Gene Lyons compares Melissa Harris-Perry to the KKK

Melissa Harris-PerryMelissa Harris-Perry wrote an article for The Nation looking at slipping liberal support for President Obama and arguing that white liberals hold Black politicians to a higher standard than white politicians. The backlash against the piece was intense. Professor Harris-Perry responded with a blog post I am incredibly grateful for, in which she outlines and refutes some of the main arguments hurled at people who claim race matters in the US at all.

Apparently Gene Lyons didn’t read the follow up piece, which would have refuted every argument he trotted out yesterday in a disjointed article Salon decided to publish for some reason (which I can only imagine was generating traffic).

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.

Oh, and in addition to the KKK and Bachmann comparisons, Lyons calls the professor a “fool” at the beginning of the article. Hmm, calling a leading Black intellectual a fool and comparing her to the KKK. I guess Lyons wouldn’t listen anyway if I pointed out the obvious racism embedded in both those rhetorical choices.

Lyons’ response is way too typical. I’ve noticed that when I write about race on this site, commenters tend to disagree with me respectfully. When a person of color (usually a woman of color) writes about race, a ton of comments are personal and mean spirited. Commenters are clearly offended the ideas are even being brought up, and attempt to discredit the author by painting her as uninformed, over-sensitive, or a fool. Of course, Harris-Perry already pointed out the common attempts to discredit and delegitimize thinkers on race in her follow up article. Just the fact that women of color get discredited in this way should be clear evidence that conversations about race are necessary, no matter how much Lyons doesn’t want to talk about it.

Lyons is reacting so irrationally and immaturely because of the suggestion that good liberals could actually be racist. Nobody likes being accused of being racist, but this isn’t exactly the good liberal way to respond. As Harris-Perry again points out in her follow up piece, race and racism have been part of the formation of this country from the start. They’re embedded in our founding documents and therefore our politics, and in the economy of a country that used to run on slavery. It’s absurd to pretend race doesn’t contour every aspect of our lives, let alone pretend it’s not relevant to the re-election of the country’s first Black president. And it’s equally absurd to pretend that even good liberals don’t have internalized racism, the obvious results of growing up in a world so structured and formed by race. A good liberal would take this as an opportunity to educate themself, not lash out publicly.

Lyons writes, illogically, that Harris-Perry thinks race is the only factor that matters. In fact, Lyons is arguing race shouldn’t matter at all. As I’ve argued previously, our national conversation (or lack thereof) about race has reached a point where talking about race at all is considered racist. Lyons would prefer Harris-Perry just shut up and, as Elon James White said, stop making him feel uncomfortable. He’s scared of race becoming a part of the discussion when his own racism could be brought to light. And suddenly all he can see is the scary race conversation, ignoring everything else expressed by a smart, nuanced thinker.

But, as Lyons’ own writing proves, we need to be having the conversation. And we can’t just talk about the most extreme, obvious examples of racism. We have to examine the way race impacts lefty politics as well, as Harris-Perry so bravely does. No, race isn’t the only factor in the presidential election, but once again it will be an important one. A good liberal would try to learn something, and maybe even engage in this conversation, instead of calling a woman of color who’s offering them insight a fool.

So Gene Lyons, please go read “The Epistomology of Race Talk” by Melissa Harris-Perry. And maybe try to keep an open mind, engage with the ideas and see if you can actually learn something new. Instead of lashing out in the press when someone suggests you might not be as perfect on race as you think you are.

Boston, MA

Jos Truitt is Executive Director of Development at Feministing. She joined the team in July 2009, became an Editor in August 2011, and Executive Director in September 2013. She writes about a range of topics including transgender issues, abortion access, and media representation. Jos first got involved with organizing when she led a walk out against the Iraq war at her high school, the Boston Arts Academy. She was introduced to the reproductive justice movement while at Hampshire College, where she organized the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program’s annual reproductive justice conference. She has worked on the National Abortion Federation’s hotline, was a Field Organizer at Choice USA, and has volunteered as a Pro-Choice Clinic Escort. Jos has written for publications including The Guardian, Bilerico, RH Reality Check, Metro Weekly, and the Columbia Journalism Review. She has spoken and trained at numerous national conferences and college campuses about trans issues, reproductive justice, blogging, feminism, and grassroots organizing. Jos completed her MFA in Printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute in Spring 2013. In her "spare time" she likes to bake and work on projects about mermaids.

