Tuesday, September 6, 2016

What does it mean to look "presidential" (or "professorial," or "decanal," or...)?

One of the big stories of the 2016 presidential election is whether Donald Trump looks and acts presidential. This is no idle conversation.  What voters want to know is whether Trump can act like a president is supposed to act, do the things a president is supposed to do, look like a president is supposed to look.  Note that the bar for candidate Trump is very low.  Reading from a teleprompter will do.  Or not behaving like a sixth grade bully.  Note also that the point is not whether he is or can be presidential.  The point is whether he can pass for one.

Think first about what that means.  And think next about who benefits and who does not when we think about candidates, and jobs, and life, in that way.
What does it mean to say that someone looks like a president?  It means that someone looks like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, FDR, Lyndon Johnson.   A basic requirement to looking presidential is to look male, old, and white.  This is the basic presidential schema, akin to the Platonic theory of the form.  This is what Obama had to overcome in 2008 and what Hillary has to contend with today.

Donald Trump checks all three boxes.  This is why the bar is set so low for him.  All he needs to do is head to Mexico and read from a teleprompter and some of us are satisfied.

This is true across professions.  Think back to your days in college.  Who were the teachers you expected to see in front of the room?  They were white; they were men; and they were probably old.  Or think about the dean of your school; or the president of your university; or the high-powered coaches of your university athletic teams.

Check...check...and check...

It is clear who wins and who loses.  Think about applying for a job; or for a promotion; or coming up for tenure.  When people are judging you, they often judge you against a standard that you cannot possibly meet.  Think about how hard it was for a black quarterback to break into the National Football League.  Think about women in politics, and how we measure Hillary Clinton today.  Or how the media seems all-too-willing to give Trump a pass for things that would be disqualifying for most other people.

Yes, this is part of the larger story about privilege.  People of color cannot look presidential (and this is true even after President Obama); they cannot look professorial; and they cannot look decanal.

This is why it is much too convenient to take the position that Chief Justice Roberts takes on race.  He argues that "[t]he way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”

And cows fly.

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