Melissa Harris-Perry | The Nation

Melissa Harris-Perry

Melissa Harris-Perry

 Race, gender, politics, religion and our struggles.

Black Citizenship and South Africa

Last week I delivered the W.E.B. Du Bois lectures at Harvard University. In this series of lectures I took up issues surrounding African American citizenship in the contemporary United States. I tried to think about how the years between Hurricane Katrina and the election of Barack Obama have created new opportunities for African Americans to address the problematic explained by Du Bois as "double consciousness."

Immediately after the lectures I boarded a plane for Cape Town, South Africa. This is my first trip to South Africa and it has proven to be a perfect destination for continuing engagement with the issues of black citizenship.

Tourist areas reflect the power of global capitalism and cultural imperialism; making shopping for groceries and clothing entirely indistinguishable from an American shopping experience. Television and radio are completely familiar, as are brands, styles, and dining.

Despite its surface familiarity, the legacy of apartheid is an ashen residue still overlaying every interaction here. For tourists, black South African culture is carefully delimited to public spaces that entertain rather than educate. There is no escaping the harsh racial segmentation of labor and leisure.It is election season here in South Africa. Every highway and street corner is dotted with campaign signs. The candidates are racially diverse and each party proclaims the goals of national unity and progress. Democratic Alliance posters are even using a modified version of the rising sun motif from Barack Obama's presidential campaign as their symbol.

While the symbols of political power reflect changes in racial opportunity, the structures of employment and residence belie much stickier inequality.

It is into this space that I entered after a week spent thinking about the challenges of double consciousness. At the turn of the century Du Bois wrote that black Americans only escape the feeling of being a problem in "babyhood and Europe." But Cape Town has also shifted the gaze of "amused contempt and pity" that I normally feel in the U.S.

Here in South Africa I feel very American. Like many black folks, it is easier to feel American abroad than at home. Even in this small, flat world with a largely homogenous culture my accent and personal carriage immediately identify me. That American-ness marks me for good and for ill. Most difficult for me, it immediately creates and maintains a painful space between me and the black South Africans whom I hope to engage across the class chasms that separate us.

I arrived here in South Africa on April 4,the forty-first anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In many ways my country has become a radically different place during those four decades. After all, as I landed here, my own president was visiting Europe. My president is a black man whose father was born here on this continent. My father was born into the American apartheid of the Jim Crow South, but his daughter is a tenured professor at an Ivy League university. Many things feel different. Many things are different.

But being in Cape Town is a stunning reminder that the collapse of legal segregation, the opening of limited class mobility, and even the secure representation of black people in national politics does not heal the brutality of entrenched racial injustice.

There is still so much work to do.


Farewell John Hope Franklin

Yesterday the great Historian John Hope Franklin passed away at the age of 94.

I did my doctoral work at Duke University and had the the opportunity to encounter Professor Franklin many times during my graduate training. Each time it was a privilege because John Hope Franklin was a superstar intellectual who managed to be utterly open and personally humble with students. He made us feel like partners, rather than subordinates, in academic inquiry.

In an age when black public intellectuals are rewarded for pop-culture peppered verbal dexterity and aggressive self-promotion; Dr. Franklin maintained a mode of inquiry which exposed injustice and dismantled inadequate arguments with soft-spoken dignity. His gentle manner sometimes led interlocutors to underestimate him, but it was not a mistake made more than once, because Franklin's razor sharp intellect and quick wit were memorable.

John Hope Franklin had deep personal and professional knowledge of America's vicious racial legacy. Franklin researched America's story of slavery and freedom in segregated archives. He was relegated to separate tables and irregular library hours so that white patrons would not be exposed to a literate black man researching Southern history. Franklin uncovered the vicious legacy of our racial past and engaged in decades of the struggle to change our racial present: from marching in Selma to endorsing Barack Obama.

