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.)
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.