Melissa Harris-Perry: Psychologist to the Stars

23 Sep

Wow, this piece from Melissa Harris-Perry is one of the more fact-free assessments of the relationship between Obama and the liberal-left that I’ve seen.

Harris-Perry contends that “a more insidious form of racism” than the traditional kind may explain white liberal dissatisfaction with Obama. Where white liberals presumably gave the much less effective Clinton a pass in 1996, Harris-Perry anticipates a defection among those very same voters in 2012. Why? Because they’ll act on their alleged “tendency…to hold African-American leaders to a higher standard than their white counterparts.”  The next election, she claims, “may be a test of another form of electoral racism.”

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.

Harris-Perry offers virtually no evidence to support this claim, except for the fact that white support for Obama has plummeted from 61 to 33 percent. Evidence of white racism?  Perhaps, though the dismal state of the economy seems an equally likely contender.  Evidence of white liberal racism? She’ll have to do better than that.

Because here’s what we do know about liberal support for Obama.  As of August 1, according to this Gallup poll, 83 percent of liberal Democrats were supporting him. Among liberals (as opposed to liberal Democrats), the numbers throughout the first half of the summer mostly hovered in the upper 70s. Then by the end of August, those numbers began inching down to 68 percent. But guess what?  They also began falling among African Americans.  In fact, according to this September Washington Post story, “Five months ago, 83 percent of African Americans held ‘strongly favorable’ views of Obama, but in a new Washington Post-ABC news poll that number has dropped to 58 percent.”  That’s why, according to this piece, Obama has made special outreach efforts to blacks: he’s worried about their dwindling support. But as the Post also goes onto explain, “That drop is similar to slipping support for Obama among all groups.”

So why is Obama’s support declining among all groups? And why didn’t it with Clinton in 1996?  Hmm. What could be different?  Perhaps the state of the economy, particularly the unemployment numbers (which appear nowhere in Harris-Perry’s piece), has something to do with it?  And, lest we forget what happened four years after 1996, so disgusted was a portion of the liberal electorate with Clinton’s compromises that they refused to vote for his vice president, opting instead for Ralph Nader.

Unlike some folks, I don’t think Harris-Perry’s problem is her tendency to cry racism. No, it’s far deeper than that. It’s her tendency to reduce political arguments to psychological motivations. Because this is hardly the first time that Harris-Perry has speculated about the underlying sources of liberal-left disgruntlement with Obama.  Back in May, she criticized Cornel West and Tavis Smiley for their critique of Obama, arguing that it was driven more by personal pique than political principle. Again, with little evidence to support her claims.  Now, she launches a similarly psychologically driven theory of white liberal-left disgruntlement, only this time the putative motivation is racism.

Psychology may or may not play a role in politics. But if it does, we need evidence-based psychologists, not fact-free astrologists, to explain it to us.

 

Update (8:00 pm)

Through some helpful prodding from Dorian Warren in the comments section, it occurred to me that there are five facts that Harris-Perry needs to establish that she nowhere establishes.  I’d be satisfied if she could establish at least some of them, but she doesn’t establish any of them. These are the facts that need to be established:

  1. White liberals are significantly less supportive of Obama than they used to be.
  2.  The drop in white liberal support for Obama at this point is significantly greater than it was for Clinton at a comparable point (or frankly at any point) prior to his reelection.
  3. The drop in white liberal support for Obama is significantly greater than the drop in black or Latino liberal support for Obama.
  4. The differential among liberals between white and black or Latino support for Obama is significantly larger than the differential, if it existed, between white and black or Latino support for Clinton.
  5. That larger differential, if it exists, is a reflection of declining white support for Obama rather than increasing or persistent black or Latino support for Obama.

Again, I’m not asking that she establish all of these facts, but having failed to establish any of them, it’s hard to see whether or not there’s even a problem here that needs to be analyzed. In other words, as of now, Harris-Perry’s argument is a hypothesis in search of a problem rather than a problem in search of a hypothesis.

