of color. But when black men received the vote (at least on paper) in 1868, leaders of the women’s movement were outraged. Division shook the fight for equality. Political leaders sought votes by preying on this division. In 1912, civil-rights activist Martha Gruening pleaded for a return to cooperation. In an article published in The Crisis, she wrote, “All suffragists must understand, whatever their sex or color—that all the disfranchised of the earth have a common cause.”

Like suffrage, attaining executive office may do little to change policy for women or minorities. When women finally won the vote in 1920, a majority of black women were still prevented from voting until passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1964. The presidency would be a monumental symbol in the struggle for equality—and a threat to the current power structure. As much as I would like to believe our society has moved past discrimination and will judge senators Clinton and Obama on the issues alone, it is most decidedly not the case.

Today, women and blacks remain disadvantaged both socially and economically. The U.S. Census Bureau’s 2006 report showed an overall median wage of $40,432 for white men, $26,636 for white women, $30,549 for black men, and $25,435 for black women. Hispanic women fair the worst at $20,133.

These trends hold even for the highly educated. White men maintain the highest median wage of those with a bachelor’s degree, while black men with the same education trail by over $13,000 annually. While the income gap narrows, income inequality between men and women of all races remains stark at all levels of educational attainment.

Americans seem committed to inequality. We perpetuate an atmosphere of discrimination by finding new groups to attack. The day may have passed when a white-robed protester might burn a cross in front of the Capitol building in Sacramento, but protesters in front of the Capitol today hold graphic signs and shout slogans like “God hates fags.” The catch-phrases are as ill-informed and violent in nature as those 50 and 140 years ago.

Sacramento touts diversity, yet many of our neighborhoods remain racially and economically segregated. Has anyone from Granite Bay even been to Oak Park, much less considered building a home there? How many Sacramentans have already decided whether or not to vote for Clinton or Obama based only on the fact of gender and race?

Clinton and Obama prove two things: That we have come a long way in gender and racial equality, and that we have a long way to go.

As voters flock to the polls next year, I challenge the senators not to turn on each other as Stanton and Douglass did, but to recognize that a step forward for either oppressed group advances both. If one wins the primaries, join forces in the general election and bring unity to the battle for equality.

Or we could just convince Oprah to run.