Schwarzenegger, Strauss-Kahn, and Why Isn’t Anyone Talking About Race?

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Former IMF head Dominique Strass-Kahn has been indicted in connection with an alleged sexual assault of a female member of the housekeeping staff at the Sofitel hotel in New York.  See, e.g., here.

Former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has admitted to a long-term affair with a household employee.  See, e.g., here.

The similarities between the cases largely end there, but Paul Horowitz has a thoughtful post (here) over at PrawfsBlawg about some of the class and power issues raised by both cases.  Suzanne Goldberg was quoted (here) in today’s New York Times article about the disproportionate focus on the women in each case:

“It is part of a fascination with the man,” said Suzanne Goldberg, director of the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law at Columbia. “What sort of woman could this powerful man have been attracted to? I think as a society, we care about the lives of powerful celebritylike figures.”

“That curiosity extends not only to their home decorating, but also to who is in their beds,” she added. “The women suffer the collateral damage of our interest.”

For all the differences of the two cases — one involves allegations of sexual assault, the other does not — they raise similar questions about imbalances of power that continue in some ways after the accusations become public.

The questions of class and power dynamics are real, important and significant ones in any conversation about either of these cases.  Noticeably absent from the conversations I’ve read so far, however, is an acknowledgment of complex racial issues that may be involved.

The alleged victim in the Strauss-Kahn case is an African immigrant to the United States.

The mother of Mr. Schwarzenegger’s non-marital child is speculated by some to be Latina.

I don’t know the race of either of these women.  I do know, however, that women who do paid domestic work in homes and hotels in New York City (the location of the Sofitel) and California (the location of the Schwarzenegger residence) are disproportionately women of color.  Women who do paid domestic work also are uniquely vulnerable to sexual assault because they often work alone in homes or home-like spaces where there are few or no witnesses or potential rescuers.

No doubt, paid domestic work is, as Taunya Lovell Banks has described (here), a “complex hierarchy” in the United States.  Let’s make race part of the complex discussion of these complex cases.

-Bridget Crawford

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One Response to Schwarzenegger, Strauss-Kahn, and Why Isn’t Anyone Talking About Race?

  1. Anita Bernstein says:

    Bridget, you are absolutely right, and you raise a very pertinent question.

    I think mainstream opinion airbrushes race from discussions of gender, and gender from discussions of race, because of discomfort with the concept of oppression. Once we know that Strauss-Kahn’s victim and Schwarzenegger’s ex-lover are members of oppressed racial groups, we have to think about members of dominant castes abusing subordinated persons. If these people were just “women,” it would be easier to ignore the politics of what happened to them. And once we know that persons of color include victims of rape and participants in not fully consensual sex, we’ve complicated race as a social category. It’s too much to absorb: so race and gender keep getting separated, even though they have a lot in common.

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