Though racism and racial inequality disgusted him, Franklin remained ever optimistic about the American democratic project. Perhaps because he'd lived through the age of racial terrorism John Hope Franklin routinely denied the insistence by his privileged students that "nothing has changed" in America's racial story. Franklin was clear that racism was not eliminated and inequality was not resolved, but America was undoubtedly a different country in the late 20th and early 21st century. Franklin pushed us to acknowledge change across time and he encouraged us to take some measure of comfort in that change.

Franklin was no post-racial theorist, but he helped us remember that it mattered that slavery was ended, Jim Crow dismantled, and a black man elected president. He asked us to remember that black women and men struggled along with their white allies to make America a country more true to her ideals.

John Hope Franklin was a giant. He will be greatly missed.


Our Budget, Our Selves

Few processes are more revealing of our commitments, our priorities, and our core beliefs than budgeting. This is true for individuals, families, institutions, and nations. How we spend our resources is a much more meaningful measure of what we value than our public declarations on the matter.

This is particularly true in tough times when there are fewer resources to allocate.

I have a good friend who has decided to get rid of their family's second car. Though she and her husband work 30 minutes in opposite directions they are finding a way to make this crazy commute work. Why? Because they live a town with seriously underperforming public schools and they are absolutely committed to providing their daughter with a first class education. For them, this means private school tuition. So everyone is bracing for obscenely early mornings and far more inconvenient work schedules. They never thought twice about this priority.

I work at an elite, private university, but even we are feeling the crush of the economic downturn. This week I watched with pride as my president, Shirley Tilghman, explained that Princeton remains absolutely committed to providing some of the most generous financial aid packages in the country. There may be heftier workloads and fewer faculty resources, but President Tilghman will not allow financial pressures to alter her commitment to expanding opportunities in the ivy leagues beyond the wealthy elite. She has not wavered about this priority.

On Fridays my retired mother volunteers at our local crisis ministry. Every week she meets men and women who have lost jobs and homes. They are battling to find enough food to feed their families. Yet most of them talk to her about their deep commitments to family and community. They are pulling together and helping one another. Times are tough but they help their elderly neighbors get groceries home on the bus. They do not allow their poverty to duhmanize them.

Tonight President Obama presents his budget to the American people. The budget is more than a balance sheet. President Obama will ask us to evaluate our priorities in the face of economic crisis. He will question our resolve to improve education, offer equal opportunities, and provide for our neighbors despite the the terrifying deficits. He will ask us what we really believe.

Each of the stories I have told here could be eased with a collective national effort. All families should have quality public schools for their children. College should be more affordable for high achieving students. High quality, widely accessible public housing and elder care services can relieve burdens on the poorest Americans.

Budgets are choices. We can respond with fear and refuse to make long term investments in our country or we can choose to follow our highest ideals as Americans. President Obama will ask us what we believe.

How we respond will reveal who we truly are as a nation.

The New "Welfare Queens"

I am deriving a quirky and somewhat devious pleasure from the current rhetoric surrounding the AIG bonus debacle. I've noticed that members of Congress, media outlets, and the general public are discussing wealthy AIG executives in language typically reserved for poor, black mothers. I must admit that I am enjoying watching the nation scapegoat rich, white guys rather than women who look like me.

In the feminist academic circles where I live and work it is an article of faith that public officials use anti-welfare language to pummel poor black women who make use of financial assistance from the state. Nearly 25 years ago Ronald Reagan scored political points and crafted a surprisingly sticky mythology of the "welfare queen." He whipped up zealous, self-righteous outrage among middle income Americans by imagining hordes of women having babies, buying electronics, and growing fat and complacent on the backs of hard-working, taxpaying, white Americans. (I can't wait to read comments on this post, which will undoubtedly reiterate the poor people-bashing rhetoric of the Right)

The Democratic Party has also been willing to employ this characterization of African American women. President Bill Clinton signaled his centrist credentials by promising to end welfare as we know it and by insisting on "personal responsibility" as though poor women struggling to raise their families on dollars a day were not already responsible.