Jos Truitt is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Development.

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  • Haunted Taint

    I guess Lyons wouldn’t listen anyway if I pointed out the obvious racism embedded in both those rhetorical choices.

    OK, I’ll bite: how is calling someone a “fool” racist?

  • Nina

    I completely agree that every person, regardless of color, holds attitudes and perceptions based on race, religion, culture, etc that are inherently oppressive, racist, sexist, etc. And I also agree that part of being an active citizen in a democratic republic is questioning those held beliefs and working on growing as a person. However, Melissa Harris-Perry – while perhaps correct about SOME of the white electorate is making a really massive and ingenuous generalization, which is why I think there was so much (unnecessary) backlash. The Nation didn’t do itself any favors with the article Headline either.

    This statement demonstrates to ME that she’s not thinking about the context of our current situation:

    “President Obama has experienced a swift and steep decline in support among white Americans—from 61 percent in 2009 to 33 percent 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. His record is, at the very least, comparable to that of President Clinton, who was enthusiastically re-elected. The 2012 election 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.”

    When Clinton was President, the economy was booming, we weren’t at “war” and “everyone” (i.e. the people she claims have turned against Obama because he’s Black) was making money. Obama ran on a progressive platform and had anyone actually taken the time to look at his voting record, they would have realized he was CENTER at BEST. He did what all politics do – he said what he had to win the election. Has he accomplished some great things? Yes, he has. Did he sell out the American population for the sake of corporatist bullshit? Yes, unfortunately, he did.

    Clinton got away with everything he did while in office because it was largely kept from the media, the internet didn’t exist for the majority of his two terms (at least not how it does now) and people were making money. The current economic situation that we are in makes comparing Obama’s presidency to Clinton’s utterly ridiculous. And Obama is not FREE from criticism about his tenure as president just because his father was Black. And while I know that’s not what she’s advocating, it sure as hell sounded like that’s what we should be doing in her article. I know that’s not what she means, but words are powerful.

  • Rachel

    you know what would be crazy dope? If white liberals just once were like, hm… you might have a really good point there. That is an extremely likely case of subtle racism and we should consider that, seeing as how we’re a white supremacist society; its not just possible, but likely, that all kinds of subtle forms of racism fly under the radar. I’m saying this, and I’m a white girl. So just in case anybody wants to compare me to the kkk or yell about reverse racism… for the last time, thats an oxymoron and a contradiction in terms. Let’s freakin check ourselves already.

    • natasha

      I agree with you. To me, it seems so obvious that some of the Obama backlash is racist, and I can’t understand why it’s up for debate. I do think that Perry’s article could have been better though, but that’s not really what matters anymore at this point.

  • scott mendelson

    It’s a shame that that silly and needlessly inflammatory paragraph fatally mars what otherwise is a decent and readable little essay. Alas… Still, there are plenty of ‘white liberals’ who, if not ‘turning against the president’, are deeply dissatisfied with his choices for any number of reasons. It may have just as much to do with heightened expectations, as well as the areas where he has let us liberals down (specifically civil liberties and foreign militarism) that causes us to get our proverbial panties in a proverbial bunch (pardon the crude analogy, it just summed it up best).

    I certainly disagree with the distasteful rebuttal, but I too take issue at being called a racist, or my whiteness diluting the quality of my criticism when protesting the president’s choice to extra-legally assassinate American citizens overseas (for example). Are there racist liberals? Of course. Do we all have our racist moments? I presume as much. But I’d argue that the angriest liberals, the ones writing the editorials and shouting the loudest, are merely the most purely ideological and thus would be just as upset if President Hillary Clinton or President Dennis Kucinich were engaging in the same kind of policy-making.

  • Dom

    An “attractive woman” saying “silly things on cable TV” ?? Umm, she’s a prof, right? And Lyons is…. ?

    His comment sounds like sexism to me, deliberately attempting to portray a woman as a lightweight whose opinion is unworthy of merit or even consideration. It may not “sound” racist, but using sexist tropes can definitely have a racist effect on WOC.

    How many pundits have called Rick Perry “an attractive man” saying “silly things on cable TV”?