There comes a time in every campaign when a surrogate causes a headache for a candidate. That’s no less true when the surrogate is a beloved MC.
Killer Mike, the rapper who has been one of Bernie Sanders’s most high-profile backers, was speaking at Morehouse College in his hometown of Atlanta Tuesday night when he said … well, that’s part of the question. On Twitter, his remarks were first reported as this, presumably a swipe at Hillary Clinton: “A uterus doesn’t qualify you to be president of the United States.”
If that were the full comment, there’d be no question that it was an outrageously sexist remark. But that’s actually only a part of what he said. Here’s the full quote:
When people tell us, “hold on, wait a while”—and that’s what the other Democrat is telling you—“Hold on, Black Lives Matter, just wait a while. Hold on, young people in this country, just wait a while.” And then she get good, she have your own momma come to you, your momma sit down and say, “Well you’re a woman.” But I talked to Jane Elliott a few weeks ago, and Jane said, “Michael, a uterus doesn't qualify you to be president of the United States. You have to have policies that's reflective of social justice.”
(As Emily Crockett explains for Vox, Elliott is an activist he’s cited before.)
The backlash to Killer Mike’s comments was quick, with many people accusing him of sexism. It has continued into Tuesday, with condemnations from groups like NARAL Pro-Choice America, which has endorsed Clinton. It also brought new scrutiny for Killer Mike’s lyrics. He fired back on Twitter:
So Women are being told to not vote Hillary is sex betrayal & Becuz another progressive woman says something disagreeing I'm sexist. Lmfao— Killer Mike (@KillerMike) February 17, 2016
What is there to say here? First, the full context is important, and it does put the comments in a different light. This isn’t so simple as Killer Mike making a straightforwardly sexist remark that a woman can’t be president. Parsing Elliott’s quote, as conveyed here, it seems likely that what she really meant was that having a uterus alone is not qualification enough to be president.
Does that really get him off the hook, though? Killer Mike is relying on a classic tactic deployed by people who have committed a verbal gaffe: I didn’t say it, I was just quoting So-and-so. It’s not a very compelling retort. It doesn’t matter that she’s a “progressive activist woman,” a defense that seems a lot like the sort of tokenism that Killer Mike was criticizing. Jane Elliott can and does speak for herself. He chose to repeat what she said, and he was doing so to undermine Clinton’s case for the Democratic nomination. Repeating it was a particularly questionable choice since the remark (at least as he conveyed it) was inartful, scanning as a suggestion that a woman isn’t qualified to be president.
The more interesting part of Killer Mike’s argument is the implied charge: By emphasizing the historic nature of her candidacy, are Clinton’s supporters asking social-justice causes besides sexism—racism, generational disadvantages, income inequality—to take a back seat? That’s a question about which reasonable progressives can, and do, disagree. The Sanders and Clinton campaigns are in a fierce battle to win over black voters, and each have made missteps. In the last few days alone, Bill Clinton offered the cringe-inducing comment that “we are all mixed-race people,” while Sanders irked black voters who thought he was dismissive of racial concerns at an event in Charleston, South Carolina. Those struggles with African Americans are one reason Killer Mike was speaking at Morehouse, a historically black college. After a very rough start with black activists who were frustrated that Sanders elevated class concerns over race, the senator has moved quickly but not flawlessly to correct course.
Killer Mike’s remarks are a mirror of controversial comments made by Clinton surrogates Madeleine Albright and Gloria Steinem earlier this month. Steinem accused women who back Sanders of doing so to get boys, for which she mostly apologized. Albright repeated a line she’s used many times, saying, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.” She, too, apologized, and said she did not mean to argue that women were obligated to vote for Clinton.
One lesson here is that candidates have to be very careful about choosing surrogates and preparing them. The Democratic race has become a battleground over identity politics and their intersectionality, and while the candidates themselves have largely avoided the most dangerous potholes, those speaking for them keep wandering off course and delivering blunt lines where subtlety is required.
But the comments by these two elder stateswomen reflect a division, noted by The New York Times, between younger and older women over Clinton. For older women, the Clinton candidacy and the prospect of a female president feels like a monumental moment. For younger ones, however, who have grown up with women in positions of power—women like, say, Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright—there’s less novelty.
The generational question here is not so much one about whether—to borrow Killer Mike’s metaphor—young people and minorities are being asked to wait in line behind women, and it’s certainly not one about whether having a uterus qualifies someone to be president. The disagreement is over whether women are in line or already in the building.