Melissa Harris-Perry | The Nation

Melissa Harris-Perry

Melissa Harris-Perry

 Race, gender, politics, religion and our struggles.

The Continuous Evolution of Marriage

In the wake of Obama’s new stance on same-sex marriage, Melissa Harris-Perry brings together a spirited group of panelists to challenge and discuss deeply rooted notions of marriage based on gender roles and financial and other considerations. Ultimately, they present a fresh and revealing deconstruction of the institution of marriage and the values—religious, moral and otherwise—that prop it up.

—Elizabeth Whitman

For Firing a Warning Shot, Florida Mother Faces Twenty Years in Prison

In 2010, Marissa Alexander, a mother of three, tried to keep her abusive husband away from her. She fired a warning shot—into the kitchen ceiling. No one was hurt, but she now faces up to twenty years in prison.

“If a survivor of domestic violence uses a gun to warn an attacker, not kill him, and that survivor now faces a prison term of twenty years, then what purpose does Stand Your Ground serve?” asks Melissa Harris-Perry on her show this Sunday. She gathers an expert panel, including a survivor of domestic violence, to discuss the controversial law and other legal double standards that apply to women, especially those in abusive relationships.

—Elizabeth Whitman

Obama and Romney's Battle for the Latino Vote

Which way will Latinos vote come November? Will they vote for Obama, who has yet to fulfill a 2008 campaign pledge of comprehensive immigration reform? Or Romney, who has been unusually consistent in his anti-immigration views? Either way, Latinos are a key constituency with diverse needs that include far more than immigration reform. Melissa Harris-Perry brings together a panel of experts to discuss key aspects of the Latino vote in November.

—Elizabeth Whitman

When Will the Obama Administration Take a Stand on LGBT Issues?

When it comes to LGBT issues, the Obama administration has been remarkably inconsistent, in both its rhetoric and its action to address LGBT discrimination. On her show this weekend, Melissa Harris-Perry gathered a diverse panel including frequent Nation contributor Kai Wright to discuss the administration's leadership, or lack thereof, on LGBT issues and how a brewing cultural and political battle could play out over the next six or so months.

—Elizabeth Whitman

Who Played Wisconsin Better: Romney or Santorum?

Is Santorum approaching the end of his campaign? Melissa Harris-Perry gathered a panel yesterday that included Nation writer John Nichols to discuss the GOP campaign in a state where more than one million signatures were gathered to force a recall election of Republican Governor Scott Walker. In this clip, Harris-Perry discusses rhetoric while Nichols explains the differences in tactics used by Romney&nsbp;and Santorum and how he thinks they will play out on Tuesday.

—Elizabeth Whitman

Growing Up Black in America

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Three high schoolers, who, like Trayvon Martin was, are young, black and male, joined Melissa Harris-Perry on her show this weekend to share their experiences growing up in New York. They describe the steps they've taken to avoid discrimination and profiling, stories of being targeted by police, and their thoughts on the chilling reality of being a black male in America. One of the young men, Diallo McClammy, explains that he wears exactly what Trayvon Martin used to. "That could have been me," he says.

—Elizabeth Whitman 

Melissa Harris-Perry: How 'The Help' Commodifies Black Women's Suffering

On her new show, The Nation's Melissa Harris-Perry and her panelists discuss the drawbacks and merits of The Help, which won an Oscar for best supporting actress on Sunday. Their debate turns out to be about much more than just a Hollywood movie, though, as it delves into how the movie exposes darker and more stubborn elements of American civil rights, society and culture.

Check out more from Harris-Perry's new weekend morning show here.

—Elizabeth Whitman

The Epistemology of Race Talk

I logged onto Twitter on Sunday night and discovered that my recent article for The Nation was causing a bit of a stir. Some members of the white liberal political community are appalled and angry that I suggested racial bias maybe responsible for the President’s declining support among white Americans. I found some responses to my piece to be fair and important, others to be silly and nonresponsive, and still others to be offensive personal attacks. But those categories are par for the course.