 

Update (September 25, 10:30 am)

Reading Orlando Patterson’s New York Times review of Touré’s new book on “post-blackness,” this passage jumped out at me:

Post-black identity, we learn, resides in the need to live with and transcend new and subtle but pervasive forms of racism: “Post-black does not mean ‘post-racial.’ ” This new racism is invisible and unknowable, always lurking in the shadows, the secret decisions of whites resulting in lost opportunities blacks never knew about or even thought possible: “There’s a sense of malevolent ghosts darting around you, screwing with you, often out of sight but never out of mind.” Even so extraordinarily successful a person as Elizabeth Alexander, the tenured Yale professor and inaugural poet, claims to be haunted by “a continual underestimation of my intellectual ability and capacity, and the real insidious aspect of that kind of racism is that we don’t know half the time when people are underestimating us.”

In reading this passage, especially that powerful quote from Elizabeth Alexander, it occurred to me that perhaps Harris-Perry and the liberal left are just talking past each other. When most liberals and lefties I know criticize Obama, we are not making judgments about his capacities, intelligence, competence, or expertise. I think most of us believe that he is a preternaturally gifted politician, who managed his astonishing rise to power through a combination of savvy, eloquence, ruthlessness, ambition, smarts, vision, and skill—all the gifts, in other words, we like to see in a politician, particularly a politician on the left.

But when we assess Obama, like any other president, we’re not thinking about his skills and talents; we’re thinking about what we call his “politics” and, even more important, how his politics reflect larger forces and structures in American society: corporate power, neoliberal ideology, declining organizational capacity on the left, and so on.  We see him, often, as a symptom of those forces, not a challenge to them.  Not, again, because of any lack of intelligence or ability on his part, but because, in part, he is a product of the structure (with all its failings) we would like to see dismantled.

Reading Alexander’s quote, I wondered if Harris-Perry was viewing the liberal left’s disgruntlement through a different lens. In the mainstream media and a lot of political science—and also, I think, among a lot of citizens—there’s a tendency to view presidential performance in highly personal terms: Reagan was a successful president because he possessed great political skills, Carter was a disaster because he lacked those skills.  Again, that’s not how I or people I know approach these matters, and I’ve written about why it’s not a good way to think about these things, but I think it’s a fairly common way people approach them.

So if that’s the way you view these matters, as Harris-Perry clearly does (there’s lots of talk in her article of competence and such), then it’s no wonder, once you add the reality of racial suspicion that Elizabeth Alexander talks about above, that you’d see criticism of Obama as reflecting a deeper skepticism on the part of whites, including white progressives (who are after all members and beneficiaries of a racist society, and thus not immune to its deep codes), of the talents and abilities of the president. If your only way of understanding presidential performance is through the lens of personal ability, or if you think that’s the only way other people understand it, then it makes sense to view criticism of a president who is clearly able (more than able) as being driven by racism.

This is just a hunch about what’s going in Harris-Perry’s piece; I’ve no proof of it. But reading Elizabeth Alexander this morning did make me wonder if that might not be what’s going on here.

32 Responses to “Melissa Harris-Perry: Psychologist to the Stars”

  1. Dorian Warren September 23, 2011 at 4:22 pm #

    Corey is right to be skeptical about the MHP’s provocative argument about “liberal electoral racism”. However, there is still an explanation needed for the still-significant differences between white and black attitudes about Obama. What’s his explanation for the difference, not the drop? In addition, his criticism of her “tendency to reduce political arguments to psychological motivations” seems a bit unfair and hypocritical, especially considering this discussion on his FB page from August: http://coreyrobin.com/2011/08/01/572/. Given that 90% of the arguments about Obama in that discussion were also imputing internal psychological motivations of BHO, I’d suggest the same standard of “evidence-based psychologists, not fact-free astrologists” be applied to all.

