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The second debate between President Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney began normally enough. 

Candy Crowley, moderator of the town-hall style debate at Hofstra University, stated the rules and deployed a little aw-shucks banter to remind the candidates not to exceed their time limits. The first questioner, 20-year-old Jeremy Epstein, led with a boilerplate question about his ability to get a job after graduating from college, and both candidates trotted out their economic talking points. But a few questions in, the proceedings became unpredictable. Here’s how:

Double consciousness worked in Obama’s favor

A little over 16 minutes into what had been a relatively tame discussion of energy policy, Romney became openly hostile and broke the agreed-upon rules of the debate. The former governor approached the president as he was preparing to sit down and accused him of cutting multiple permits and licenses for oil-drilling on federal land. After Obama told Romney that his statement was untrue, the former governor demanded to know how many cuts the president had made, interrupted Obama several times, and ultimately used the flat-palmed hand gesture for “pipe down.”  

With the benefit of YouTube, I can see that Obama responded in kind, walking toward Romney while pointing his index finger at him twice. But during my first viewing at a pro-Obama Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, restaurant across the street from a sprawling housing project, some of my fellow debate watchers loudly fantasized about the president smacking his opponent. Others cheered his “swagger.” One black man in his late 30s sitting nearby complained of Obama’s supposed passivity. Another wondered where the Secret Service was, lest Romney lose it. 

I actually think Obama played the trickster during that exchange. He got his digs in while appearing to be a bullying victim. From second to second, he tethered between offense and defense—an essential survival strategy for the first black president wading through uncharted racial dynamics and still-static ideas of what it is to be a man. 

Romney touted a highly dysfunctional and limited form of affirmative action, but didn’t call it that

Katherine Fenton, a white, female audience member who appeared to be in her 20s asked, “In what new ways do you intend to rectify the inequalities in the workplace, specifically regarding females making only 72 percent of what their male counterparts earn?” 

First up, the president cited his immediate passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009; called pay equity “a family issue” rather than “just a women’s issue”; touted Pell Grant expansion as one remedy for gender inequality in education; and promised to continue enforcing existing anti-discrimination laws. He skipped the “new” part of the question and didn’t bring up the failed Paycheck Fairness Act.  

Now, Romney evaded the pay equity issue altogether. First, he shared an anecdote about recruiting women applicants for his gubernatorial staff: 

“…I had the chance to pull together a cabinet and all the applicants seemed to be men. And I — and I went to my staff, and I said, “How come all the people for these jobs are — are all men.” They said, ‘Well, these are the people that have the qualifications.’ And I said, ‘Well, gosh, can’t we — can’t we find some — some women that are also qualified?’ And — and so we — we took a concerted effort to go out and find women who had backgrounds that could be qualified to become members of our cabinet. I went to a number of women’s groups and said, ‘Can you help us find folks,’ and they brought us whole binders full of women.”

“Binders full of women” has received the lion’s share of attention because it’s such a strange and deeply condescending turn of phrase. But our attention should be on the balance of Romney’s response. An excerpt:

“Now one of the reasons I was able to get so many good women to be part of that team was because of our recruiting effort. But number two, because I recognized that if you’re going to have women in the workforce that sometimes you need to be more flexible. My chief of staff, for instance, had two kids that were still in school.

She said, I can’t be here until 7 or 8 o’clock at night. I need to be able to get home at 5 o’clock so I can be there for making dinner for my kids and being with them when they get home from school. So we said fine. Let’s have a flexible schedule so you can have hours that work for you.

We’re going to have to have employers in the new economy, in the economy I’m going to bring to play, that are going to be so anxious to get good workers they’re going to be anxious to hire women. … What we can do to help young women and women of all ages is to have a strong economy, so strong that employers that are looking to find good employees and bringing them into their workforce and adapting to a flexible work schedule that gives women opportunities that they would otherwise not be able to afford.”

Did you catch that? By emphasizing the recruitment of women, straight-up ignoring the issue of equal pay, and classifying a standard end of the workday as a perk, Romney is actually advocating for cheaper labor along gender lines!

Romney presented a perfect opportunity for a discussion about how race and ethnicity compounds gendered pay inequity. According to the American Association of University Women, full-time women workers overall make 77 cents for every dollar men make. Compared to white men, Latinas make only 60 cents on the dollar and black women make 70 cents. Gay and transgender people—particularly transwomen—are also paid less than heterosexual men for the same work. Predictably, race matters here as well. 

I’m not naive enough to expect President Obama to discuss persistent and racialized police brutality, racial profiling or the prison industrial complex he’s helped to expand due to his immigration policies. But damn, pay equity was an ideal entry point for normalizing what is obvious. Much in the same way he’s incorporated the feminist idea that contraception is an economic issue for women and families, and that pay equity is a family issue, the president should be able to expand his rhetoric to encompass the facts of race and gender identity. 

Romney introduced a panacea to assault weapons and Aurora-style massacres: Marriage

OK, this wasn’t unpredictable. But in his response to audience member Nina Gonzalez’s question about “keeping AK-47s out of the hands of criminals,” Romney said, among other things, that he didn’t believe in new pieces of legislation but suggested changing “the culture of violence that we have” by improving schools and holding parents accountable.

“We need moms and dads, helping to raise kids. Wherever possible the — the benefit of having two parents in the home, and that’s not always possible. A lot of great single moms, single dads. But gosh to tell our kids that before they have babies, they ought to think about getting married to someone, that’s a great idea. Because if there’s a two-parent family, the prospect of living in poverty goes down dramatically. The opportunities that the child will — will be able to achieve increase dramatically. So we can make changes in the way our culture works to help bring people away from violence and give them opportunity, and bring them in the American system.”

This response doesn’t account for divorce. It assumes that gun violence isn’t a part of “the American system.” It equates single parenthood with violence. And it creates the fiction that   parents who aren’t the primary caregivers of their children don’t “help raise” them. 

It’s all just so…strange. 

Read this online at http://colorlines.com/archives/2012/10/how_gender_and_race_disrupted_the_second_presidential_debate.html


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