Hillary, Bernie, Gender and Race: Hard Truths about Bias Among White Male Progressives

By Peter Daou and Tom Watson

In recent weeks, the Democratic nomination battle has veered into sensitive territory: race and gender. Bernie Sanders supporters are falsely accusing Hillary of “playing the gender card” and of unfairly calling out the racially-charged urban/rural distinction on guns.

We are long-time Bernie admirers and certainly do not believe he is sexist or racist. Neither does Hillary Clinton. Contrary to the media’s attempts to stoke Democratic conflict and despite the protestations of some of Bernie’s supporters, Hillary is not accusing him of being sexist or racist. She is doing something much more targeted and much more significant: pointing out unspoken and uncomfortable blind spots among white males on the left.

Emily Crockett explains:

What Clinton was pointing out was a subtler, more pervasive kind of discrimination — and the disbelieving response of both the Sanders campaign and the media shows why she was right to bring it up.

Clinton made a spot-on point about how women are perceived. She didn't say or imply that Bernie intentionally slighted her based on her gender. She did imply that her gender made him see her differently, and that many women have this same experience all the time. That idea should be a lot less controversial than it often turns out to be.

There's a reason so many women instantly identified with her remark. It's because across the board, people tend to mentally turn up the volume when women speak — and research proves it. 

As white male progressives, we welcome Hillary’s willingness to confront a problem on our side. Insensitivity on race and gender is cultural and it isn’t isolated to the right. After all, the early history of the liberal blogosphere and the netroots, of which we are original members, is one dominated by white males. Exclusion and invisible bias exist everywhere.

Amanda Marcotte elaborates:

William Saletan of Slate is lobbing an accusation at Hillary Clinton — that she’s playing the “race card” on gun control — that would more normally come out of Republican mouths trying to silence the opposition on this issue. Saletan previously wrote a piece denouncing Hillary Clinton for teasing Sanders over a moment in the Democratic debate when Sanders told her not to shout. The anger of that piece felt like an overreaction; Hillary and her supporters delivered more of a mild nose-tweaking than some outraged accusation of misogyny. 

Now Saletan’s overreacting to an even more reasonable point — though not a joke — that Clinton is making about one of Sanders’ talking points justifying his lax voting record on gun control: That there are some ugly racial implications to it. 

No doubt Clinton is poking a weak spot in her opponent’s case, but Saletan is also missing the forest for the trees here. Sanders most likely didn’t intend for his talking point about rural vs. urban gun ownership to have any racial implications. But those implications are nonetheless there. I doubt that Clinton or any of the other people troubled by his remarks believe he is speaking out of anything but ignorance. But that ignorance is still a problem. 

If you’re familiar with this history and rhetoric, it’s not hard to hear the racial implications of suggesting that “rural” folks are responsible, safe gun users — while “urban” folks are not. On the contrary, it’s hard not to hear that. Sanders may mean well, but his constituents who insist that they are just wholesome gun owners, unlike some people, probably do not mean well.

Marcotte is making a crucial distinction between intentional and unintentional bias, something we’ve become increasingly familiar with since we launched #HillaryMen.

Our forceful and unabashed advocacy for Hillary, as well as the gender lens we’re applying to the election, has placed us on the receiving end of angry criticism from a segment of Bernie supporters. Without exaggeration, they are virtually all white men, many of them dedicated progressive activists. There is a large degree of resentment among this cohort in the big tent Democratic Party who insist that their candidate has checked the right feminist boxes, that they themselves support women’s issues, and that an eventual first woman President of the United States must wait for a female candidate as "perfect" as their man.

This attitude has created a palpable rift among progressives, driven by an obvious gender gap. Our friend Rebecca Traister, a progressive who is admittedly ambivalent about Hillary’s public policy history, captured this chasm perfectly in her incisive Elle essay last month:

And oh, those guys—my friends, my colleagues, my professional sparring partners—make me mad. Not just because they'd never in a million years admit that their preference for a white guy has anything to do with gender, or because they suggest that I'm the regressive one for caring that Hillary's a woman. I mean, obviously those things make me mad too. But the real bitch is when I hear her attacked by men who claim to be feminists but actually despise her with inexplicable intensity, when I hear her supporters belittled for their cute investment in a non-male presidential power. It makes me spittingly angry. It transforms me into a knee-jerk defender of a candidate about whom I actually feel very torn. I'm allowed to criticize Hillary all I want, but damn if another round of sniping from liberal white boys isn't going to radicalize me in her defense all over again.

We understand where Traister is coming from. While Bernie Sanders himself has steered clear of negative campaigning to date – though he’s now hinting at a cataclysmically bad choice urged on him by his campaign consultants – the attacks on Hillary from white male liberals have reached our front door from the very start of #HillaryMen. Having each traveled a long journey to this point in our political activism, we have endeavored to see the incoming fire through the lens of experience and with a mindset of tolerance, not defensiveness.

