Sunday, September 7, 2008

What does choice of Palin say about social equality?

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune-Star, 9/7/2008
Alaska governor Sarah Palin’s nomination as Senator John McCain’s running mate for President of the United States insures that this election will be historic. Either way it turns out, a member of a historically discriminated against group will rise to the very top of political power.

Will the election of either one signal the end of sexism and racism the way anti-Catholicism was dealt a death-blow by the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960? Will the Civil Rights and/or Women’s Movement declare victory that their goals of real social equality have been realized?

I have spent the last 20+ years studying inequality in the United States. We know a lot about inequality, we are very good at measuring it, we are very good at explaining it. But what we don’t know is what equality looks like. When will we know that African Americans and women, two of the historically most discriminated against groups in our society, are equal to white males? Oh, I can offer many statistical measures of income, occupational status, and models of income determination that could demonstrate it, but in all those, there is a theoretical standard of “perfect” equality, a state I doubt will ever be achieved because it doesn’t exist.

I don’t know who said it, I tried to track it down, but I like this as a concept of social equality: when mediocre African Americans and mediocre women succeed at the same rate as mediocre white men.

If that is what social equality looks like, then neither the election of Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton fit. Both are extraordinary people with long lists of accomplishments and talents that few people of any color or sex possess. From an early stage of their adult lives, they were not “mediocre.”

Sarah Palin is different. With no disrespect to the University of Idaho, it’s mission is not focused on the preparation of America’s leaders in industry, commerce, government or the military. No doubt, there are a few Idaho governors (and one from Alaska) among its graduates, but it’s students are not among the academic best in the way they are at Columbia, Harvard, Wellesley, and the Naval Academy.

Sarah Palin’s early career was mediocre. After college she returned to her small hometown and worked as a sports reporter, and she settled down to make a life, just like so many other regular, “mediocre” people who will make their “way” but that “way” doesn’t include the top tier of America’s political, economic, or military power. She helped run the family fishing business with her husband. She made due like most of us: she worked, paid her bills, raised her kids. She was elected mayor of her small hometown in which less than 1000 people voted in the election.

Governor Palin is not the first running mate to be picked with a “mediocre” record. Indiana’s Dan Quayle, President George H. W. Bush’s Vice Presidential pick, was underwhelming. Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman to occupy a national party ticket in 1984, was also relatively inexperienced. So was Spiro Agnew, President Richard Nixon’s choice. In the rarified air of presidential politics, these picks were “mediocre.” Compared to Joe Biden, who has 30 years of senate experience and important leadership positions; Dick Cheney, who served in congress, in the Ford and first President Bush administrations, and was CEO of Halliburton Corporation; the first President Bush who served as CIA director, a congressman, ambassador to the UN, and presidential candidate; Al Gore, a four term congressman and two-term senator from Tennessee and presidential candidate; evaluating Governor Palin’s record as thin or mediocre is not a slight.

This essay, however, is not about whether Governor Palin is a good choice or not. It is about whether her selection as the Republican Vice Presidential nominee signals that women are socially equal to men because mediocre women now succeed at the same rate as mediocre men.

After watching her speech at the Republican Convention, it may be a slight to call her mediocre. If her gubernatorial accomplishments are what her supporters say, it raises the question of why she was not on the radar of rising, young Republican leaders like Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty or Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal. That Linda Lingle, a two-term Republican governor from reliably Democrat Hawaii and Sarah Palin were not on the radar of rising Republican leaders may indicate more about the state of social equality for women at this stage in our history than anything else.

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