No, Joan Walsh, racial criticism does not equal ‘identity politics’

By Guest Contributor Tami Winfrey Harris, cross-posted from What Tami Said

Hmmm … I’m just digesting Joan Walsh’s analysis of the Cornel West v. President Obama controversy. Now, I think West’s attack on Obama was petty, personal and, perhaps worst of all, an example of destructive policing of blackness from within. So, I was with Walsh until she went here:

But there’s a way in which this whole controversy looks like progressives devouring their own tail. From the left, West attacks Obama for not being black enough; I’ve written about being attacked as a clueless, entitled white progressive for criticizing Obama; in a pro-West backlash, black Obama supporters are being dismissed as “elitist” fronts for white liberals and that half-white guy in the White House. It’s crazy. Read more…

Whoa … whoa … whoa there, Joan! In her article, Walsh goes from pointing out the silliness of “not black enough” charges to using West’s foolishness to imply that analysis of political opinion through the lens of race and other identities is without merit–particularly when leveled at, well, Joan Walsh.

It struck me that Walsh compared criticism of herself to West’s slap at the President. Because I have, in the past, accused Walsh of being “a clueless, entitled white progressive” not for criticizing Barack Obama, who, as our country’s leader should not be immune to criticism. I have criticized him myself. I have inferred that Walsh is a “clueless, entitled white progressive” because of her race-biased commentary during the 2008 presidential elections and afterwards. Consider Walsh’s response when embattled Illinois Gov. Blagojevich appointed Roland Burris to Obama’s old Senate seat:

In her post, Walsh admits that some writers she holds in esteem disagree with her on this–Folks like Digby and Jane Hamsher. but their arguments in favor of Burris (like those of most reasoned people) rest on the Rule of Law. As crappy as it is that Blago got to make this appointment, it seems he is within his legal right to do so. (Read more on why I think the Senate should seat Burris now.) No one seems to be making the Blagojevich/Burris debacle about race, but Bobby Rush…and Joan Walsh.

Walsh snidely refers to Burris as a “champion of professionally black Chicago activists” and rightfully calls him out for opposing Carol Moseley-Braun during her Senate run, in favor of Alan Dixon, who sided with Clarence Thomas over Anita Hill. But then she gets to the crux of her argument:

Imagine that Blago had appointed a white Roland Burris, middle-of-the-road, relatively clean but not a big reformer, a four-time loser for governor and senator with one statewide win behind him/her, who isn’t given a strong chance to run and win in 2010. I find it hard to imagine that Obama and Reid would have reversed their principled anti-Blagojevich stand to back a vaguely qualified but mediocre white cadidate. And what about poor Rep. Danny Davis, the black Chicago congressman who reportedly turned down an appointment by Blago because that’s what he thought a good Democrat was supposed to do? If Davis knew Reid and Obama would fold so quickly, he might be the one sitting in Washington being hailed as the junior senator from Illinois right now.

Ah … Walsh thinks Burris is an affirmative action hire. An incompetent black person being handed an undeserved position of power, just like Bara…oh, I won’t say it. Now, I shouldn’t need to point out (especially to a “professional” feminist–See how condescending that sounds, Joan?) that mediocre white men get appointed to things all the time. It is women and racial minorities and gay people that have to be exceptional. I can’t help thinking that all of this is really about Clinton vs. Obama…again. Walsh is still licking her wounds about Obama winning the Democratic nomination and, as her recent political recap proved, is still angry at those “fools who threw the word ‘racism’ around carelessly.”

Please get over it, Joan. Read more …

My beef with Walsh isn’t that she is ambivalent about Barack Obama; I’m mad at her racial f-ckery. And calling out said f-ckery does not amount to playing “identity politics.” From, I think rightly, calling out West, Walsh pivots to a bit of Tea Party-ish wingeing about analysis of race and politics. You know how Tea Party types always disingenuously claim that they are being accused of racism just for criticizing a black guy, rather than, say, all those racist emails, sound bites and placards featuring Obama in tribal dress with a bone through his nose?

Walsh writes:

But I continue to observe a disturbing ad hominem campaign against Obama critics (the Twitter war rages on, with or without me). If you’re white, it’s “white privilege” speaking. If you’re black, you’re old or jealous or angry you’re left out of Obama’s inner circle. If you’re neither white nor black, you just don’t get American race relations and you should “STFU.” Just today on Twitter, I saw two (white) progressives I respect make wildly contradictory and nasty generalizations about a grouping of Obama critics (of different races; I wasn’t among them): One suggested they’re trashing the president for fame and money; the other that they’re angry they’ve been marginalized by Obama’s popularity. Which is it?

It couldn’t possibly be that any of these people, whatever their age, race or social class, wherever they went to school, have genuine differences with the president? (Or conversely, in the case of Obama defenders being attacked racially and personally, have wonderful and sincere reasons for continuing to support him fervently.)

Of course the election of the first non-white president has sparked lots of debate of race and racism, just as Hillary Clinton’s historic run for the White House sparked talk of gender and naked sexism. We are a highly gender- and race-biased country. Having a man of color or a woman in prominent and powerful spaces touches a sore spot. Sometimes the discussion is foolish: like folks evaluating Obama’s blackness or worrying whether Sarah Palin could handle the vice presidency…because she is a mother…a charge that would never be leveled at a man with children. But the 2008 presidential election and Barack Obama’s presidency have also sparked a lot of sharp analysis of the ways America still fails at race and gender. It’s not all bullshit. Some of it needs to be said.

I would love to have a meaty discussion about what Barack Obama owes progressives, including members of the black community. I’d like to talk about whether black people are really more loyal to Barack Obama than, say, Bill Clinton. I’d be game to discuss whether the vitriolic Twitter discussions Walsh cites are responses to Barack Obama’s blackness or simply reflective of the nature of social media. But by shoehorning herself into this latest article, Walsh reveals a particular sensitivity to racial criticism and, in my opinion, undermines and overshadows her larger points about political discussion.

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  • Anonymous

    There are legitimate, arguable differences with Obama when it comes to policy.  But there is never a substantive and intelligent critique of policy.  Most of the criticism of Obama is dog whistle racism, or racism of a considerably less subtle variety.  Some of the criticism of Sarah Palin is rooted in sexism, but I suspect that most of it is rooted in the fact that Sarah Palin is proudly and unashamedly stupid, like an alarming majority of the President’s critics.  

  • Daniel Thrasher

    So many times the criticism of Obama is labelled as racism, but you are right:  that doesn’t mean that there isn’t some racism mixed in among the people who actually do disagree.  I was talking with my father about the Tea Party, and he defended them with such passion against my examples of racism.  I think he and others like attributes of the group that they claimed to support (smaller goverment influence) and are worried that the charge of racism-by-association would be levied against them?  Especially once the group devolved into its current status.

    Also, thanks for the line about Sarah Palin.  Even though she is kind of nuts and I disagree with her on more and more every time she opens her mouth, it’s always nice to see people notice that some of the criticism against her is rooted in sexism.
    Side note: if she runs in 2012, I wonder if she will get support from the people who said Obama was too much of a celebrity and not enough of a politician. (because why, supported him?) (also, Ronald Reagan, anyone?)

  • Anonymous

    Joan Walsh is full of it.

    she lied about her tweet war with Angry Black Lady and others, carefully editing out what she said that had people calling her out. She lied in the recent twitter war when Zaid Jalani showed his ass by claiming it was about criticizing Obama instead of what it really was about, Zaid  dismissing minority issues and failing to read asiangrrlMN  blog post