Newsday ( New York)
March 24, 2008
By Tom Brune
WASHINGTON – In his speech on race last week, Barack Obama tapped into a significant subtext of this year’s presidential contest when he sharply attacked the suggestion that his candidacy is "an exercise in affirmative action."
The unspoken reality is that the field of contenders for the White House bears an uncanny resemblance to a familiar scenario at workplaces across the country, a case study right out of a diversity workshop.
Three senior officials want to be chief executive: an older white man with decades of experience, a middle-aged professional woman with some experience, and a well-educated younger black man with the least experience.
Who should get the job: Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a 71-year-old white man; Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), a 60-year-old white woman; or Sen. Obama (D-Ill.), a 46-year-old black man?
Now, with a choice for the first time ever of someone other than a white man for the White House, voters are wrestling with many of the same issues of race and gender that corporate managers have struggled with for decades.
As both managers and voters make their decisions, they probably weigh experience, policies and a host of other factors. But it is easy to get bogged down in stereotypes and focused on racial and gender identities, said experts in management, diversity and politics.
"What Senator Obama said about being stuck on race is true," said Roosevelt Thomas, a consultant on diversity management. "It’s true in the workplace and it’s true in society."
One sign of that is that despite Obama’s repeated call to move beyond race, many people this year are still voting along racial and gender lines.
While there are few head-to-head competitions including all three candidates, exit polls for the Democratic primaries show blacks overwhelmingly voted for Obama and the majority of white women voted for Clinton, indicating that for the first time women are casting votes specifically to elect a woman.
Other polls indicate that after Democrats sort out the battle between Clinton and Obama, the majority of white men are likely to vote for McCain in November.
"There is definitely this racial divide and gender divide that is becoming more salient," said Kim Fridkin, who studies gender and politics at Arizona State University.
The experts suggested several reasons for the racial and gender voting: pride or a sense of identity by African-Americans and women, good or bad workplace experiences, or even a real desire for change by electing the first black or female president.
But Fridkin also said the tension arising in the primary battle between Clinton and Obama yielded former vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro’s gripe that Obama’s race gave him an advantage – in effect, let him "cut in line," a complaint heard from those passed over in workplaces with affirmative action policies.
Obama is not the only candidate dealing with a preconceived notion about him.
Clinton has wondered aloud about whether voters’ views of her are influenced by questions about a woman’s ability to be tough enough to be president. And McCain sets an arduous campaign schedule to help overcome some voters’ concern that he is simply too old for the job.
Berkeley Law School Dean Christopher Edley Jr., who conducted a review of affirmative action for the Clinton White House in 1995, disagrees with the notion that race and gender are dominating the presidential contest because Obama has won in states where most voters are white.
"Obama’s success has exploded cynical preconceptions about the willingness of voters to cross the color line," he said, "although it would be wrong to suggest that either race or gender are irrelevant."
But to keep race and gender in perspective, Edley gives voters the same advice as John Gabarro of Harvard Business School offers corporate clients: Avoid "wooden stereotypes."
The question is, Edley said, can the political process "get beyond those simple but powerful, demography-driven narratives to appreciate the character, values and policies of three real people"?
Ultimately, electing a president is vastly different from selecting a chief executive, and while affirmative action policies may be in effect in workplaces they do not exist in elections.
"Voters are certainly less likely to give a plus factor to race or gender than a corporate executive might," said John Skrentny, who has studied affirmative action at University of California at San Diego.
Still, Skrentny added, "As with employment decisions, after the election we will not know the true extent to which race and gender mattered."