    • Corey Robin September 23, 2011 at 5:04 pm #

      Dorian, your second point is a fair one. That was part of my discomfit with the FB roundtable (which was a FB roundtable, after all, not a fact-checked column), and why when I sat down to reflect and write about Obama’s position on the debt-ceiling crisis, I eschewed the psychological motivation argument in favor of a more historical/institutional/political argument. (http://www.lrb.co.uk/v33/n16/corey-robin/the-war-on-tax) But on the first point: let’s be clear. The purpose of this post is not to deny white racism or symbolic racism or what have you. Not at all. It’s to make a more local point against an entirely speculative explanation that’s premised on an entirely inaccurate apprehension of the facts. The burden is not on me to explain why white support for Obama is less than black support — it seems like the obvious candidate is racism (though we’d also have to compare the differentials with the differentials between black and white support for previous Democratic presidents; on the whole, blacks tend to be the most supportive of a Democratic president, no? — but on Harris-Perry to, first, establish that the facts are as she claims they are, and, second, to provide evidence for her explanation of those facts. Your description of her account as “provocative” is a nice euphemism, but it’s just that: a nice euphemism.

      • Dorian Warren September 23, 2011 at 5:38 pm #

        I hear you Corey on the roundtable vs. column point. But MHP’s column was an opinion piece, not an empirically-based academic article. Alterman, Pollitt, Williams and others make provocative claims all the time without such a high standard of evidence…MHP did provide some suggestive numbers, about which readers can disagree with her interpretation.

        But I called her article “provocative” because she does provide a strong argument comparing *actual policy wins and losses* between Obama and Clinton, which was the meat of her piece. It was grounded in evidence of very specific policies taken up by both presidents. Now, we might argue about “selection bias” of which policies she choose to make the comparison. But you chose the very last paragraph of the article with no reference to the comparison in presidential records, which I took to be the main point that we should be arguing over. The “liberal electoral racism” hypothesis is just that, a hypothesis (and a provocative one at that). It can *only* be tested after November 2012.

  2. Gabriel Brahm September 23, 2011 at 5:27 pm #

    Nice Stalinist blast. People can make any kind of political arguments they want–psychological or otherwise. The only question is if they are convincing arguments or not. In this case, I suspect MHP is onto something, although the factors you adduce are also operative. (Is the white academic far-left getting nervous about what it would mean to have abandoned Obama–and helped put President Romney in the White House, the way the Naderites helped screw Gore?)

  3. Corey Robin September 23, 2011 at 7:15 pm #

    Dorian, I’m not asking for an academic article. I’ve written many times for The Nation, in the front and the book review section, which is even more removed from the constraints of proof than a political column is. Each time I’ve been subjected to a fairly rigorous fact-checking process. Even a minimal version of that should have raised red flags.

    But you’re wrong that her piece is not empirical. She’s positing an empirical fact — a decline in white liberal support for Obama versus white liberal support for Clinton — that she nowhere established as fact (something it should be fairly easy to establish if it’s true). In fact, there are two facts there that she doesn’t establish: one, that there has been a significant decline in white liberal support for Obama; two, that that decline in support is much greater than the support that Clinton had in 1996. And then she offers a hypothesis for that very same pattern of facts that she has yet to establish is a fact. You’re much more the social scientist than I, but I thought the point of a hypotheses was to provide an explanation of a pattern of facts that needs explaining, not a pattern of facts that needs establishing. Again, this isn’t academic article land; this is just basic laying the groundwork land.

    And, personally, before I even offered up for speculation the hypothesis that she offers, I’d want to suss out that that pattern-of-facts-that-has-yet-to-be-established-as-fact is all that distinctive or worthy of remark. To be more specific: a) is the decline of white liberal support for Obama radically different from the decline of black liberal support for Obama? b) if it is, is the differential much great than the differential, if there was one, in white liberal versus black liberal support for Clinton; and c) if it is that different, is the difference coming from declining white liberal support for Obama or is it coming from increasing or persistent black liberal support for Obama.

