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An open letter to senator Hillary Clinton

Dear Senator Clinton,

Since this election year seems to be the year of demographics, let me set out mine. I am a 51-year-old, unmarried, white woman. I am a Christian, a feminist and a Democrat who teaches political science at a small, church-affiliated university. My salary sets me squarely in the middle class. For over two decades I have taught courses on women and politics and women and the law. Until this week, I had planned on voting for you on April 22 in the Pennsylvania primary. I have changed my mind. Here are my reasons.

On Iraq, I have given you a pass despite your vote in October 2002 to authorize the President to use all force that was “necessary and appropriate” to wage war in Iraq and despite your not saying the vote was a mistake. Any woman running for president must look “strong on defense” in order to answer the sexist question, “Can a woman be commander in chief?” On healthcare, I like your plan more than Senator Obama’s.

But leadership is more than policies. There is that elusive notion of character. It is this aspect that has emerged as decisive for me in the past few weeks.

Who would have thought that a woman and a black man would be the two frontrunners for the Democratic nomination? We have, as a nation, made progress in overcoming sexist and racist barriers and should be encouraged, but this situation brings unique responsibilities for each of you. To certain groups in our society each of you represents “the other;” as a result, the two of you have the opportunity to educate us about differences, both real and imagined, and to quell remaining fears. Recently, you, Senator Clinton, had two opportunities to educate us, but you chose not to do so, and instead pandered to our fear of “the other.”

The first opportunity was during the “60 Minutes” interview that aired on March 2. An email had been and still is circulating, stating that Senator Obama is a Muslim, an obvious bigoted scare tactic. Steve Kroft asked you, “You don’t believe Senator Obama’s a Muslim?” Your immediate answer was, “Of course not.” Pressed again, you said, “No, there is nothing to base that on, as far as I know.” To your credit, you added, “I have a great deal of sympathy for anybody who gets, you know, smeared with the kind of rumors that go on all the time.” But there was still that troublesome “as far as I know.”

Why the qualifier? You could have insisted, “Senator Obama is a fellow Christian, and, like me, his Christian faith has informed and does inform his political views about what a just society should look like.” A lost opportunity.

The most important opportunity came on Tuesday, March 25, when you finally responded to Senator Obama’s speech regarding his pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. That speech moved and challenged me in ways few public speeches have done in my lifetime. It was nuanced, complex and thoughtful, not flashy, not demagogic. It opened up a window of opportunity for dialogue, and I anticipated a similarly nuanced, thoughtful response from you. This is what you said, “He [Rev. Wright] would not have been my pastor. You don’t choose your family, but you choose what church you want to attend.”

I had hoped for more. You could have talked to us about the history of the black church and its role in the black community. Yes, people choose churches, but what exactly does “choice” mean in the context of race relations in this country? Surely, you could have talked to prominent black pastors for insights into how to respond in such a way that would have educated us non-black folks about prophetic preaching in black churches.

You could have noted that silence about social injustice often reigns in white churches. You could have quoted Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” written to white clergy who were urging moderation in the face of discrimination. Dr. King wrote, “Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world?”

You could have offered us a way into imaginative empathy by quoting Cornel West, from his book, Race Matters: “Do we have the intelligence, humor, imagination, courage, tolerance, love, respect, and will to meet the challenge? Time will tell. None of us alone can save the nation or the world. But each of us can make a positive difference if we commit ourselves to do so.”

You chose none of these responses. Instead you played the scary-black-minister card. This is not the leadership for which I am looking.

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