During his 1984 presidential bid Jesse Jackson vowed to choose a woman as his running mate - the only candidate to do so during the primaries. Having drawn in a new cohort of voters, he mobilised the "rainbow coalition" of blacks, Latinos, trade unionists, feminists, peace activists and gays to mount a credible challenge to the Democratic party establishment. Originally treated as a fringe candidate, he came in third with 20% of the vote. So even as the party sought to sideline him as an individual, they knew that he had awakened a constituency whose demands they would have to engage with.
Walter Mondale, the eventual nominee, chose Geraldine Ferraro as his vice-presidential partner - an important first for a major party and a big victory for the advancement of women in American politics. In the wake of her selection, recalls professor and activist Angela Davis, Jackson supporters wore buttons announcing: "Jesse opened the door, Ferraro walked through!"
Whether the relationship was quite so causal is debatable. But what is clear is that the nature of Jackson's candidacy was instrumental in creating the context in which choosing Ferraro was possible.
The notion that struggles for equality are interconnected and that we all rise together or can all fall separately is evidently one that was lost on Ferraro. Last week Ferraro, who is supporting Hillary Clinton, claimed that presidential hopeful Barack Obama is only leading in the Democratic primaries because he is black. "If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position," she said. "And if he was a woman of any colour, he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept."
This is clearly ludicrous. True, like every other candidate, Obama has to run on his story, and race is an important part of that story. But if being a black man is such an electoral advantage, then how is it that they make up 6% of the population and only 1% of the senate (Obama)? As the recent controversy over his former pastor shows, for all the votes that Obama gets because he is black there are at least as many that he loses for the same reason.
But when it comes to the absurd notion that Obama is the candidate of privilege, Ferraro is sadly not alone. The last few months have seen a procession of older, white feminists claim that Obama's presidential ambitions represent both a setback for women and a victory for race over gender.
Most shocking, given her lifetime of thoughtful and impassioned activism, was Gloria Steinem, who argued in an article in the New York Times: "Gender is probably the most restricting force in American life, whether the question is who must be in the kitchen or who could be in the White House ... Black men were given the vote a half-century before women of any race were allowed to mark a ballot, and generally have ascended to positions of power, from the military to the boardroom, before any women."
Without acknowledging that black men in America were lynched for attempting to exercise their vote for almost 50 years after white women went freely to the polls, her argument was as selective in its accuracy as it was divisive in its effect. Steinem would later claim she was misunderstood. Given the clarity of expression for which she is renowned and that this was the central thrust of her piece, it is difficult to see how this can have happened.
Then came Robin Morgan, author of a famous feminist essay, Goodbye to All That, who revived her 30-year-old refrain for modern times. "A few non-racist countries may exist - but sexism is everywhere," she wrote. "So why should all women not be as justly proud of our womanhood and the centuries, even millennia, of struggle that got us this far, as black Americans, women and men, are justly proud of their struggles?"
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Recently a regional director for the National Organization for Women (Now) told the Washington Post: "There are some people who promote Barack Obama because they want anybody but a woman. Would they like a white man instead of a black man? Of course. But they'll take a black man over a woman."
This attempt to play race off against gender as though they were bargaining chips is not new. In the wake of the American civil war a fierce debate raged over the 15th amendment to the US constitution, which planned to give the vote to black men but not any women. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, one of the nation's leading suffragettes, believed that to enfranchise black men was a licence for an explosion of sexual violence. In the feminist paper the Revolution, she wrote that, forced to chose: "We prefer Bridget and Dinah at the ballot box to Patrick and Sambo." Black men have, at times, been similarly exclusionary. "The only position for women in SNCC [the student wing of the civil rights movement] is prone," Stokely Carmichael once said.
Indeed, counterposing race and gender in this way is about as reductive and reactionary as identity politics can be. For a start, it relegates black women to a subsidiary role, treating them not as whole human beings but divided selves embodying binary identities that are in conflict and contradiction. Sometimes they're black. Sometimes they're women. Somehow they never seem to get to be both at the same time.
"I really believe the biggest divide in the world is men versus women, but most people don't seem to feel that way," says Marj Signer, president of Now's Virginia chapter. "A lot of people identify with race first, and so that can mean Obama. They forget about sexism." Or maybe black women just saw where Signer was coming from and decided to head in another direction.
To treat identities as monolithic and interchangeable in this way is deeply flawed. Class, gender, race, sexual orientation - you name the identity and it will have its own roots, dynamics and dimensions. Sexism and racism have different histories and operate in different ways. To try to simply exchange one for the other - even for rhetorical purposes - won't teach you much about either.
Ranking identities as though they belong in definitive league tables is an insidious process that seeks to privilege one person's experience and pain over another's. In these discussions context is everything. To compare and contrast the qualitative differences between how certain identities function can be instructive. But to rank them quantitatively as though one inherently takes precedence over the other - always and in all ways - is the first step towards fundamentalism.
This is the kind of competition for which there are not only no winners but, in this particular case, for which there is no need. Both Obama and Clinton are unworthy vessels for this kind of antagonism. Neither is standing on an anti-racist or feminist agenda. There is no suggestion that she would be any worse on race than he is or that he would be any worse on gender than she is.
Pitting underrepresented groups against each other in this way simply undermines any potential for building the kind of progressive coalitions necessary to eradicate the very obstacles to the emergence of more black and female candidates. If this is what the Democrats do to each other, just imagine what fun the Republicans will have.
Gary Younge's most recent book is Stranger in a Strange Land: Encounters in the Disunited States; he is also the author of No Place Like Home, published in 1999g.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2008