    Once that’s established, then we can start entertaining the kinds of hypotheses she offers. Again, I don’t think this is rocket science — as I said, you’re much more the social scientist than I am, as is Harris-Perry — but what irks me about this piece is that it blithely asserts a problem that it never establishes is a problem. And it can’t be all that hard to establish it, can it? I’m not talking about explanations for the problem: I’m talking whether the problem even exists.

    Because impressionistically — which is no better or worse than what Harris-Perry offers — I would say that the white liberal/left people I hear criticizing Obama today were the very same people I heard criticizing Clinton in 1996. And for the very same reasons: because they think both men are corporate tools.

  4. Corey Robin September 23, 2011 at 7:59 pm #

    Dorian, I just posted this as an update in the post itself. I think it distills some of the points I made in my last comment to you:

    Through some helpful prodding from Dorian Warren in the comments section, it occurred to me that there are five facts that Harris-Perry needs to establish that she nowhere establishes. I’d be satisfied if she could establish at least some of them, but she doesn’t establish any of them. These are the facts that need to be established:

    1. White liberals are significantly less supportive of Obama than they used to be.

    2. The drop in white liberal support for Obama at this point is significantly greater than it was for Clinton at a comparable point (or frankly at any point) prior to his reelection.

    3. The drop in white liberal support for Obama is significantly greater than the drop in black or Latino liberal support for Obama.

    4. The differential among liberals between white and black or Latino support for Obama is significantly larger than the differential, if it existed, between white and black or Latino support for Clinton.

    5. The larger differential among liberals between white and black or Latino support for Obama is a reflection of declining white support for Obama rather than increasing or persistent black or Latino support for Obama.

    Again, I’m not asking that she establish all of these facts, but having failed to establish any of them, it’s hard to see whether or not there’s even a problem here that needs to be analyzed. In other words, as of now, Harris-Perry’s argument is a hypothesis in search of a problem rather than a problem in search of a hypothesis.

    • Dorian Warren September 24, 2011 at 12:25 pm #

      Corey,

      These five facts are indeed facts I think we’d all want to know, as well as in some cases facts we can ascertain now (calling Klinkner). MHP’s big (and provocative) hypothesis we can’t know until after the election. But even without knowing all of those facts right now, I do think we can still speculate about the overall trends she and others identify. For instance, I think most of us would probably agree that even if black support for Obama has declined, it’s probably safe to say it will go back up significantly on election day. I’m not so confident that’s the case for white support, liberal, moderate or independent. Yes, it is a huge inference to speculate about the decline in white liberal support from overall white support. But it’s also not that unreasonable or out there to assume there is some of that going on.

      But this is related to my very first critique: the double standard about speculation and psychological motivations used in arguments by MHP versus the discussion on your blog/FB page. Most of that discussion played very hard and loose with the “facts”, and not many folks objected. I take your earlier point that it was by default a looser discussion in terms of the venue. However, why it’s relevant is because MHP did offer some specific policy differences between Obama and Clinton that I found compelling and lacking in that previous “assessment” of the president. I’d love to get your reaction to that middle part of her argument.

  5. VL September 24, 2011 at 12:34 am #

    MHP’s column seems to me as liberated from context as it is from facts: if there was a time when the country was ready to move leftward, it was in the aftermath of eight years of GW Bush and the dubious processes that put him in office. The underlying psychology of the Democrats is part of the problem, but not for the reasons MHP thinks: the Dems were so enchanted by the identity politics of having two minority candidates that they completely lost sight of the goal — and overlooked the simple fact that any minority figure who breaks their particular group’s glass ceiling has to be very careful about threatening white power. The ugly racism that has reared its head against Obama would simply have appeared as ugly misogyny had Clinton been elected, and I’m sure Clinton would have disappointed the left just as much as Obama has, and for very similar reasons: Hilary, BHO, and Bill are all politically quite moderate.

