With Populists Like These …: Salon Swiftboats Melissa Harris-Perry

By Arturo R. García

No, seriously, does Salon have beef with Melissa Harris-Perry?

Twice this week, the online magazine – freshly rebranded as “aggressively populist” – has taken shots at the Tulane University professor, MSNBC contributor and columnist for The Nation in the midst of two positive columns regarding President Barack Obama.

(Full disclosure: Racialicious’ Editor, Latoya Peterson, has contributed articles to Salon in the past.)

Wednesday, Gene Lyons opened a piece praising an Obama appearance in Cincinnati by referring to her as “one Melissa Harris-Perry” and attacking her recent column in The Nation:

See, certain academics are prone to an odd fundamentalism of the subject of race. Because President Obama is black, under the stern gaze of professor Harris-Perry, nothing else about him matters. Not killing Osama bin Laden, not 9 percent unemployment, only blackness.

Furthermore, unless you’re black, you can’t possibly understand. Yada, yada, yada. This unfortunate obsession increasingly resembles a photo negative of KKK racial thought. It’s useful for intimidating tenure committees staffed by Ph.D.s trained to find racist symbols in the passing clouds. Otherwise, Harris-Perry’s becoming a left-wing Michele Bachmann, an attractive woman seeking fame and fortune by saying silly things on cable TV.

Lyons’ opening grafs read like Microaggression Madlibs: “Lonely battle”? “Yada, yada, yada”? “trained to find racist symbols in the passing clouds”? Likening a black columnist’s reasoning to the Ku Klux Klan? Methinks he doth protest too much, and he’s already getting some well-deserved blasts, like this response from Elon James White:

You can like Dr. Harris-Perry’s theory or not, but 1) its a theory not an etched in stone condemnation and 2) it’s based in reality. It’s based in feelings many in the Black community have wondered when hearing attacks from White liberals. It’s based in issues that have been previously pointed out within the progressive movement. You could make the argument that race has nothing to do with White liberals issues with Obama and I wouldn’t have an issue with that. But to dismiss one of the great Black public intellectuals of our time because it made you feel uncomfortable is completely ridiculous.

And that’s the problem. Dr. Harris-Perry made folks feel uncomfortable.

White liberals enjoy the concept that they are immune to accusations of racism. They’re LIBERALS. They obviously are totally and completely not racist so how could you ever dare even pose the possibility of such a thing? Matter of fact? Since White liberals are so “obvi” not racist they can dismiss this feeling amongst Black folks as silly and tell them to stop it. You can even get all Dave Sirota on us and say how this hurts the civil rights movement. Because questioning the possibility of racism obviously makes equality harder right? Thanks sir!

What got Lyons’ goat was Harris-Perry’s column comparing Obama’s presidency to Bill Clinton’s – and the decidedly different response each has gotten from white Democrats:

Today many progressives complain that Obama’s healthcare reform was inadequate because it did not include a public option; but Clinton failed to pass any kind of meaningful healthcare reform whatsoever. Others argue that Obama has been slow to push for equal rights for gay Americans; but it was Clinton who established the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy Obama helped repeal. Still others are angry about appalling unemployment rates for black Americans; but while overall unemployment was lower under Clinton, black unemployment was double that of whites during his term, as it is now. And, of course, Clinton supported and signed welfare “reform,” cutting off America’s neediest despite the nation’s economic growth.

Today, America’s continuing entanglements in Iraq and Afghanistan provoke anger, but while Clinton reduced defense spending, covert military operations were standard practice during his administration. In terms of criminal justice, Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act, which decreased judicial disparities in punishment; by contrast, federal incarceration grew exponentially under Clinton. Many argue that Obama is an ineffective leader, but the legislative record for his first two years outpaces Clinton’s first two years. Both men came into power with a Democratically controlled Congress, but both saw a sharp decline in their ability to pass their own legislative agendas once GOP majorities took over one or both chambers.

Harris-Perry also writes that Obama’s bid for reelection “is a test of whether Obama will be held to standards never before imposed on an incumbent. If he is, it may be possible to read that result as the triumph of a more subtle form of racism.”

While Lyons suggests, correctly, that the White House will want to steer clear of defining the 2012 campaign along a racial paradigm, he refuses to do so without taking another dismissive swipe at Harris-Perry:

The sheer political stupidity of turning Obama’s reelection into a racial referendum cannot be overstated. It would be an open confession of weakness. Whatever its shortcomings, this White House is too smart to go there. Harris-Perry will have to fight this lonely battle on her own. Voters can’t be shamed or intimidated into supporting this president or any other. They can only be persuaded.

Yeah, because a woman who fills in for Rachel Maddow doesn’t have any fans, or people who share her observations. Not to mention the fact that Lyons should be more familiar with “one” Harris-Perry. After all, one of his colleagues had already written a column about her earlier this week.

Sunday, Joan Walsh – who you might recall likened herself to the President as being a victim of “identity politics” – also portrayed Harris-Perry as peddling some Strange Colored Thinking, albeit more politely:

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.

Harris-Perry fired back with a blistering critique of liberal defensiveness, which included what’s usually referred to online as THIS:

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.

