Thursday, September 29, 2011

Lyons confirms the problem in his response to Harris-Perry (updated)

The backlash to Melissa Harris-Perry's assertion that racism might play a part in white liberal's critique of President Obama has become even more interesting than her original assertion. Remember that in her response to the backlash, she demonstrated that there are some grounds on which the conversation should take place, but that she has an open mind about the outcome.

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.

As Gene Lyons demonstrates, her opponents are showing no such grace.

This just in: Not all the fools are Republicans. Recently, one Melissa Harris-Perry, a Tulane professor who moonlights on MSNBC political talk shows, wrote an article for the Nation titled "Black President, Double Standard: Why White Liberals Are Abandoning Obama."...

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.

In three short paragraphs he's accused Harris-Perry of being a fool, fundamentalism, obsession, being a photo negative of the KKK and a left-wing Michele Bachmann. Oh, and of being trained to "find racist symbols in the passing clouds."

When it comes to the reality of racism on the left - Mr. Lyons has just made Harris-Perry's point, hasn't he? I mean really, how dare an African American woman who's studied race history and dynamics share an opinion in a way that opens the door to conversation about the subject! The "enlightened" response of the liberal left is to ridicule, degrade and insult rather than simply respond.

It all reminds me of something Derrick Jensen wrote about in his book The Culture of Make Believe. In it, he posits that the nexus of privilege - be it or race/gender/class - is a sense of entitlement. You can substitute words like "racism," "sexism," or "classism" for his use of the word "hatred."

From the perspective of those who are entitled, the problems begin when those they despise do not go along with—and have the power and wherewithal to not go along with—the perceived entitlement...

Several times I have commented that hatred felt long and deeply enough no longer feels like hatred, but more like tradition, economics, religion, what have you. It is when those traditions are challenged, when the entitlement is threatened, when the masks of religion, economics, and so on are pulled away that hate transforms from its more seemingly sophisticated, "normal," chronic state—where those exploited are looked down upon, or despised—to a more acute and obvious manifestation. Hate becomes more perceptible when it is no longer normalized.

Another way to say all of this is that if the rhetoric of superiority works to maintain the entitlement, hatred and direct physical force remains underground. But when that rhetoric begins to fail, force and hatred waits in the wings, ready to explode.

We are at the point in our evolution as a diverse country when a Black man has been elected President and people like Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry have the education and platform to speak their minds. "Normal" is being challenged and the ugliness of racism is exploding - as Lyons demonstrated.

This is a critical time for our country. We know where the tea partiers stand on these matters. And we're beginning to see where too many liberals - like Lyons - are going with it all.

I, for one, want to stand up and call this reaction for what it is...racism. Harris-Perry is not saying you need to agree with her. But she wants to have the conversation. The fact that that request elicits this kind of response demonstrates how far we have to go.

UPDATE: Be sure to read The Reid Report's Just an observation: Equating Melissa Harris-Perry to the KKK is a bridge way too far.

But that passage provides a valuable insight into the roots of the chasm between black people — writ large — and white liberals — write large. The latter sometimes demonstrate a stunning lack of interest/understanding of the complex but still present interplay of race in our politics, and really, in our daily lives. The truth is, Perry made a point that is not only not uncommon among black Americans, it is almost rote. Black people experience the opposition to Barack Obama differently from white people, and their observations about his treatment, by the right AND by the left, are not invalid. Part of liberalism, at least in my understanding, is NOT invalidating the experience of marginalized groups...

But more importantly, jumping on board the David Sirota train, by equating black beliefs about the treatment of the country’s first black president with the Ku Klux Klan is so far out there, and so offensive, it’s hard to believe that some editor at Salon didn’t pull Lyons back from the brink. Saying that black people who believe, as Melissa does, that there is a different standard for this president, are just like Klansman, is no different than tea partiers saying that anyone who believes in increasing taxes on the wealthy are just like Marxists. Isn’t that kind of bottom-line obvious?


  1. Well done. Salon needs to apologize to M. Harris-Perry, and retract this.

  2. Anonymous - excellent point. An apology and retraction would be in order.

  3. This is a great article. Thank you and I've updated my post and added a link to this. Keep up the good work.

  4. Totally agree. People need to read real history books in order to historicize their critiques. How is it so easy to dismiss hundreds of years of racial oppression?

  5. I strongly disagree. Salon or no one else need apologize or retract anything. Let Melissa Harris and others keep doing what they do and keep telling it as they see it. This flushes out the deep seated ugliness that is racism intertwined with white privilege that is the heartbeat not only of America but of many Western societies. It's not just in your face racists that are fighting to preserve white privilege, but also white liberals. Whiteness is like always having money in your pocket no matter where you are, who you are, or what you might have done to earn it. It's a form of political and social capital not easily or often willingly relinquished. Perhaps this is what confuses many white folks. They might see themselves as biologically white and fail to realize that they are also socially white and all that that entails.

  6. Elon White provides a very necessary take down of Lyons that Salon actually ran; I link to

    The bullying and thuggery that's been deployed against Harris-Perry is disgusting, but not really surprising. Their extreme defensiveness pretty much confirms a lot of what Harris-Perry was writing about.

    I don't believe we should be demanding apologies from the Salon writers; why have people apologize for showing and/or confirming who they are. We should be thanking them.

  7. Anonymous @ 12:04 - Thanks a lot for the link to Elon, I hadn't seen that one and its very well done!

    I disagree about calling for apologies. I don't think we should ever give racism a pass. We should always call it out and demand redress.


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