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Race, Gender and the Presidency

PERSPECTIVES

By Daniel M. Suleiman

John, Jimmy, George, Teddy? Good ole' American names for a good ole' American job: the president of the United States. It's almost November of an election year and the two candidates for highest office this time are Bill and Bob. Their names are not their only similarity, however; they simply bring home the fact that our president has always been a white Christian heterosexual male person. What are the odds that we will see one of those four adjectives change in our lifetime?

I would specifically like to consider the question: who could the American voting populace bring itself to vote for first: a black person, a Jew, a woman or a homosexual? When this question first began gnawing at me last spring, I had no satisfying answer. I just knew that my immediate instinct--that none of the above was the answer--troubled me. So I decided to find out a) if my gut was correct; and b) if so, why?

The Senate seemed like a good place to start. Carol Moseley-Braun is the only black senator in the United States. She is a Democrat from Illinois and has been in the Senate since January 1993. The black population in America is 12.6 percent of all Americans. The House is a much more representative body than the Senate, with over 25 black members; but the obvious reason for this (which also explains why the Senate is a better gauge of the country's sentiment), is that it takes an entire state to elect a senator and only a district to elect a Congressperson. Accordingly, the majority of black people in Congress come from predominantly black districts. The dearth of black people in the Senate does not necessarily demonstrate racism on the part of voters; it could also indicate an underrepresentation of blacks in the candidate pool. Of the four concerned groups, the only one that seems to have a lower representation than blacks in the Senate is homosexuals.

The word "gay" almost sounds like a bad word in politics. Despite the decrease in most Americans' attention spans, caused partly by the barrage of media through new and improved outlets, we have managed to retain our attention for sexual scandals in politics. From Donna Rice to Gennifer Flowers, America is interested in the sex life of its presidents and presidential hopefuls. However, no scandal involving homosexuality has ever tarnished the presidential campaign of a major candidate, due to the fact that no open homosexual would ever dare to run for president in a country as homophobic as America.

Many figures are bandied about regarding the homosexual population in the United States, but the most accepted one is 10 percent. Just to give voters the benefit of the doubt, though, let's say 5 percent of America is homosexual. To my knowledge, no senators are openly gay, and Barney Frank is the most outspoken homosexual in Congress. So we have a 0 percent gay population in the Senate and a fraction of a percent in the House. America may never be ready for a gay president, much less a first partner.

Minority voice is always in danger of being stifled. Many proponents of democracy in the late 18th and early 19th centuries feared that one great downfall of this type of political system was as de Toqueville put it, "the tyranny of the majority." Our forefathers feared the vices of majority factions, and looking at the Senate, we might say they were right. While the majority should often have the power to make decisions for others, a representative government should be truly representative. What is it about Americans that makes them so averse to the idea of a president who isn't like them?

In my paranoid Jewish conception of the world, I imagine Jews to occupy powerful, non-elected positions. Many Jews figure prominently in journalism and speech writing, for example, but elected politics? No way. Then to my amazement, I found out that there are 10 Jewish Senators (nine of whom are Democrats), more than any of the groups I am considering. They come from all over the country, including Oregon, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, two from Wiconsin and two from California. A group that represents a mere 2 percent of the American population occupies 10 percent of the Senate!

This statistic seems to violate the theory that Americans will only elect their own kind. What's going on? Simply, the Senate is not the presidency. A primarily Republican state like California (led by Republican Governor Pete Wilson) that has voted against such things as public benefits for immigrants and has eliminated affirmative action from its state university system, has somehow defied all odds and elected two Jewish women to be its senators. Does this indicate that California would do the same for the presidency? No. For the same reason black representation in the House is not a good indicator of their representation in the Senate, the Senate is not a good indicator of Jewish representation in the presidency. The Jewish component in the Senate indicates instead that Americans have overcome more of their antiSemitism than their racism, but having eight states with Jewish senators by no means implies that America is ready to see a Jew in the Oval Office.

Women have never figured prominently in American politics, even though 51.2 percent of America is female. This means that they theoretically possess the power to determine any election; yet there are only nine females in the Senate. Ten years ago, there were only two female senators, so female attendance in the Senate has vastly increased, perhaps indicating a trend, but because of their voting power, women should compose far more than 9 percent of the Senate. More importantly, why, when the world has seen Benazir Bhutto, Golda Meir, Corazon Aquino and Kim Campbell, has America never even had a serious female candidate for president? Is the answer that the American mindset hearkens back to the ancient conception of a woman as the passive matter and not the active form? Or is 77 years not enough time since gaining suffrage for women to have infiltrated the American political system? Or is it a combination of both?

While the Senate is certainly a better thermometer of American sentiment than the House, it is not a perfect indicator. The most telling evidence that Americans who are gay, black, Jewish or female, will be hard-pressed to ever see any of their own in the White House, is that there has never been a serious contender who was not a white Christian heterosexual male. Colin Powell is often used as a counter-example, but he never actually ran for president and no one quite knew what he stood for. If it had come to an election, be assured the color of his skin would have outweighed the content of his character.

If a hierachy of prejudice has to be determined for this article to have a purpose, an openly homosexual person has the least chance of becoming President of the United States, followed by a black person, and finally a Jew. My reason for this particular ordering are that the overriding sentiment in this country is prejudice toward all three in decreasing order. Homosexuals are the objects of the most discrimination because it is much more commonly accepted in the mainstream to be openly homophobic than it is to be racist or anti-Semitic. A woman has the best chance of becoming president because of the size of the female voting bloc; when America overcomes its fear of having a woman in a position of ultimate power, maybe the American Margaret Thatcher will step forward.

Will America ever be ready for a president without the proper descriptive adjectives? The answer should lie in the question, Why does it matter? Should we have a black president or a gay one or a Jewish one, just for the sake of it? No. If we had a female president, would our country be a better place? Not necessarily, no; in fact, it might be worse off--depending on who she was.

The reason American deserves to be criticized on this issue is precisely because it does not matter what the president is. We should not want the best white Christian heterosexual male for the job; we should want the best person for it. A climate that excludes everyone who doesn't fit into one of the above categories is one in which the best person may never get the chance to show it. Maybe the best president for America and the world in the 21st century is a black Jewish lesbian--or maybe not. Either way, we'll never know.

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