The Melissa Harris-Perry Mistake
Harris-Perry’s recent article in The Nation, "Black President, Double Standard: Why White Liberals Are Abandoning Obama," makes a rather unfortunate claim about waning white voter support for Obama.
Harris-Perry is correct to address the subtle racism in white voters as they place their desires for salvation from a corrupt society onto a black man because he’s black. I wholeheartedly agree with that. She mentions declining support for Obama among white voters from 66% in 2009 to 33% now, “I believe much of that decline can be attributed to their disappointment that choosing a black man for president did not prove to be salvific for them or the nation.” Obama was never going to be “salvific” enough for white voters. We can discuss how this works and how it betrays a more insidious racism than the old-school, naked electoral-racism. But this is not her mistake.
Her mistake is equating an electorate’s desire to hold Obama to his campaign promises to that subtle racism described above because no other incumbent has ever faced such standards. That’s horrifyingly off. I’ll try to quickly explain why using double-standard racism is a problem in her argument.
The President had every opportunity to live up to his promises. He rather pragmatically outlined his objectives. He wasn’t coerced into making wild promises. He didn’t perform a certain radical blackness for a racist white electorate either. He decided not to act on his promises and has often been vocal about criticism for his decision to not act. He’s basically told his progressive base to get bent on more than one occassion. (And it’s ridiculous to compare Obama’s incumbency to Bill Clinton’s.)
My problem is that Harris-Perry racializes the debate in a manner I’m not comfortable with at all. She transforms the electorate into monolithic communities of white and non-white voters. She flattens the discourse to make a provocative claim. And she’s done it before. After Cornell West and Tavis Smiley correctly criticized Obama’s lack of will to address poverty, she went on MSNBC and took to print in an attempt to shame them for not being sympathetic to Obama and for being black men stepping out of line. She really lashed out at Dr West. It was a disgraceful attack, in my opinion, precisely because we need black men like Dr West in public, leading us all.
Now she has twice taken black and white America as two monolithic groups in order to address the mainstream culture in an anti-intellectual manner to make the same stupid point: We should support Obama because he’s not like any other President in history. The problem with this, though it’s a valid statement, is that it insists we treat Obama as an other, a strange other. If this isn’t her intention, I can’t tell.
Dr West shouldn’t criticize the President because he’s black? I shouldn’t criticize the President because I’m white? This is the problem with basic, stupid racialization in discourse. However, it’s not racist. I mean, she’s not being racist. And a lot of white conservatives and Democrats will insist she’s being a bigot. And that should be a sign of the more pernicious and insidious subtle racism Harris-Perry is correct about. But now it will be more difficult to discuss because the discourse from The Nation, a popular progressive weekly, has racialized, and therefore, flattened the debate in order to protect Obama.
Harris-Perry’s discussion about “naked electoral racism” and the more subtle racism in the white electorate are spot on. I just don’t understand why she continues to resort to the silly rhetorical tricks and media stunts. It’s not a double-standard to insist Obama attempt, not necessarily succeed, simply attempt to uphold his promises. It’s not a double-standard to insist liberal politicians stop catering to the corporatist right wing.
She may be correct about white liberals. In fact, I’m getting ready to post about a critique of liberalism that addresses race, racism and white power. White liberalism is corrupt. But Harris-Perry is wrong here. She’s campaigning for the President. She wants people to support him. She’s attempting to stir up consensus via a racialized discourse that, in itself, requires the presence of the subtle racism in the white electorate that she is trying to criticize.