In 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 for Joan Walsh, which makes her response as frustrating and elusive as her original article.
Most of Harris-Perry’s post is a non-response response. One part, however, is noteworthy. In a lengthy discussion of the accusation that she didn’t prove her central charge, Harris-Perry manages to totally miss—or evade—the point.
Harris-Perry seems to think that critics like myself were asking her to prove that white liberals who were jumping ship from Obama were motivated by racial animus. To this criticism, she quite rightly responds that it is often difficult to prove racial animus and that liberals and leftists should be wary of repeating a move that’s often made by conservatives in debates about discrimination. Such a move, she writes,
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.
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.
I agree with most of what Harris-Perry writes here, but unfortunately for her, it actually works against her. Because in the case of her original article, what was at issue was not whether one could explain “a racist practice or pattern” or “disparate impact” by reference to racial animus. It was whether or not there was any racist practice or pattern, any disparate impact, at all.
What Harris-Perry’s critics were asking from her was not proof of white liberals’ racist intent or motivation; we were asking for some proof that white liberals are treating Obama any differently than they had treated Clinton or any differently than black liberals (and other non-white groups) are treating Obama. We were asking her to provide some shred of evidence that, when it came to white liberal support or criticism of Obama, there was in fact a “practice or pattern” of disparate treatment. Or, as I said in the comments section to my original post, some evidence that the problem she says is a problem is in fact a problem.
I don’t have an issue with ascribing racial animus in the absence of hard evidence of that animus if you can demonstrate disparate racial outcomes. But in this case, she didn’t. Not on the first round, and not on the second.
Instead of responding to that claim, Harris-Perry evades the issue entirely. I have no idea if this evasion is deliberate or happenstance; either way, it’s shabby.
Harris-Perry opens her response with a confession: “I make it a practice not to defend my public writings.” If this post is any indication, perhaps she should practice some more.
Update (September 27, 2 pm)
A noted constitutional law scholar writes me that Melissa Harris-Perry’s claim that “initially the 1964 Civil Rights Act made ‘disparate impact’ a sufficient evidentiary claim for racial bias”—a claim I implicitly ceded to her in my response above—is not in fact correct. According to this scholar, “That was not clear in the original act; the Supreme Court so interpreted it in some early 1970s decisions, then reversed course; Congress later added amendments that restored some disparate impacts jurisdiction in e.g. voting rights cases.”