The Magazine

THE GENDER CARD LOSES

Oct 16, 1995, Vol. 1, No. 05 • By GERTRUDE HIMMELFARB
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Race trumped gender" -- for me this comment, by a professor of government quoted in the Washington Post, is the most telling observation on the Simpson verdict.


For years I have been complaining of the "race/ class/gender" trinity that dominates academia, while my friends have been assuring me that this is a distinctly academic deformation, yet another example of the insularity and parochial nature of the university today. The Simpson trial, I am afraid, confirms the trickle-down theory: Sooner or later (sooner more often than later), the university's obsessions filter down throughout the educational system, the media, and society at large.


In fact, the race/cla ss/gender mantra is not quite accurate. "Class" should be in third place; in its present location it is a courtesy to dispossessed Marxists. Race and gender vie for primacy. These are not only crucial factors in the admission [ of students and appointment of professors; they are, j more significantly, the determining factors in the curriculum itself. No discipline is thought to be adequately presented, no subject adequately studied, unless it focuses on one or all of these components. They are presumed to be the defining attributes of all people, all knowledge, all reality.


With the Simpson trial, we can longer ignore the extent to which race and gender have infiltrated into the public consciousness and, more fatally, into the legal process. After decades of the most strenuous efforts to overcome racial and sexual stereotypes, to judge people as individuals rather than as members of groups, we have regressed to the concept of group identity. And precisely those who have most to lose by it have embraced it most enthusiastically.


The overwhelming support of Simpson by blacks throughout the trial and their jubilation at its outcome have nothing to do with the individual defendant and the murder of two other individuals, and everything to do with the fact of race. Those on both sides of the racial divide must now confront the true dimensions of racism in this country -- a racism revealed as much in the final appeal of the defense attorney as in the abhorrent prejudices of one of the prosecution witnesses.


In itself, this is no great surprise. We have seen it in previous trials, in poll data, and in innumerable public demonstrations. What is perhaps unique in the Simpson case is the stark competition between two rival group identities. "


In the university, gender usually trumps race, if only because women are so much more plentiful and feminists so much more powerful. Every subject, including the sciences, has by now been "engendered"; there is no comparable term for black or ethnic studies. "


Outside the university, however, race is more often the trump card. For feminists, spoiled by their success in shaping the public perception (or at least the media perception) of the Clarence Thomas hearings, this case is a resounding defeat. The Thomas hearings were not a fair test; with the black woman testifying against a black man, it was easy for white feminists to support the black woman as the victim of putative sexual harassment.


In the Simpson case the victims are a white woman and a white man, and the charge was nothing less than murder. That charge, moreover, was backed up by the undisputed fact of prior abuse by the husband, a textbook example of battered-wife syndrome. Directors of domestic violence shelters are reported as "devastated" by the outcome; one calls it a "major setback" for the cause of battered women. They also have good reason to be devastated by the fact that many of the black women in their shelters actually supported Simpson.


It is also a major setback, although feminists will find it hard to admit this, for the group thinking, the "engendered" thinking, that they have done so much to promote. If they have succeeded in collectivizing and homogenizing women, in representing women generically and congenitally as the victims of an oppressive patriarchy, they must face up to the fact that other groups will do the same. If they play the game of "sexual politics" (the title of an early feminist manifesto), they must be prepared for blacks to play the race card. And if not blacks, then any other group that finds it convenient to present itself as a victimized class.


It was an enormous achievement of civilization to transcend group identities and locate human dignity and responsibility in the individual. The regression to a race/class/gender mentality is yet further evidence of the de- moralization that afflicts our society -- the demoralization that occurs when individuals are deprived of their moral character, their responsibility as individual moral agents.



Gertrude Himmelfarb is the author, most recently, of The De-Moralization of Society (Alfred A. Knopf).