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Bernie Sanders ally Killer Mike called out for sexism

Hip Hop artist and activist Killer Mike speaks during a rally with Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., at Morehouse College, on Feb. 16, 2016, in Atlanta, Ga. (Photo by Evan Vucci/AP)
Hip Hop artist and activist Killer Mike speaks during a rally with Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., at Morehouse College, on Feb. 16, 2016, in Atlanta, Ga.

Rapper Killer Mike has long been one of Sen. Bernie Sanders' most outspoken celebrity supporters, but the insurgent candidate may wish he skipped a beat with his recent remarks on gender and the 2016 campaign.

The politically charged hip-hop star has been getting slammed on social media for repeating a quote from activist Jane Elliott at a pro-Sanders rally in Atlanta on Tuesday. While relaying a conversation he allegedly had with Elliott, Killer Mike claimed "Jane said, 'Michael, a uterus doesn't qualify you to be president of the United States. You have to have policy that's reflective of social justice.'"

Condemnation came quick from many members of the online community, some of whom took the rapper's comments out of context. He responded on Twitter, pointing out that the quote came from Elliott, while adding: "So Women are being told to not vote Hillary is sex betrayal & Becuz another progressive woman says something disagreeing I'm sexist. Lmfao." Later, he cited his support for Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Cynthia McKinney, Nina Turner and other progressive women as proof that he doesn't harbor anti-feminist sentiments.

"i don't and never will Hate or think less of woman," he tweeted.

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But the rapper's defense was insufficient for some. "Glad to see the context, but the whole riff is misguided. To reduce HRC's candidacy to 'uterus' is preposterous," tweeted one user in response. "You can think what @KillerMike said is sexist or not but I think we can all agree that the fact that he was quoting a woman doesn't matter," added another.

Mike's defenders have pointed out that that the Clinton's campaign has also been guilty of making gender an issue in the 2016 campaign. In the aftermath of the New Hampshire primary, campaign surrogates Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright were widely criticized for suggesting that young women who supported Sanders over Clinton were letting down other members of their sex.

After Clinton lost young voters in a landslide, and women, too, Alright apologized for repeating her infamous "there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other" line while stumping for the former secretary of state. 

What the debate over Mike's comments does show is how gender has stopped being the elephant in the room in the 2016 campaign. There have been exposés on the so-called "Bernie Bros," alleged pro-Sanders bullies who troll Clintonites, and then pieces seeking to debunk their existence or clout. There's been the #WordsThatDontDescribeHillary hastag and other memes which seem to serve no purpose other than to traffic in sexist diatribes directed at the Democratic front-runner. Even Sanders' hand gestures have taken on added significance.

Certainly, sexism on the campaign trail, or in a one-on-one primary fight, is nothing new for Clinton. But in 2008, both she and her chief rival, then Sen. Barack Obama, were viewed as potential agents of cultural change in the White House, whereas as a white man, Sanders occupies a very different space.

"He can say things with a forcefulness that most women can't. If a woman shouted all the time with her answers like Bernie does, she'd be booed off the stage. So women still have to behave well, where men don't have to," former Vermont Gov. Madeleine Kunin recently told Mother Jones. Kunin faced Sanders in tough gubernatorial campaign in the 1980s, during which she claims he said "he would be a better feminist than I."

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A 1986 ad, which Sanders bought in the local Vermont Vanguard, makes the case for "substantive accomplishment—not just rhetoric and symbolism," in what could be interpreted as a reference to Kunin's gender. Still, the former governor, who is backing Clinton's 2016 candidacy, doesn't appear to have any hard feelings towards Sanders. "You usually say somebody's caught up with the times—the times have caught up with Bernie," she told Mother Jones.

Meanwhile, Sanders does enjoys the support of many prominent women, including actress Susan Sarandon and activist Erica Garner. Still, the Killer Mike comment underlines a growing frustration many feel with the tone and rhetoric of the presidential campaign so far. As Vox's Emily Crockett wrote: "It's not just crude and demeaning, it also trivializes a serious and complicated fight for gender equality and representation."