[This post is first in a series of four posts about the Melissa Harris Perry Kerfuffle. The other posts can be read here, here, and here.]
As Zandar has already written here and here, Professor Melissa Harris-Perry set off a firestorm with her article in The Nation. In that article, Professor Harris-Perry argued what many black (and white) Americans believe to be true: that the disappointment felt by disaffected white liberals may be a result of their tendency to hold African-American leaders to a higher standard than their white counterparts (notice I said “may”):
The 2012 election may be a test of another form of electoral racism: the tendency of white liberals to hold African-American leaders to a higher standard than their white counterparts. If old-fashioned electoral racism is the absolute unwillingness to vote for a black candidate, then liberal electoral racism is the willingness to abandon a black candidate when he is just as competent as his white predecessors.
Professor Harris-Perry’s statement came as somewhat of a shock to white liberals (as gauged by the harsh response Professor Harris-Perry has garnered on Twitter and in the comment section of her post at The Nation), and it is interesting which white liberals have come out against Professor Harris-Perry’s article — almost as if they were positive Harris-Perry was talking about them.
I will address three of these liberals in separate and consecutive posts, and then end on a post which is solid advice that every liberal and/or progressive should heed.
First up? Joan Walsh.
Joan Walsh has a history of stepping in the racist mire that dates back as early as 2008, when she dubbed Harriet Christian’s “inadequate black male” screed as “a wail worth hearing.” My interaction with her, however, is much more recent. (You can read about it here and here). In short, she and I tussled; I extended an informal invitation to her to join me in a conversation; I took her silence as a declination.
As such, I was none too surprised to read her response to “her friend Melissa”:
The Nation’s most-read article this week is by my friend Melissa Harris-Perry, “Black President, Double Standard: Why White Liberals Are Abandoning Obama.” Perry doesn’t mention any white liberals by name, nor cite polls showing a decline in support for President Obama among white liberals (as opposed to white voters generally, where his approval rating has dropped sharply). But her piece touched a nerve because of the widespread perception that white liberals are, in fact, abandoning the president.
I’m not sure how to argue with a perception, which is by definition subjective, but I’m going to try, because this is becoming a prevalent and divisive belief. When I say Melissa Harris-Perry is my friend, I don’t say that rhetorically, or ironically; we are professional friends, we have socialized together; she has included me on political round tables; I like and respect her enormously. That’s why I think it’s important to engage her argument, and I’ve invited her to reply.
I couldn’t find any polls measuring “white liberal” support for President Obama, but it’s safe to say many white liberals are disappointed in the president. I think Harris-Perry is wrong when she generalizes about two things: that white liberal disappointment is due to “the tendency of white liberals to hold African-American leaders to a higher standard than their white counterparts” (which she calls “a more insidious form of racism”), and that it’s likely to lead to white liberals “abandoning” Obama in 2012.
Zandar has already addressed one aspect of Walsh’s post, so I will focus on another; the wielding of black people, whether acquaintances, friends, or historical figures as a weapon to deflect criticism of one’s own actions has to stop. It’s really obnoxious.
I am tired of discussing politics with white liberals, only to be met with “Oh, so all criticism of Obama is racist? Well what about the fact that [Cornel West, Tavis Smiley, Maxine Waters, Elijah Cummings, Boyce Watkins, Jesse L. Patterson, Jonathan Q. Black Guy] also think Obama is X, Y, or Z?”
Just stop it.
As an aside — and, to be clear, I am not charging Walsh with this particular bit of pernicious behavior — when confronted with facts about your misunderstanding of a given issue or our opinion on a given issue, stop naming black people in response. It presumes that we couldn’t possibly have pragmatic, logical, and fact-based reasons for our position on any given Obama issue. That you resort to “you just support him because he’s black” is, in and of itself, racist.
So, stop it. Not only is it embarrassing when you do it, it is also anger-inducing, as demonstrated by Professor Harris-Perry:
Which brings us to a second common strategy of argument about one’s racial innocence: the “I have black friends” claim. I was shocked and angered when Salon’s Joan Walsh used this strategy in her criticism of my piece. Although I disagree with her, I have no problem with Walsh’s decision to take on the claims in my piece. I consider it a sign of respect to publicly engage those with whom you disagree. I was taken aback that Walsh emphasized the extent of our friendship. Walsh and I have been professionally friendly. We’ve eaten a few meals. I invited her to speak at Princeton and I introduced her to my literary agent. We are not friends. Friendship is a deep and lasting relationship based on shared sacrifice and joys. We are not intimates in that way. Watching Walsh deploy our professional familiarity as a shield against claims of her own bias is very troubling. In fact it is one of the very real barriers to true interracial friendship and intimacy.
Interracial friendship should, ideally, encourage the desire to investigate one’s own racial privilege and bias, not to use the identity of one’s friends against any claim that such bias even exists. As an ally in LGBT struggles I have learned this lesson repeatedly. As an ally my role is to speak up for LGBT issues when in heteronormative environments and to shut up when being spoken to by gay and transgendered persons. I was harshly criticized for my failure to account for trans-phobia and trans-hatred and trans-violence in my discussions of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and Marriage Equality. My critics were absolutely right. My cis-privilege had blinded me to the ways that power was operating very differently for trans-citizens.
Friends certainly criticize friends, but allies also pause to listen. It is completely possible that I am absolutely wrong about white racial bias on the left against President Obama. Certainly, it wouldn’t be the first time I was wrong in my political analysis. But listen to this for a moment white allies: many African Americans (not all, but many) feel that the attacks on President Obama are racialized on both the right and the left. This feeling has meaningful implications for the quality of our national, political fabric. When we tell you that the attacks are racially troubling, painful we would like you to take our concerns seriously rather than working to simply defend yourself against the claims.
Surely, Walsh is smarting from the harsh reality. I reckon many a person, irrespective of color, has been stung by the reality of such social exchanges, and I hope it doesn’t harden her to an open and honest examination of what lies behind the surface anger.
Maybe it’s finally time to listen and maybe Professor Harris-Perry is precisely the person to listen to. I don’t have any pretense about my role as a relatively new-to-the-scene blogger. I’m not a professor or a pundit. I don’t have a podcast or a radio show. I’m just a person with something to say. As such, I certainly understand why Walsh chose to ignore my overture five months ago. Perhaps, however, Professor Harris-Perry is the catalyst for the conversation that Walsh has repeatedly stated she wants to have, but which — for some reason — has not yet gotten off the ground.
Despite Walsh’s misunderstanding about the extent of her relationship with Professor Harris-Perry, the latter’s position in the progressive sphere of politics — as an intellect, an academic, a pundit, and a television personality — as well as her collegial relationship with Walsh makes this the perfect storm for the long-awaited conversation.
It is my sincere and strong belief that such a conversation should take place between the participants of this conflict, and that it would behoove media-hounds who glom on to any controversy in a transparent effort to increase ratings for their AM radio shows to stay out of it.
And yes, I’m talking about David Sirota. Click here for that post.