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Some voters say sexism less offensive than racism

  • Story Highlights
  • Clinton and Obama face sexist and racist attacks
  • Experts say subtle racism may be more dangerous than overt sexism
  • Junior Leaguers trying to focus on the issues, and not race and gender
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By Randi Kaye
CNN
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Editor's Note: CNN reached out to a group of Ohio women to get their views on the role sexism and racism are playing in the presidential race.

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Signs like this one are fueling debate on sexism and racism in the Democratic campaign.

COLUMBUS, Ohio (CNN) -- The simple fact that either Hillary Clinton, a white woman, or Barack Obama, a black man, will likely be the Democratic nominee for president is fueling a nationwide debate about how sexism and racism may shape this campaign.

At a tea party with members of Columbus, Ohio's Junior League we posed the question: Is overt sexism more acceptable than overt racism?

Voter Babette Feibel told us, "Sexism of the nature Hillary Clinton is experiencing has been around as kind of an acceptable joke for years. As far as racism, it's definitely not politically correct or acceptable."

Hillary Clinton has had to deal with plenty. At a rally, hecklers yelled to her to iron their shirts. Radio host Rush Limbaugh told listeners, "Will this country want to actually watch a woman get older before their eyes on a daily basis?"

MSNBC's Chris Matthews suggested "the reason she's a U.S. senator, the reason she's a candidate for president, the reason she may be a front-runner is her husband messed around."

Hillary Clinton's hairdos, ankles and even her cleavage have sparked discussion.

"To make it about her cleavage or fat ankles, it is ridiculous. That is offensive!" said voter Melissa Barrett Kirtley.

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Most of the junior leaguers said they thought similar attacks on Barack Obama's race would spark more outrage.

Why, then, does it appear this behavior toward Clinton is accepted?

Dr. Yvonne Scrubbs-Leftwich, a former president of Black Leadership Forum and now a professor at the National Labor College, suggests racial guilt may have something do with this behavior.

"There have been enough examples now of how misguided the earlier stereotypes and characterizations of African-Americans have been so that there has been in fact some overt adjustment to how African-Americans are addressed and are verbally considered in public."

At our tea party, voter Mabel Freeman told CNN: "In this country, as awful as sexism has been, people lost their lives for civil rights."

Obama hasn't been free of jabs, a few have come his way.

He's been called a fundamentalist Muslim even though he's a Christian, and his middle name, Hussein, has been compared to Saddam Hussein.

Even Limbaugh, not playing favorites, aired a song about Obama called, "Barack the Magic Negro."

Why does it appear to be all uphill for Hillary Clinton while Barack Obama's "racial teflon," as some columnists and bloggers call it, deflects most of the comments about him?

Feminist pioneer Gloria Steinem recently wrote in a New York Times Op-Ed piece, in which she endorsed Clinton, that "gender is the most restricting force in America," not race.

Ohio voter Mary Austin Palmer agrees, "You always have to go three extra miles so that you can say I'm at least on par with you."

Online, Clinton is targeted, too. Clinton toilet brushes are being marketed as your "First Cleaning Lady" and a Clinton nutcracker is also for sale. It cracks nuts between her legs. That left the women we talked to in Ohio outraged.

And remember when the New York senator's eyes teared up in New Hampshire?

Mary Austin Palmer said if the election had been that day, she would've pulled the lever for Hillary Clinton. "They attacked her as a woman, I felt like you know, if we cry, then we are weak," she said. Asked what they thought might happen if Obama cried on the campaign trail? Voter Carolyn Pettigrew laughed, and suggested, "they would probably say he was a very sensitive male."

Still, experts warn subtle racism might be more dangerous than overt sexism.

In other words, at least the sexism is out there and Clinton can defend herself against it. With subtle racism, there's little chance. Scruggs-Leftwich warns, "The kind of offensive behavior that you recognize the minute it begins to unfold can be defended against in a very different way from the way that one has to strategize, to defend against subtle racism."

One voter says Bill Clinton's gentle reminder to voters that like Obama, Jesse Jackson won South Carolina too could be seen as subtle racism. Carolyn Pettigrew, a black woman, suggests, "that is code for reminding majority people, he is an African-American."

With more than eight months to go before the election, it's too early to know just how sexism or racism might affect the vote, but the women at the Junior League say, even though they're trying to focus on the issues, it's tough to ignore gender and race. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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