    I remember thinking in 2008 that the left needed a tall, charming, probably southern, white male (without the adultery problem of Edwards or the unpresidential-looks problem of Kucinich) to convince the country on matters such as reducing CO2 emissions, repealing the Bush tax cuts, holding the banks accountable for the way they responded to the bailout, etc. My argument is one of analogy to other significant changes that have been wrought in contentious territory: the cause of legalized abortion, for example, was helped enormously by the model of Sherry Finkbine. Married, middle class, a mother already and a victim of medical intervention, she presented the most sympathetic image possible. Unfortunately, I don’t know how we could make unions, a more progressive tax, universal healthcare, and addressing climate change less threatening to the powers that be.

    • compass rose October 9, 2011 at 5:34 pm #

      Leaders should not be aiming to assuage the fears of the powers that be.

      They should be looking at the Zeitgeist, seeing where the problems lie, and uniting as many energies and individuals as possible to solve those problems. Sometimes that means that the powers that be will feel as threatened by Change that reduces their superpowers by an iota.

      Instead of growing the needed brass nads for this, the Democrats settled for letting the electorate know that the Change they could believe in was all up to them to endure, to keep TPTB from getting all scaredy-like.

      The Democrats have failed their base systematically, and repeatedly, most dramatically since the Rust Belt was cashed out…often by many of the same players who consider themselves Democratic opinion leaders today. Consider the Pew oil family–some of the most rapacious industrialists in US history. But now they purport to tell us all about things like democracy, social justice, and climate change. What a laugh! If you want to see what their real record of action was, Google a city called Chester, PA, and its neighbor Marcus Hook, PA.

  6. Corey Robin September 24, 2011 at 1:38 pm #

    But, Dorian, if these are facts that we we can in some cases ascertain now, why weren’t any of them set out in her article? You keep evading that fundamental issue and obscuring it with all these references to a FB discussion among friends. I shouldn’t have to go trolling through polling data. Nor should I have to page Phil Klinkner. Or ask you. It’s incumbent upon Harris-Perry — and her editors — to provide some modicum, some smidgen, of proof that the problem she’s describing is indeed a problem. (Nor should we wait have to wait until the election; there’s almost weekly polling data that breaks things down by race, ideology, party ID, and the like.) And by that I don’t mean evidence that Clinton was worse than Obama: I mean evidence that white liberals are harder on Obama than they were on Clinton. That’s the thesis of her article, and it’s an issue she never, ever substantiates. And I don’t meant that in terms of social science standards of proof (though given that she’s a quantitatively trained political scientist, more than familiar with polling data, it is striking that none of that appears here). I mean the tiniest iota of evidence.

    And that’s why I also find the whole discussion re Clinton’s performance versus Obama’s performance a complete and utter dodge, and why I haven’t addressed it. Because it only matters if you can show that white liberals were more pleased with Clinton’s performance in 1995/96 than they are now with Obama’s performance. Again, give me some evidence of that. Because until you do, the comparison of what Clinton did versus what Obama has done is meaningless.

    That said, I’ve long argued — this post here (http://coreyrobin.com/2011/09/08/the-republican-debate-5-theses/) is my most recent instance of doing so — that comparisons of presidential performance are virtually meaningless b/c they don’t take into account a variety of contextual factors, not least of which is what Skowronek calls “political time.” Clinton came into power at a much earlier moment in the career of the Reagan/Republican regime, a moment when it was quite strong. (I don’t mean that in terms of how many Republicans or Dems were in Congress, though of course Clinton did face a much more difficult Congress than Obama did; I mean in terms of how resilient and powerful are the governing commitments of the regime.) Obama came in after the peak of that regime (Bush’s first term), and was elected on a much more thorough repudiation of that regime — not a realignment, by any stretch, but not an endorsement either. All this is a long way of saying I think these sorts of comparisons — particularly as they are framed by Harris-Perry as a judgment of Obama’s “competence” (which is silly; no one I know doubts Obama’s competence at all; that in fact, was the consensus of that FB roundtable: it’s not that Obama is incompetent, it’s that he wants to do the things he’s doing) — are almost meaningless.