I make it a practice not to defend my public writings. Because I often write about provocative topics like race, gender, sexual orientation and reproductive rights, if I defended every piece I wrote against critics I would find little time to sleep. But the responses to this recent article have been revealing in ways that I find typical of our contemporary epistemology of race. Often, those of us who attempt to talk about historical and continuing racial bias in America encounter a few common discursive strategies that are meant to discredit our perspectives. Some of them are in play here.

1. Prove it!

The first is a common strategy of asking any person of color who identifies a racist practice or pattern to “prove” that racism is indeed the causal factor. This is typically demanded by those who are certain of their own purity of racial motivation. The implication is if one cannot produce irrefutable evidence of clear, blatant and intentional bias, then racism must be banned as a possibility. But this is both silly as an intellectual claim and dangerous as a policy standard. 

In a nation with the racial history of the United States I am baffled by the idea that non-racism would be the presumption and that it is racial bias which must be proved beyond reasonable doubt. More than 100 years of philosophical, psychological and sociological research that begins, at least, with the work of W.E.B. Du Bois has mapped the deeply entrenched realities of racial bias on the American consciousness. If anything, racial bias, not racial innocence is the better presumption when approaching American political decision-making. Just fifty years ago, nearly all white Democrats in the US South shifted parties rather than continuing to affiliate with the party of civil rights. No one can prove that this decision was made on the basis of racial bias, but the historical trend is so clear as to require mental gymnastics to imagine this was a choice not motivated by race.

Progressives and liberals should be particularly careful when they demand proof of intentionality rather than evidence of disparate impact in conversations about racism. Recall that initially the 1964 Civil Rights Act made “disparate impact” a sufficient evidentiary claim for racial bias. In other words, a plaintiff did not need to prove that anyone was harboring racial animus in their hearts, they just needed to show that the effects of a supposedly race neutral policy actually had a discernible, disparate impact on people of color. The doctrine of disparate impact helped to clear many discriminatory housing and employment policies off the books.

Michelle Alexander brilliantly demonstrates in The New Jim Crow, the pernicious effect of the Supreme Court moving away from disparate impact as a standard to forcing plaintiffs to demonstrate racist intention. This new standard has encouraged the explosive growth of incarceration of African-Americans, turning a blind eye to disparate impact while it demands “proof” of racial bias.

I believe we must be careful and judicious in our conversations about racism. But I also believe that those who demand proof of interpersonal intention to create a racist outcome are missing the point about how racism works. Racism is not exclusively about hooded Klansmen; it is also about the structures of bias and culture of privilege that infect the left as well.

2. I have black friends

Which brings us to a second common strategy of argument about one’s racial innocence: the “I have black friends” claim. I was shocked and angered when Salon’s Joan Walsh used this strategy in her criticism of my piece. Although I disagree with her, I have no problem with Walsh’s decision to take on the claims in my piece. I consider it a sign of respect to publicly engage those with whom you disagree. I was taken aback that Walsh emphasized the extent of our friendship. Walsh and I have been professionally friendly. We’ve eaten a few meals. I invited her to speak at Princeton and I introduced her to my literary agent. We are not friends. Friendship is a deep and lasting relationship based on shared sacrifice and joys. We are not intimates in that way. Watching Walsh deploy our professional familiarity as a shield against claims of her own bias is very troubling. In fact, it is one of the very real barriers to true interracial friendship and intimacy.

Interracial friendship should, ideally, encourage the desire to investigate one’s own racial privilege and bias, not to use the identity of one’s friends against any claim that such bias even exists. As an ally in LGBT struggles, I have learned this lesson repeatedly. As an ally my role is to speak up for LGBT issues when in heteronormative environments and to shut up when being spoken to by gay and transgendered persons. I was harshly criticized for my failure to account for trans-phobia and trans-hatred and trans-violence in my discussions of “don’t ask, don’t tell” and marriage equality. My critics were absolutely right. My cis-privilege had blinded me to the ways that power was operating very differently for trans-citizens.

Friends certainly criticize friends, but allies also pause to listen. It is completely possible that I am absolutely wrong about white racial bias on the left against President Obama. Certainly, it wouldn’t be the first time I was wrong in my political analysis. But listen to this for a moment white allies: many African-Americans (not all, but many) feel that the attacks on President Obama are racialized on both the right and the left. This feeling has meaningful implications for the quality of our national, political fabric. When we tell you that the attacks are racially troubling, painful, we would like you to take our concerns seriously rather than working to simply defend yourself against the claims.

