Even the dimmest media bulbs have noticed that there's something a little different about this year's crop of Democratic presidential candidates. Hillary Clinton, who won the New Hampshire primary, appears to have an extra X chromosome. Meanwhile, Barack Obama, who won the Iowa caucuses, has been blessed with some extra melanin in his skin, which also makes him stand out from the usual crowd of middle-aged, white-guy candidate-clones.
The media just can't stop gushing and clucking and gasping about it all. Oh, my gosh, Hillary Clinton is female! Barack Obama is, uh, black! Will American voters accept a female candidate? A black candidate? Are voters more sexist or more racist? What's a bigger problem in America today, sexism or racism?
These questions are tedious and inane. Simplistic efforts to evaluate whether racism or sexism is "worse" are inherently meaningless. Racism and sexism operate in complex and different ways. We should reflect on the ways in which racism and sexism have marred our history and cast shadows over our future, but let's not turn it into a parlor game about who's got it worse, women or blacks.
Increasingly, the media obsession with whether Americans will be less likely to vote for a black man or for a woman is also beside the point -- because to an emerging generation of younger voters, the very terms in which the questions have been framed no longer make much sense.
Start with race. In the context of the 2008 election, the question, "Would you vote for a black man for president?" takes for granted certain assumptions: that there is a clearly defined category we can label "black men," that Obama fits into that category and that belonging to that category matters.
For Americans over 40, these may seem like perfectly justified assumptions. Of course there's a category properly labeled "black men." Of course Obama fits into that category -- he's got that extra melanin, right? Which makes him black, which matters, because "black maleness" triggers a set of associations that affect how people think about him.
But increasingly, there's evidence that younger Americans just don't think about race in the same simplistic ways. They're more likely than older Americans to be minorities themselves, for one thing. In 2006, only 19.8% of Americans over 60 were minorities, compared with about 40% of Americans under the age of 40. And younger minorities come from a far wider range of racial and ethnic backgrounds than their older counterparts. Once, "minority" largely meant "black," which in turn meant "descendant of the Africans brought to the U.S. as slaves." Some of today's young minorities fit that profile, but others are descended from Filipino farmers, Chinese schoolteachers, Iranian engineers, Mexican construction workers, Congolese doctors or Haitian shopkeepers.
The tapestry gets even richer. The number of inter-marriages has gone up dramatically over the last few decades, and as a consequence, so has the number of multiracial young Americans, who -- like Obama -- are neither this nor that, but a bit of this and bit of that, with a healthy dollop of something else. And regardless of their own status, younger Americans are more likely than older Americans to have dated inter-racially, to have close friends of other races and to live in families with relatives from other racial and ethnic backgrounds.
As a result, race literally isn't a black-and-white issue for many younger Americans. Questions like "Would you vote for a black man?" just don't compute because they assume a reality that's ceasing to exist, in which the term "black" has a fixed meaning, in which Obama's rich heritage can be reduced to a single word.
Younger Americans tend to think differently about gender. Generation Y -- those born after 1977 -- is dramatically more accepting of nontraditional gender roles than older generations; a recent survey found, for example, that 63% "completely disagree" that women should "return to traditional roles" in society. These younger Americans are also far more comfortable with homosexuality, which makes them less likely to assume that women who behave in less "traditional" ways must "really" be lesbians -- and if they are, Gen Y-ers wonder, who cares?
Americans under 30 grew up in a world in which women are CEOs and secretaries of State, and in which women make up the majority of U.S. college students. And, as with race, most younger Americans can't see what the big deal is. Of course a woman can be president. Of course being tough -- or getting a little teary-eyed -- on the campaign trail doesn't make you more or less feminine, or more or less suited to power.
For younger voters, "Do you think a woman or a black man could be a good president?" is the wrong question. As women and men increasingly work side by side and share power, as the U.S. becomes a more complex, multiracial and multiethnic nation, younger voters may increasingly be asking themselves a very different question: Can a middle-aged white guy possibly be qualified to lead us into the future?