    And to give you a parallel: I haven’t studied this closely at all, but my impressionistic sense (very impressionistic) is that if you study the dissatisfaction and disaffection with Eisenhower among Republicans, you’ll probably find it was much less (or at least much less visibly expressed) than the dissatisfaction with Nixon. That’s not b/c of personalities or anything like that; it’s b/c of the dynamics of the rise and fall of political regimes and the rise and fall of counter-movements to those regimes. As the dominant regime comes to seem increasingly vulnerable, and the counter-movement comes to be increasingly powerful (dominating the opposition party or contesting for power within it), there is more and more dissatisfaction with both the president and the party as a whole to launch a genuine realignment. (Which by the way is another issue not address by Harris-Perry: most of the folks I know who criticize Obama aren’t assuming that Hillary or Edwards would have been that different; they believe that he reflects the limitations of the Democratic Party, as it stands now, and as they think it ought to be. It of course gets focused on Obama; he’s the leader of the party.) Were I to venture a guess as to what is going on right now, I’d say it was that.

    But of course, all this is premised on some demonstration that the empirical fact that Harris-Perry claims to be fact is indeed fact.

  7. Tedra Osell September 24, 2011 at 9:07 pm #

    commenting here, having been directed over from Scott McLemee’s FB thread…

    Definitely if M H-P were making an argument that she is certain that white liberal support for Obama has dropped significantly, and that it has done so as a result of racism, she would need some hard facts backing her up. But in an opinion piece? About something she is concerned *may* be a problem? I don’t see why. I certainly have the same *impression* she does, that the vast majority of my personal friends and acquaintances (largely, though not exclusively, well-educated white liberals) are both far, far more angry at Obama than I remember any but a very few people, mostly much poorer and far leftier than the plurality of my friends, being at Clinton. I have in fact heard many of my friends, who supported O. heavily during the election, say that they will not vote for him next year.

    In terms of conventional wisdom and popular opinion, it seems to me that the liberalish take on presidential politics has veered from mild disappointment with Clinton to near-universal rallying back to his side because of the Lewinsky thing (which to be fair, was ridiculous) to hippie-punching anger at Nader voters after 2000, to unrealistic euphoria when Obama won (and I remember a lot of people wryly admitting at the time that they knew they were being unrealistic), to an overwhelming disappointment and anger. Again, this is totally anecdotal and impression-based, but I think I can literally count on one hand the number of people I know who will actually defend Obama’s record these days. (I’m including people I know online, which is a lot of people.)

    IOW, yes: M H-P’s piece may be ridiculously fluffy, a vague impressionistic piece. But the impressions she has match up with my own, and the reason she puts forth as *part* of the explanation seems to me at least worth considering.

    • gn carter September 27, 2012 at 11:25 pm #

      In think this comment gets the point that MHP was making. MHP wrote a tentative opinion piece. She was not accusing all white people or all white liberals of racism, nor that they have yet abandoned Obama. That remains to be seen. She is saying that that is her impression of the reason for the apparent lack of support, just as the overwhelming majority of black people felt that the Bush’s response to the Hurricane Katrina aftermath in N’Awlins was racially motivated. Why should her writing this article at this point in time threaten Obama’s re-election chances? Are white liberals so sensitive to even the mildest criticism that they would completely turn their backs on Obama because of this one opinion piece?

  8. Sarah Chinn September 26, 2011 at 2:00 pm #

    Re: your most recent update — yes, that seems to me exactly what’s going on. As MH-P herself points out, it’s certainly important whether the federal government under Bush neglected the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina because the majority of those affected were black and poor. But it’s equally important that a large portion of black people believed that their president would be willing to let them drown/starve etc and that a majority of white people believed no such thing. I don’t expect opinion pieces to be wholly factual — indeed, I’d rather MH-P had been more upfront about the fact that this was mostly opinion. But as she points out in her follow-up blog, it’s revealing that when a black writer argues that a cultural phenomenon is rooted in racism she has to back it up to the hilt. In her words: “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.”