Along with several colleagues I conducted a national survey in 2005 measuring how Americans felt in the aftermath of the Hurricane Katrina disaster. The racial gap in how black and white Americans saw the event was striking. A strong majority of white Americans believed the government response has little or nothing to do with race, while an overwhelming number of black Americans believed the response was racialized. No one can “prove” which perception is accurate. But that is beside the point. If more than two-thirds of black citizens believe that their government will allow them to drown and dehydrate and die on national television because of their race, then there is something here worth discussing. And the discussion cannot be about how black people are just too sensitive.

3. Who made you an expert?

This brings me to a final point about racial discourse. It is common for my interlocutors to question my professional, intellectual and personal credentials. It is as though my very identity as an African-American woman makes me unqualified to speak on issues of race and gender; as though I could only be arguing out of personal interest or opinion rather than from decades of research, publication and university teaching.

But this is not personal. In fact, I suspect that those who tell me “I hope you die” or “you are a racist” or “you are a hack” actually know almost nothing about me at all. Rather this is standard strategy used to scorn the study of race as an illegitimate intellectual pursuit. Taking race and gender seriously as objects of academic inquiry is widely maligned, particularly in a social and political world that sees itself through the rose-colored lenses of self-congratulatory post-racialism. A French scholar of the French Revolution could easily write 1,000 words about American Francophone relations without being asked to produce a bibliography of citations, but the same courtesy of professional credibility is pretty regularly denied to black scholars of American racial politics.

This blog is against my better judgment in many ways. Reading it over again, it feels defensive. I am fully aware that I have benefitted from a hugely transformed public space. The struggles of generations of scholars, activists and writers who went before me have cleared unimaginable room for me and so many others to pursue public discourse on topics that were previously silenced, often violently. I am grateful to have readers who take me seriously enough to argue with me and opponents who believe my words are important enough that they make the effort to belittle them.

Further, I am grateful to live in a time when white Americans are furious about anyone suggesting that they are racist. 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.


Democratic Freedom Dreams After September 11

Not long after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Robin Kelley, the award-winning historian of race and labor in the United States, published a book titled Freedom Dreams. It is an intellectual history of the various political projects for achieving freedom and equality that dominated the American landscape in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The bulk of the manuscript was completed before September 11, but the concluding chapter is written in direct response to the events of that day.

In the final chapter, Kelley spins his own “freedom dream” of what might become of Ground Zero. He writes:

What shall we build on the ashes of a nightmare?

We don’t need another hall of finance, wealth and exclusivity, no more symbols of class, power, and privilege. We don’t need another gargantuan modern-day mill where some working people slave over mops and vacuum cleaners in the wee hours of the morning and others over computers and fax machines way past sundown. Yes, jobs are valuable and necessary in a world where everything—even food, shelter, and clothing—is a commodity. But now is the time to think like poets, to envision and make visible a new society, a peaceful, cooperative, loving world without poverty and oppression, limited only by our imagination.

Kelley goes on to imagine Ground Zero as a park “filled with odd, beautiful, play structures intended to force people to engage each other.” I’ve thought a great deal about Kelley’s freedom dream this week. Like many Americans, I found the tenth anniversary of September 11 particularly hard to comprehend and to process emotionally. How could a decade have passed? How could we still be at war? Did anything other than cascades of violence, greed, and division rise from the ashes of ground zero? Were all those lives lost for nothing? As One World Trade ascends, it both asserts the resilience of American capital and mocks Kelley’s dream of a free space.

Now that it is September 13, instead of September 11, I encourage us to consider for a moment not the anniversary of the tragedy but the anniversary of the political choices that were made in its wake. On October 7, 2001, the United States launched Operation Enduring Freedom and invaded Afghanistan. On October 26, 2001, the United States Congress, with overwhelming bipartisan agreement, passed the USA Patriot Act and it was signed into law by President Bush. In February 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell testified before the UN claiming that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. The resulting war in Iraq was repeatedly defended by the Bush administration as a response to the events of 9/11. Many are critical of politicizing memories of September 11. But September 11 was and is a powerful tool of American and international politics that was seized by the right in the days immediately following the attack. Progressives have been far less adept at employing September 11 as a fulcrum to turn the political agenda toward public-supporting ends.

