Melissa 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.