Melissa Harris-Perry is a lot of things: A mother, wife, professor, political pundit, writer, and theological scholar. But according to Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist Gene Lyons, she is also a fool.

In his op-ed, “Obama’s bridge too far,” Lyons attacks Harris-Perry’s intelligence and credibility as a serious intellectual. So what’s got Lyons all worked up?

A few days ago, Harris-Perry wrote an essay in The Nation which examined waining White liberal support for the President. In her piece, “Black President, Double Standard: Why White Liberals Are Abandoning Obama,” the Tulane professor argued that White liberals hold Black politicians to a higher standard.

She writes:

The 2012 election may be a test of another form of electoral racism: the tendency of white liberals to hold African-American leaders to a higher standard than their white counterparts. If old-fashioned electoral racism is the absolute unwillingness to vote for a black candidate, then liberal electoral racism is the willingness to abandon a black candidate when he is just as competent as his white predecessors.

The relevant comparison here is with the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton. 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.

Apparently, Lyons felt Harris-Perry’s critique of White liberals’ abandonment of President Obama to be too easy, unfounded, and just another incident of Black folks playing the race card. He even went so far as to dismiss Professor Harris-Perry as just another pretty woman looking to become famous.

He counters:

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.

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.

Lyons’ entire argument–that the President’s popularity, or lack there-of, cannot possibly be due to race–is not only naive, but it’s also quite apropos considering Harris-Perry’s initial critique. You see, White liberals often overreact when their racial prejudices are pointed out (i.e. Racist, me? I have Black friends!), and despite his best efforts, Lyons’ White privilege and lack of awareness of how race and racism actually works is showing.

Ironically, after reading the criticisms about her original article, Professor Harris-Perry wrote an interesting follow-up that broke down the arguments most critics use when they try to dismantle any discussion that takes a look at the ways in which race plays a factor in political debates.

Interestingly enough, we are continuing this debate–how race affects politics–nearly four years after the election of a President who’s win was supposed to signal the beginning of a post-racial America.

While some may see this as a step back, I agree with Harris-Perry when she wrote, “I much prefer to live in a country and at a moment where the idea of being racist is distasteful rather than commonplace. In many ways the angry reaction about even the suggestion of racial bias is a kind of racial progress.”

 

Related Reading

Gene Lyons compares Melissa Harris-Perry to the KKK [Feministing]
Black President, Double Standard: Why White Liberals Are Abandoning Obama [The Nation]
Obama’s Bridge Too Far [Salon]
The Epistemology of Race Talk [The Nation]
Are white liberals abandoning the President? [Salon]

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