There is one interesting, though not entirely unproblematic, exception. In March 2003, Richard Daley, then mayor of Chicago used the threat of terrorism as an excuse to enact a public works project he’d long hoped to bring to fruition. For nearly a decade Mayor Daley battled to close Meigs Field, a small airstrip along the city’s lakefront and covert the land into a public park. In the middle of the night of March 31, 2003, Mayor Daley sent bulldozers to Meigs Field and gouged large Xs into the runways. He did not give the required notice to the FAA or the private aircraft owners. Daley’s actions were decried as evidence of his increasingly authoritarian style. He was sued and the city eventually returned about a million dollars in FAA funds. He was roundly and regularly criticized.

Mayor Daley defended the closure of Meigs Field, saying that the airstrip posed a potential terrorist threat to downtown Chicago. “I am not willing to wait for a tragedy, as some have asked me to do, to happen before making a very difficult and tough decision.” Given that he had long hoped to close Meigs Field, that there were no credible threats to Chicago and that the small aircraft that used the runways were little threat to downtown, it is pretty clear that protection from terrorism was not the real impetus for Daley’s choice.

What was Meigs Field is now Northerly Island. It boasts great fishing and birding, a state-of-the-art concert venue, walking paths, picnic space and play equipment. Daley exercised coercive government power, justified by the threat of terrorism to turn a private airfield into a public space. President Bush, along with Congressional Democrats and Republicans, used coercive government power and the justification of terrorism to drag America into two wars and to strip away basic civil liberties. Ends do not justify means, but today Northerly Island in Chicago is far closer to Robin Kelley’s imagined free space than is Ground Zero.

While not a model for progressive governing, it is at least an interesting counter-example of how our collective suffering might be turned toward ends that meet our collective needs, rather than used to justify even more suffering.

Thinking vs. Doing at GOP Debate

Post-mortem media coverage of last night’s Republican primary debate has focused on several key distinctions including the differing approaches to social security offered by Perry and Romney, the divergent constitutional interpretation articulated by Paul, and the contrasting approach to scientific knowledge on display by Huntsman.

But it was the refrain of an unreconciled dichotomy between “thinking” and “doing” that offers the best insight into the upcoming 2012 election match-up between President Obama and his GOP challenger. The clearest moment was when Governor Perry, discussing Social Security, declared, “You can either have reasons, or you can have results.” Even though Perry later discussed his own deliberations on the HPV vaccine law, lauded Texas’ “thoughtful” process of capital punishment, and cited Galileo as an example of scientific peer review processes, the dominant theme of the GOP debate was— it is time to do away with the useless endeavor of thinking and to move swiftly toward taking action.

This is a message likely to resonate with American voters across partisan and ideological lines.

America’s unrelenting economic distress and persistent international military entanglements cry out for redress. Observers on the left and the right are demanding that something be done—now. The free flowing criticism of the president’s as yet undelivered jobs speech is fueled by the sense that public pronouncements and private dialogue are a waste of time in this crisis. The demand for action is a bipartisan revolt against the professorial president.

Progressives ought be reticent to join this outcry against deliberate, thoughtful public airing of the ideas that undergird policy choices. Republican presidential candidates are not stupid. They are not action figures who posses supra-constitutional abilities to make things better. They are operating with guiding philosophies about how much inequality should be tolerated, grand visions of what a fair America should look like, and binding ideas about the role of government in advancing the cause of justice. Their actions will, undoubtedly, proceed from those thoughts. A fence on the border, the end of social security as a public trust, the repeal of basic environmental standards are all policy goals rooted in philosophical claims. Our economic and political circumstances demand that we know more than what these candidates propose to do. We need to listen to why they plan to do it.

And then we have to offer clear alternatives, not only to policy actions, but to underlying theories of economy and government that support these policies. The French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote of the importance of the “insurrection of subjugated knowledges.” Such an insurrection is critically needed in our public realm. Even as we seek action, we cannot discard thought.

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