Race, Gender, and Class in American Politics: Anything New?

No. 232 - May 1, 2008

Throughout the world, May 1 is celebrated as May Day – the international workers’ day. The only exception is the United States. The irony is that May Day is celebrated in memory of an American event – the Haymarket Riot in Chicago. On May 1, 1886, in many U.S. cities workers engaged in a general strike in support of an eight-hour day. In Chicago, 80,000 workers marched down Michigan Avenue. On the fourth day of the demonstrations, at the very end of a rally in Haymarket Square, violence broke out. Its origin is contested to this day, but some policemen were killed. Subsequently, leaders of the strike were arrested and four were executed for what was termed murder. Although they were German immigrants to the United States, they died singing not The Star-Spangled Banner but La Marseillaise, an expression of international class solidarity. Despite this, politicians in the United States have always tried to downplay the importance of class conflict as a defining issue of U.S. politics, which is why the United States does not celebrate May Day.

In 2008, there is a fiercely contested election for the presidency in the United States. There is a primary contest in the Democratic Party between a woman and an African-American. The Republican candidate is a White male. In the beginning, everyone denied that either race or gender was an issue. But as the contest has become prolonged and more fierce, both race and gender as themes have come to the fore. Everyone is still denying that class is an issue.

The intersection between race, gender, and class is an old story in the modern world-system. It has been central to the political history of the United States. In 1848, a year of major political upheaval throughout the world, France was having the first serious social revolution in modern history, and in much of Europe there were nationalist uprisings, which historians have come to call “the springtime of the nations.” In the United States, the most important event was the Seneca Falls Convention, generally regarded as the founding moment of U.S. feminism. Its famous “Declaration of Sentiments” of July 19-20, 1848, echoing the “Declaration of Independence,” begins: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal.” Among the grievances listed were the fact that women were deprived of “the first right of a citizen, elective franchise,” a franchise that was given (this complaint foreshadowing future conflicts) to “ignorant and degraded men – both natives and foreigners.”

The leading African-American figure of the period, Frederick Douglass, attended Seneca Falls to offer the support of the African-American community – then still largely slaves – to the cause of women’s rights. Later in 1872, Douglass would be the vice-presidential candidate of the Equal Rights Party, on a ticket headed by Victoria Woodhull. This was the first time either a woman or an African-American would run for these offices.

When, however, after the Civil War, the U.S. Congress adopted the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which made unconstitutional the exclusion from voting of African-American male citizens, the women’s movement was dismayed that they were not included. Wendell Phillips, one of the leaders of the U.S. abolitionist movement, famously told them in May, 1865 that the demands of women’s suffrage should not be pressed at the moment, for “this is the Negro’s hour.” Many women suffragists did not stand by mute. As a response, Elizabeth Stanton and Susan B. Anthony supported the presidential campaign of George Francis Train, a known racist, who however advocated women’s suffrage. The outcome was a profound split in the feminist movement.

As the women’s movement became more conservative on all social/labor issues in the second half of the nineteenth century, so did it on all ethnic/racial issues. In the course of this conservative shift, many feminists abandoned the natural rights argument. They began to argue that women be given the vote “to balance the impact of the foreign born.” In 1903, the main women’s movement came out for an “educational requirement” for the vote (to the notable but lonely dissent of Charlotte Perkins Gilman). At the height of this tension, some suffragists even resorted to crude racism. For example, they issued a poster of a brutish-looking Negro porter sitting next to a refined-looking White lady with a caption that read “He can vote; why can’t I?”

In all this conflict between the victims of inequality (race versus gender), there was virtually no talk of class, although the vast majority of both African-Americans and women were working class, as they still are today. Thus it is that an avowedly conservative Republican candidate, who has throughout his career voted to support the interests of the upper classes and against all legislation that would be in the interests of the working classes (called in the United States the “middle class”), can hope to attract some working-class voters who are not ready to accept the idea that either a woman or an African-American can be the president of the United States.

Is there anything new? Well, yes there is. The very idea that the two possible candidates of the Democratic Party are a woman and an African-American is something that was unthinkable a mere decade ago. The election of one or the other may yet turn out to be unthinkable. But that depends on the degree to which the Democratic Party can organize its campaign around class issues, which are delicately called issues of “the economy.” If it does, it will probably sweep the elections. If it does not, the contest will be close.