    • Corey Robin September 26, 2011 at 2:15 pm #

      But Sarah your language actually makes my point for me: “it’s revealing that when a black writer argues that a cultural phenomenon is rooted in racism she has to back it up to the hilt.” I wasn’t challenging the thesis that white liberal dissatisfaction with Obama is rooted in racism; I was challenging the thesis that it actually exists. As I make clear in my piece and my first update, in order to even entertain the hypothesis of white liberal racism, I’d want not proof white liberal racism — which I totally agree with her (and you) — is often a tricky thing to prove. I was asking for proof that white liberal dissatisfaction with Obama is radically different than black or Latino liberal dissatisfaction with Obama OR that it’s radically different than white liberal dissatisfaction with Clinton. B/c if it turns out that the levels of white liberal dissatisfaction with the two presidents are roughly the same, or that the levels between white and non-white liberal dissatisfaction are roughly the same, than the phenomenon of white liberal dissatisfaction is no more remarkable than is the phenomenon of white liberal satisfaction (which is in fact, as I show, what is really going on). There’s a big difference between those two things. And in her blog response, Harris-Perry is blurring them — whether intentionally or not, I don’t know, but it basically constitutes a classic non-response response.

      • Corey Robin September 26, 2011 at 2:26 pm #

        Just to amplify a bit using Harris-Perry’s own language:

        “Progressives and liberals should be particularly careful when they demand proof of intentionality rather than evidence of disparate impact in conversations about racism.”

        In con law, that usually means something like demonstrating a voting rights law or rule, or an employment policy, differentially affects blacks and whites. Then the conservative response is to say that’s not enough: you have to show that the agents of the law or practice are enacting it for racist motivations or, in the process of enacting it, are acting on behalf of their racist motivations.

        I quite agree with her on this, and when I’ve taught constitutional law, I make exactly this point. But here’s the deal. Harris-Perry has not provide one shred — and I mean one shred — of “evidence of disparate impact.” That is, as I say above, show me that white liberals are in fact significantly more dissatisfied than black liberals, etc.

        Once she does that, then we can debate the issue of racist motivation. Until she does, we can’t. Or we can, but we’re operating totally in the dark and under potentially false pretenses.

  9. JTFaraday September 28, 2011 at 1:25 pm #

    I think you make a very good point that MHP may be responding to the perception of incompetence, whereas most critics on the liberal-left are evaluating his politics, post election. (Or, really, since he officially signed on the neo-liberal economic team, which proceeded to perform as predicted, without even giving good PR).

    BUT–and this is important–many of Obama’s essentially neoliberal and D-Partisan DEFENDERS have defended him against this liberal-left political evaluation/criticism by claiming that he is NOT actually a traitor to liberal-left values, but in fact, “inexperienced,” “just not a good negotiator,” “has some management issues,” “not good at combating the obstructionist right,” etc. You know the string of excuses.

    So, it could be that MHP is responding to something that really is in the air in the D-Party hackocracy, because this “incompetent, not politically right wing/ corporatist” defense is the only defense left for the hackocracy to make.

    Other than going the MHP route, which they do as well.

    • JTFaraday September 28, 2011 at 1:38 pm #

      Also, what this willingness to portray Obama as incompetent, rather than ADMIT that he betrayed liberal-left ideals, contradicting much of his campaign, is that the neoliberal economic elite in the D-Party would willingly sell out the whole idea of black competence in order to put over their neoliberal policy preferences. JUST AS they have been willing to sell out everything and everyone else.

      At the the end of the day, the neoliberal economic elite must be held to account for their own actions, which go back to the Clinton era, as Joan Walsh and David Sirota described in Salon in response to MHP.

      Obama’s presidency is the continuation of this same process, which has done as much to destroy the US as anything the Republicans have done.

      Many, myself included, always believed Obama was a corporatist neoliberal in the Clinton mode of triangulation. Obama’s “bipartisanship” is Clintonian “triangulation” dressed up in a new terminology. So, Obama is in no way excluded from this analysis.

