prejudice in politics

By Paul Kienitz

I was talking to a friend of mine, who grew up in the South and now lives in Berkeley, about the recent election, and though in most ways she doesn't appear nearly as visibly leftist or radicalized as me, she's very aware of issues of racial and sexual prejudice, and had some interesting observations about the elections that I hadn't noticed myself. The important points of the conversation, paraphrased in concise form, were something like this:

her: "That's how prejudice works in elections. A week before the election the polls say the woman or minority candidate is ahead, but when people get in the booth they suddenly don't want to vote for anyone but a white male, and the minority candidate gets substantially fewer votes than anyone predicts."

me: "I've often noticed that voters get cold feet about any kind of change as election day draws close. In the spring they want to throw the bums out, but in late October they change their minds and side with the incumbent. Or with the more conservative candidate, if there's no incumbent in the race. This is part of the same pattern of avoiding change."

her: "And it works very strongly against women. Most male incumbents are re-elected with little difficulty. Women incumbents have no such advantage."

me: "Ann Richards lost to a marine invertebrate, Kathleen Brown lost badly against a distinctly unpopular incumbent, after leading by a huge margin in the summer, and Dianne Feinstein won by the skin of her teeth after polls had shown her with a much better lead."

her: "And look at what Feinstein is. She's sixty years old, with twenty years experience in politics and one of the strongest records of accomplishment ever seen in a Senate freshman, she's in the center on most issues, and she has plenty of money. Her opponent has no public service experience, he's twenty years younger, he's known to be hardly a real resident of the state he's running in, he represents an ideology popular with a much smaller part of the population..."

me: "And he committed major gaffes late in the campaign."

her: "Right. THAT IS WHAT IT TAKES for a woman to be able to win!"


her: "Did you see the results of the judicial confirmation votes?"

me: "No, I didn't even bother with that section of the ballot."

her: "I had fun with it. I voted yes for all the women and no for all the men. (laughter)"

me: "(snort)"

her: "I looked at the results, and all of the incumbents were reconfirmed easily, with three exceptions: the two women I voted for, and one man. I wondered why he'd done so much worse than the others, and then I remembered: oh, he's the one who's black."


her: "In the Berkeley School Board race, two thirds of the candidates running were black, and all of the winners were white. No wait, one of them was a very light skinned black man. He was an engineer or something with no school-related experience. That was true of some of the other winners too -- less qualified than the people who lost."

me: "I've noticed myself that plenty of black men successful in politics are light skinned. Like Lionel Wilson, who was mayor of Oakland for twelve years."

[Lionel Wilson is not only light skinned but has straightened hair. He is one of the UGLIEST mothafuggas you ever saw. An awful mayor, too. Oakland has a majority black population, but not until 1990 did we elect a black mayor who LOOKS black, or ever talks black.]

her: "Even in Berkeley, even the liberal slate for something like rent board is typically chosen to include exactly one token minority candidate."

[This friend is, by the way, a professional computer programmer employed by a large famous software company. She reports that, contrary to many popular stories, she sees PLENTY of anti-woman and anti-minority bias in her industry. In her company, white male INCOMPETENTS and DRUNKS get promoted over women or the one black man on the premises.]
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