Those of us on the intellectual left pushed back against this rhetoric by pointing out that social welfare benefits to poor families are a tiny fraction of the federal budget. We argued against the stigmatizing effects of labeling poor women using the derogatory language of "cheats." We pointed out that citizens in a democracy have responsibilities to one another and collective interests in ensuring the welfare of children and families.

This week "welfare queen" discourse has been used to describe the bonus-receiving AIG executives. It is now these wealthy private employees who are labeled as greedy, taxpayer-money wasters. I chuckle a little with postmodern pleasure as I watch the black President chide AIG execs for living off the public dole and as he promises to restore a national commitment to reward for hard work and accountability. It's funny to watch AIG defenders point out that their bonuses comprise only a small percentage of the overall bailout money. It is satisfying to see the public wrath deployed against a different group of people.

For once poor, black women are not the source of all our national ills.

Still, the similarity in rhetoric makes me concerned that we are engaged in another round of useless scapegoating that keeps our national attention diverted from the bigger scoundrels in the system.

Maybe the Sky Isn't Falling

There has been a discernible shift in the economic news.

Wall Street rallied for several days. Developers are building homes again. Food prices have fallen. The New York Times is calling current economic data a "balm." This morning I even got a phone call from a political reporter who despite newspaper layoffs around the country, was lured by low interest rates into buying a new car.

The Federal Government is making confidence-boosting, citizen-regarding choices. The IRS is planning a tax break for those duped by Madoff. President Obama, like a smart quarterback, responded quickly and decisively to the AIG bonus scandal by dispatching Geithener to behave as a fullback, blocking the corporate executives from misspending taxpayer money.

Dark economic clouds still crowd our fiscal skies but there is undoubtedly a little hint of blue making itself visible. Hope may be more than a campaign slogan, it might just be spendable currency in tough times.

So I am wondering if there is still a market for cynicism. What will all the pundits (including me) do if America proves more resilient than any of us imagined? What if we bounce back in significant and meaningful ways in time for the 2010 midterm elections? What if this is not an economic crisis that rivals the Great Depression, but just the death rattle of wretched two-term presidential mismanagement? What will the pundits do with the good economic news?

Van Jones Makes Me Green with Happiness

I am thrilled that President Obama has tapped Van Jones to serve as a special White House advisor. This appointment makes me think that Obama "gets it" because Van Jones embodies a critically important political strategy for the left.

Over the past decade Democrats faced a shrinking voting base and have groped to build coalitions. Even in tough times, Democrats have been able to rely on three groups (1) Labor, (2) Racial minorities (particularly African Americans), and (3) Environmentalists. These groups are so reliable I have jokingly advocated that the Democratic party should adopt the ANC flag because its base is clearly Red, Black, and Green.

Van Jones brings together these base building constituencies with an elegant and progressive political strategy. Jones has made local environmental justice efforts of the past 30 years suddenly visible and powerfully relevant. During the past several decades African American, Latino, and Native American communities have been battling undesirable land uses, disproportionate health impacts, and undemocratic zoning processes throughout the country. These efforts have generated new demands for community participation, expanded definitions of civil rights, and more diverse understandings of the environment.

But the EJ movement has also been decentralized and largely invisible.

As the founder of Green for All, Van Jones has brought visibility and coherence to the EJ movement and articulated a politically powerful vision that links the creation of new jobs, the employment and participation of the most disfranchised, and an insistence on sustainability. Jones represents a possible nexus of where consensus framing of progressive issues can be used to impact the material conditions of those Americans who are hurting the most in these tough times.

I must admit a little discomfort about the implicit gender politics here. EJ movements throughout the U.S. have largely been headed by women: Beverly Wright of the Deep South Center and Majora Carter who founded Sustainable South Bronx are just two of the best known women leaders in EJ. I'd love to see these sisters at the table too. President Obama's "basketball cabinet" strategy tends to lean a little too much on guy's voices for my taste. But I do think Jones brings a particularly keen public presence that will make him a powerful advocate of these issues. I trust that Jones will continue to be in dialogue with women leaders around the country, including Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins who will take over Jones' organization now that he is departing for DC.