    • Corey Robin September 28, 2011 at 1:42 pm #

      This is an *excellent* point; hadn’t thought of it.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Are white, anti-Obama liberals motivated by racism? — The League of Ordinary Gentlemen - September 25, 2011

    [...] Corey Robin recently wrote a scathing riposte to the column, noting the lack of empirical support for Harris-Perry’s provocative thesis: According to this SeptemberWashington Post story, “Five months ago, 83 percent of African Americans held ‘strongly favorable’ views of Obama, but in a new Washington Post-ABC news poll that number has dropped to 58 percent.” That’s why, according to this piece, Obama has made special outreach efforts to blacks: he’s worried about their dwindling support. But as the Post also goes onto explain, “That drop is similar to slipping support for Obama among all groups.” [...]

  2. Melissa Harris-Perry’s Non-Response Response to Her Critics « Corey Robin - September 26, 2011

    [...] a blog post, Melissa Harris-Perry has responded to her critics, of which I was one, though she doesn’t mention me. In fact, she doesn’t mention any of her critics, except [...]

  3. Identity Economics: Melissa Harris-Perry Strikes Out/Back at Merge Left - September 27, 2011

    [...] between Obama and the liberal-left that I’ve seen”–get this off the ground, with the following observation: Unlike some folks, I don’t think Harris-Perry’s problem is her tendency to cry racism. No, [...]

  4. Why Liberals Are Lame: McCarthyite Identity Politics as Cover for Bankrupt Policies « naked capitalism - September 28, 2011

    [...] bit of a firestorm, proving that the scurrilous use of the race card is an attention-getter. A good drive-by kneecapping comes from Corey Robin: [I]it occurred to me that there are five facts that Harris-Perry needs to [...]

  5. Why Liberals Are Lame: McCarthyite Identity Politics as Cover for Bankrupt Policies | Jackpot Investor - September 28, 2011

    [...] bit of a firestorm, proving that the scurrilous use of the race card is an attention-getter. A good drive-by kneecapping comes from Corey Robin: [I]it occurred to me that there are five facts that Harris-Perry needs to [...]

  6. Yves Smith on Melissa Harris-Perry - September 28, 2011

    [...] does that, as well as connecting her piece to strong criticisms from Brooklyn College professor Corey Rubin and Jon Walker at FireDogLake. Walker points out that Obama doesn’t have a white people [...]

  7. Circular Firing Squad « TheCenterLane.com - September 29, 2011

    [...] the absurdity of her claim.  Corey Robin, who earned a PhD in Political Science from Yale, did a thorough job of debunking Professor Harris-Perry’s claim.  Among the points made by Dr. Robin, was this: In fact, according to this September Washington [...]

  8. Links 10/9/11 | Mike the Mad Biologist - October 9, 2011

    [...] to Economics Most Food Stamp Recipients Have No Earned Income More Americans Are Doubling-Up Melissa Harris-Perry: Psychologist to the Stars Why we work too much (it’s an analogous process to the effects of income inequality) Wasted [...]

  9. Obama: Promises Made. Promises Kept? « Written on the Wind - November 19, 2011

    [...] Fact Free! [...]

  10. The Only Campaign Promise Obama Will Keep « Written on the Wind - November 30, 2011

    [...] Fact Free! [...]

  11. Fight Club, or That’s the Year That Was « Corey Robin - December 26, 2011

    [...] and there was this little disagreement—and this one—with Melissa [...]

  12. Check out BC pol sci prof Corey Robin’s blog | Brooklyn College MA in Political Science and International Affairs - December 29, 2011

    [...] and there was this little disagreement—and this one—with Melissa [...]

  13. 99 and a half won’t do « Marxist Marginalia - September 27, 2012

    [...] centers around the idle psychologizing that is the stock in trade of liberal pundits (see also  Melissa Harris-Perry).  People disgusted with Obama’s enthusiasm for kidnapping undocumented immigrants, his [...]

  14. Testing the Melissa Harris-Perry Thesis « Corey Robin - November 7, 2012

    [...] when Melissa Harris-Perry claimed last year that white liberals were abandoning Obama because of their [...]

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