Perhaps the best way to explain our stance is to quote extensively from a very personal piece Peter wrote about the Black Lives Matter movement:

An epiphany about race and gender, to my fellow white males: No matter how sincerely we think we get it, we don’t really get it.

I’ll explain. 

It started in 2012 when I met my wife Leela, who is of Indian heritage but is ethnically ambiguous and regularly mistaken for someone she is not. Two things there is no confusion about: to the outside world, she is a woman and she is non-white. 

My rude awakening began almost immediately after Leela moved into my apartment in Battery Park City, an oasis in the bustling heart of the world’s money machine. A day after she moved in, she came home visibly upset. I asked what happened. Apparently, the doorman had blocked her from entering the building, refusing to believe that the keys she was carrying were legitimately hers. She had to convince him to check the approved tenants list before he allowed her to go to her own home. 

The incidents piled up. Things that may seem small to someone who doesn’t endure these experiences, but that in aggregate soured her daily life. The cabs that wouldn’t stop when she tried to hail them but hit the brakes and backed up when they saw she was with me. The clerks asking her to verify her ID every time she presented a credit card. The smiles at me from neighbors and barely concealed scowls at her when I turned away. The usual catcalls and crude comments when she walked alone. It quickly became clear that although we shared the same day to day life, her existence was profoundly different from mine. 

The event that brought it to a head was when she pressed ‘PH’ in the elevator and the other occupant, a white male, asked which penthouse apartment she was going to clean. The idea that she lived there didn’t occur to him. When I heard about it, my indignation was palpable. It was the indignation and disrespect she lived with every day and that was alien to me. 

Over the years we’ve been together, like all couples, Leela and I have shared our deepest secrets. But nothing we spoke about prepared me for the steady accumulation of little emotional cuts, the insults of everyday life that keep her guard up at all times. This was something entirely new to me. 

A progressive activist since college, I’d convinced myself that I was sensitive to the plight of others, enlightened about the hardships that humans face, self-aware enough to know that my experience was not necessarily that of the people around me. As a Lebanese-American who grew up a child of war and witnessed and survived death and destruction, I told myself that I got it. I knew to respect the perspective of other individuals, no matter how different that perspective was from mine. 

What I didn’t realize was that we are stuck in our own heads far more than we can appreciate and that empathy has limitations. As a white male, I can convince myself that I understand racism and sexism, but it’s far more intellectual than visceral. My point of view is distorted by the culture I exist in. 

Until I married Leela and saw the world through her eyes, I was partially blind, believing I saw the harsh truths but only seeing them through a white-tinted lens. Living life as a woman of color is an automatic double strike against you. Leela and I move through the same physical space but our mental space is altered by the people around us, by the insidious prejudice (pre-judgment) surrounding us and shaping our reality. 

I say all this as #BlackLivesMatter draws stark lines of demarcation between those who get it and those who don’t. I know I’ll never fully feel what Leela feels, but I can still rage against racism, fight inequality and injustice. I can still take a stand and make a difference, but I must do it with humility and acknowledgment of my own biases.

The point is this: we have to speak about (and accept the existence of) difficult realities about gender and race if we intend to make true progress. Denying the gender gap on the left doesn’t help the progressive movement. It hurts it. And pretending that white male progressives are automatically immune from deeply-ingrained institutional and cultural biases hinders our progress on the path to true fairness and justice.

As our friend Addie Stan observed a month ago in the American Prospect: "In 2016, the fear of female power abides."

Hillary is hitting sore spots, thus the reaction from some of Bernie’s supporters. But those sore spots are weak links in the progressive chain that must be addressed. We can only hope that speaking hard truths doesn’t expose Hillary to ugly Republican-style attacks from other Democrats.

If the Democratic primary devolves into that kind of acrimony and crass politics, everyone loses.

UPDATE (11/6/15): At Slate, Michelle Goldberg weighs in on the gender debate: 

The problem with the progressive men who’ve lately become experts on feminism isn’t that they won’t vote for Clinton. It’s their defensive petulance at any mention of anti-Clinton sexism. “Are you planning to vote for Bernie Sanders when primary time rolls around? If so, I am discouraged to report that you are a sexist, and also tremendously uncool,” Bruenig writes with peevish sarcasm. He’s a smart man; it’s hard to believe he doesn’t understand how much he sounds like a conservative grumbling that he can’t criticize Obama without being called a racist.

Of course, people of good faith are going to disagree about individual examples of sexism. What’s immensely frustrating, however, is to realize how many ostensibly enlightened men think that gender can ever be totally disaggregated from Clinton’s efforts to become the first female president. They seem to believe that their class politics exempt them from taking sexism seriously. They certainly don’t care about female leadership.


Peter Daou and Tom Watson founded #HillaryMen to provide actionable analysis of the 2016 campaign focusing on the gender barrier in U.S. politics. Peter is a former senior digital adviser to Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Global Initiative. He is a veteran of two presidential campaigns (Kerry '04 and Clinton '08). Tom is an author and Columbia University lecturer who advises companies and non-profits on social activism.