I appreciate that Jones is deeply committed to ground-up organizing and expansive ideas about participation. His experiences as a community organizer and even his invocation of civil rights organizing forerunners like Ella Baker and Bayard Rustin reflect Jones' commitment to democratic participation in government processes. This commitment is a hallmark of the EJ movement.

Good job Barack, I'll be flying my red, black and green flag in support today.


In Defense of Earmarks

The US Senate spent yesterday freaking out on Capitol Hill about the spending bill. Senators are wrangling about its passage because so many of the proposed spending items fall under the broad category "earmarks." Can we pause for just a minute? I need to point out that earmarks are not necessarily evil.

Let me say it one more time is this totally psychotic political environment: Earmarks are not necessarily bad.

An earmark is just a way of describing a government funded project where the spending is designated for a particular group or location.

In other words, all taxpayers pay into one big federal taxation pot. Then the funds from that pot have to be divided up and spent. Some of the money is spent on things that impact all citizens equally (national defense) and some of the money is spent on things that benefit only a small group of people. For example, if federal tax dollars repair a road between South Carolina and Georgia, then the people who regularly travel along that road will get more benefit than commuters in Wisconsin. Or if federal tax dollars support a middle school on a Navajo reservation then the students who attend that school will get the benefit while their public school peers in center city Boston don't. Get it?

But there is nothing inherently evil or bad about such a system. In fact, it is nearly impossible to imagine any other way of crafting a federal budget. Of course we all pay into the pot. Of course some projects benefit some localities and other projects benefit other localities. This is part of the genius of our Founding Fathers. They created a system with multiple layers of accountability. Members of the House of Representatives are elected from local districts and they are supposed to worry about being responsive to local interests. They are reelected every 2 years to ensure maximum accountability to these local interests. It is their job to make sure that many of the local spending projects end up in their district. If your representative is not doing this then you should fire her! Seriously. Please make sure that federal government money is allocated to your community and if it isn't please run against your member of Congress in 2010.

Now Senators are elected from states and are supposed have somewhat broader interests. They have a longer electoral clock (6 years) so that they can think more long term and because they are accountable to an entire state they are supposed to take a broader view. Good. Senators are not as accountable to localized interests. Each of us is BOTH a citizen of a congressional district and of a state. It is right and proper to have both our local interests and state interests represented in political bargaining. Part of the reason every state has 2 senators is so we can have overlapping understandings of what it means to represent a state.

Then there is the president who has a view of the entire nation and so is meant to guard broad national interests alongside the local concerns. At its best it is a great system where the multiple overlapping constituencies allow all of our interests to have some chance of representation.

The system is not made better by denying the reality of local interests just to claim to be doing everything in the national interest. We are a country of states, we are states of cities, we are cities of neighborhoods. Each of us, each of our communities, makes up the big picture.

Local spending projects (earmarks) are just part of that process. The only way to govern without local spending proects is for the federal government to simply give all the money to the states and let the states decide how to spend the cash. Trust me when I tell you that this is not a good idea. If you have any doubt about what happens when states are allowed to set autonomous policy without federal intervention then I suggest you spend some time reading about slavery and the Civil War.

We should not be hoodwinked by partisan alarmists railing about "billions in earmarks bloating the massive spending bill." There certainly are bad and wasteful local spending projects, just as there are good and noble ones. The simple fact that we spend federal tax money in localities does not make these projects bad. We need to think about the value of projects within a larger framework of both responsible fiscal governance at the federal level and responsiveness to constituency needs at a local level.

Balancing responsible and responsive governing is not easy. It requires tough political bargaining, difficult decision making, and sometimes ideologically directed choices. But that is OK, that is part of how a democracy works.

Syndicate content