Who Would Ida B. Wells Vote For?

BY Laura S. Washington

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When a white train conductor tried to roust Wells from her seat, she bit him, sued the railroad and won -- long before Rosa Parks boarded a bus.

Racism or sexism – which is worse? Take your pick. Paula Giddings’ new biography, Ida: A Sword Among Lions: Ida B. Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching, offers both options.

The always compelling, at times calamitous, life of this underappreciated black heroine is examined in exhaustive detail by Giddings, a professor of Afro American studies at Smith College.

Wells, an educator, journalist, suffragist and politician, experienced more than her share of political and social mayhem. And that tumultuous career parallels the 2008 presidential nominating contest.

Are African-American women truly “black enough” if they sport a Hillary Clinton button? Are they betraying sisterhood if they jump on the Barack Obama juggernaut?

Truth be told, too many times my sisters have been abandoned by the white-dominated feminist movement and dissed by their black “brothers.”

Wells, who was born a Mississippi slave in 1862 and died on the South Side of Chicago at the age of 68, spent a lifetime dealing with her justified anger at the prejudice her heritage dealt her. She was mad – but she got even.

Nothing is more effective than an angry black woman. Since 2003, I have been privileged to hold the Ida B. Wells-Barnett chair at DePaul University. So I had to grin when Giddings’ wrote that Wells had a “reputation as a ‘difficult’ woman.” “Wells was certainly that,” Giddings writes, “even when taking into account the double standard applied to assertive, independent women.”

Many of “us” can relate.

At 21, Wells stood down a white train conductor on a Chesapeake & Ohio train in Tennessee. “Colored” women weren’t allowed to ride in the “ladies’ car.” When the conductor tried to roust Wells from her seat, she bit him, sued the railroad and won. Wells took that stand in 1883, more than 70 years before Rosa Parks boarded that bus in Montgomery, Ala.

Wells spent a lifetime on the receiving end of a double-barreled barrage of racism and sexism. Her journalistic crusade to wipe out the horrors of lynching was stymied by the black men she sought to defend. Her male colleagues resented her professional success and attacked her for being too strident for her time. And Wells, a fierce proponent of women’s suffrage, was occasionally treated like a second-class citizen by her white counterparts.

Since the days when prepubescent black girls were put on the auction block to be sold as handmaidens for white Southern belles, an uneasy alliance between black and white women has existed in America. Even today, many African-American women view the traditional feminist movement as elitist and clueless about the complex sociocultural landscape of black America.

Those are the same women who no doubt bristled at Gloria Steinem’s recent op-ed in the New York Times. The feminist icon made the Clinton case by arguing that “gender is probably the most restricting force in American life.” That left many black women thinking, ‘Where have you been for us, sistuh?’

It’s black women, after all, who too often find themselves, and their children, near the bottom of nearly every socioeconomic measure. So they have the most to gain – or lose – if Democrats end up with the wrong nominee.

Don’t ask us what side we are on. Tell us what you are going to do about bread-and-butter issues, such as the coming recession, our crumbling schools, the exploding housing crisis and the lack of access to healthcare.

Racism or sexism? A recent CBS News poll suggests a bit of both. The survey, released in mid-March, found that American voters are a bit more likely to believe that a woman presidential candidate will have a harder time than a black man. Thirty-nine percent of registered voters said a woman “faces more obstacles on presidential politics today,” while 33 percent said a black candidate does. And 42 percent said Clinton has been judged “more harshly” in the campaign because of her gender. Twenty-seven percent said Obama has been judged “more harshly” because of his race.

Yet more voters – 42 percent – said that, in general, racism is a “serious problem.” Only 10 percent said it was sexism.

Ida B. Wells once said: “Somebody must show that the Afro-American race is more sinned against than sinning, and it seems to have fallen upon me to do so.”

If Wells were with us today, she would declare for Obama.

Laura S. Washington, an In These Times contributing editor, is a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and political analyst for ABC 7-Chicago.

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