The "Firsts" That Hillary Clinton & Barack Obama Represent Have One Important Thing In Common

Eight years after America elected its first black president, the country is closer than ever to electing its first woman president. For similar but distinct reasons, those are both enormous milestones, and it’s quite possible that both will have been achieved by the end of 2016. Notably, the public’s reaction to the prospect of the first woman president has paralleled its reaction in 2008 to the prospect of the first black president in one very big way.

In both election cycles, pundits across the country entertained the notion of whether America was “ready for the first _____ president” (but, to be fair, this has been less common this time around than in 2008). While the question itself is both silly and oversimplistic, the reaction to the question says quite a bit about racism and sexism in America, and perhaps the nature of systemic inequality itself.

In a 2008 poll, 76 percent of Americans said that the country was indeed ready to have a black president. That was a 14 percent increase from 2006, but what was most notable was how the responses different between black and white respondents. In that poll, 78 percent of white people believed that America was ready for a black president, but only 69 percent of black respondents did.

This suggested that white Americans had a sunnier view of race relations in the US than did black Americans. Now, eight years later, the exact same dynamic is playing out with regard to Clinton’s candidacy, only with gender instead of race as the salient demographic factor.

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In a poll taken in March this year, 80 percent of Americans agreed that the country was “ready for a woman president” — an impressive 20 percent jump from 2006. But there was a “gender gap” in the responses: Eighty-three percent of men said America was ready to elect a woman, while only 76 percent of women did.

The gap wasn’t enormous in either case. Yet it hardly seems coincidental that white people and men, two of the most privileged classes in America, were more optimistic about racial and gender equality than women and non-whites . Women were less likely than men to think the country was ready to elect a woman president, and black Americans were less likely than white Americans to think the country was ready for a black president.

This reminds us of an important fact about American life: The destructive effects of systemic inequality are often invisible to those who aren’t affected by it. By and large, white Americans aren’t forced to grapple with the effects of racism every day of their lives. But most people of color are. Similarly, men don’t suffer from the damaging effects of patriarchal norms and institutional sexism on anything resembling a regular basis (if at all), so it’s far easier for them to simply ignore, willfully or not, these damaging effects. Women don’t have that luxury.

White men simply aren't forced to reckon with the uglier aspects of American life in the way that the rest of the country is. While it’s encouraging that a strong majority of Americans think the country is ready for a woman president, the fact that men are more optimistic about this than women isn’t a coincidence. Rather, it reflects the very nature of systemic inequality.