When it was announced to the world that Sarah Palin’s 17-year-old daughter was pregnant with the child of an 18-year-old high school dropout, the tagline of every news story added that the two intended to seal their love with marriage. My intention this week isn’t to join the liberal media bandwagon and criticize teenage pregnancy; instead, I think that the story provides an important point of reference as themes of race and sexism continue to emerge in this campaign.
This semester I am enrolled in “African American Social Movements” taught by Professor Banner-Haley, and last week the Professor encouraged us to consider the following scenario: What would the reaction be if Barack Obama’s oldest daughter became pregnant, at age 17, by a young African American male who was a rapper/”gangsta” who had also fathered two other children by different women but pledged that he would now take responsibility and marry Obama’s daughter?
The exact reaction of the American public is nearly impossible to gauge. (A subconscious racism mixed with the shelter that sexism has provided for Palin would certainly only further the interest of this scenario). Sarah Palin is tied to the Republican party by her fundamentalist views on “family” issues; from abortion to contraception and gay rights to stem-cell research, Palin has taken a hard-line conservative stance on every issue. Of course, absent from this agenda of “family” issues is teenage marriage, which Palin has silently endorsed by affirming her daughter’s decision.
Race is an inextricable part of the Obama campaign and over the past few months Senator Obama has successfully endeavored to prove that he understands the interest of both black and white America. Much to his credit, he has taken political risks in being critical of the black community all the while operating with a policy of tough love. And thus, what would the American people say? Professor Banner-Haley suggested that such a scenario would only provide people one more opportunity to assert the pathological nature of black urban culture.
While I am attempted to agree with Professor Banner-Haley, I think that the probable reaction goes a bit deeper. The nature of our political system has forced the Obama campaign to construct a candidate that can distance himself from the stereotypes that portions of ignorant America are tempted to subscribe to. From Obama’s speech on Father’s Day in June of 2008 encouraging black fathers to be more engaged in their children’s lives to his forced distance from the Reverend Jeramiah Wright, the American people have given Mr. Obama no option but to reject stereotypical black America.
Supporting his daughter’s pregnancy, and subsequent marriage — in the same way that Sarah Palin has fervently supported her daughter’s marriage and pregnancy — would undoubtedly create havoc for the Obama camp. One might argue that a father’s role is to show unconditional love, and while I certainly agree with this assertion, the game of politics subscribes to a different rulebook. In one move of love and devotion, Obama could successfully distance voters because his actions could be construed as embracing stereotypical black culture.
It seems incredible to me that the McCain camp, and their allied pundits, have attempted to spin Palin’s daughter’s pregnancy as just one more way that McCain/Palin understand everyday Americans. Criticizing Obama for supporting a marriage between his daughter and a “stereotypical” black man is no more offensive to black Americans than suggesting that Palin can relate to middle class America simply because her daughter is pregnant.
It would be unfair for me to make the absolute assertion that the difference in criticism that Obama would face as compared to Palin is solely racial. However, I don’t think it’s unfair that race will continue to pervade the equation. Obama has been forced by the American electorate to distance himself from all things stereotypical: instead of presenting himself as he is, he has been forced to appease the ignorance of the American people.
This column was based solely on a scenario that could or couldn’t ever happen. However, I think the most important thing we stand to gain is that no matter how we conceptualize this campaign, race and sexism will always be pervasive parts of the equation. What I believe should be frustrating to all American voters is that, to date, sexism has sheltered Palin from criticism, while race has made it much easier for the right to attack Mr. Obama.