(To her credit, Walsh reportedly apologized to Harris-Perry afterwards.)

In her column, Walsh noted that Salon “came to prominence” during Clinton’s presidency as a counter to right-wing smears on him, and perhaps that’s the most telling line in this whole debacle: we’re just over decade removed from the Clintonistas’ heyday, and the traditional progressive movement finds itself forced to try and rebuff voices from all sorts of different quarters: from Harris-Perry, Maddow, from the #OccupyWallStreet movement, leading to an unusual “show, don’t tell” moment: In trying to defend their bonafides against the professor, Walsh and Lyons are only illustrating her point.

  • http://psychologyandpolicy.wordpress.com geekaygee

    “Friendship is a deep and lasting relationship based on shared sacrifice and joys. We are not intimates in that way. ”

    I am so glad she touched on this. In my personal experience, White colleagues are quick to cast their relationship with you as a friendship when it’s really just a professional relationship. They seem to interpret a cordial, professional relationship as a true friendship, when  friendship requires a much deeper connection than simply networking opportunities.

  • Anonymous

    All I know for sure is that Walsh herself is an erstwhile Hillary Clinton supporter, if not necessarily a PUMA, and that Salon itself has seriously degraded in quality since the beginning of her tenure as Editor in Chief.  Before she took over, Salon was a decent online paper; now, it’s a glorified tabloid blog with shallow political analysis.  And do they STILL have Camille Paglia as one of their contributors?  BLECH.  Where’s the surprise on this one?  Sad.

    I used to read them regularly from 2003 on, and be a paid subscriber from 2005-2007, BTW.  I continued following them on a regular basis until 2009, when I couldn’t take their violent mediocrity anymore.   I saw the beginning of their unmoderated blog comments with racist, reactionary trolls, and editorials simply not worth reading, as well as the pointlessness of Open Salon and their complete disrespect for their veteran users when they unceremoniously got rid of Table Talk this year, which had been around since 1995, and they didn’t even archive the forums!  What a waste of my money.

    As far as I’m concerned, if Salon is giving you grief for not falling in line with their corrupt bullshit, you’re only doing the right thing, 90% of the time.

  • http://www.examiner.com/family-in-new-york/rahela-choudhury RCHOUDH

    Another difference between Obama’s and Clinton’s presidencies is the dire economic straits the US finds itself in today. Since the nation’s economy was booming during Clinton’s time people praise him and forget all the things he didn’t do for the benefit of POC’s/other significant minorities in this country.  White liberals will continue to critique and dismiss Ms. Harris-Perry’s analyses of the current political situation as “racial posturing” because they way they say America is post-racial now, we are beyond discussing race/sarcasm.

  • k.eli

     I think this is indicative of the mentality of our society today – if it’s not Jim Crow era racism, then it’s not real racism. If there isn’t some group of good ol’ boys hurling racial epithets at us, then it’s not real racism – and we black folks are just complaining.  It’s easy for white liberals to dismiss racism as being problematic only among their conservative brethren without ever examining their own prejudices and biases. After all, isn’t it so much easier to point out the faults in your neighbor than in yourself? As a result, we see the same tactics used over and over again in which one must deny the existence of racism – except when it comes to affirmative action (*sarcasm*) – and blame those who disagree as being the real racists. Oh, white privilege, you never cease to amaze me.  Side note: Can I just say how much I love Elon James White? That man is a genius (and hilarious). Also, I’m eagerly awaiting the R’s take on that whole cupcake nonsense at UC Berkeley.
     
    It’s easy for white liberals to dismiss racism as being problematic only among their conservative brethren without ever examining their own prejudices and biases. After all, isn’t it so much easier to point out the faults in your neighbor than in yourself? As a result, we see the same tactics used over and over again in which one must deny the existence of racism – except when it comes to affirmative action (*sarcasm*) – and blame those who disagree as being the real racists. Oh, white privilege, you never cease to amaze me.
     
    Side note: Can I just say how much I love Elon James White? That man is a genius (and hilarious). Also, I’m eagerly awaiting the R’s take on that whole cupcake nonsense at UC Berkeley.

  • Anonymous

    As usual, white people don’t think racism is a factor (do they ever when it’s not a pity party they’re throwing for themselves?) so clearly any person of color saying it is must be doing some Strange Colored Thinking, as Arturo put it, or as Lyons  asserted so roundaboutly, using the race card. It’s a necessary reminder that even white liberals use the same rhetorical tactics as ignorant white conservatives, just dressed up in nicer language.

  • Wanderinglady

    I’ve been reading Salon since the Clinton administration.  I’ve noticed in the past few months a very negative stance against President Obama by Salon.  I would say that Salon is even more negative towards Obama than it was towards G.W. Bush.  This is just a reflection of recent white liberal antipathy towards Obama.  And white liberals are trying to get blacks to join the bandwagon.   

    I can understand Dr. Harris-Perry’s viewpoint, because I wonder as well what is causing all of this intense criticism/dislike of the president by whites on both sides of the political spectrum.  G.W. Bush never got this level of criticism, and all of this “stuff” started under his watch!