Melissa Harris-Perry’s Non-Response Response to Her Critics

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.”


  1. Brahmsky September 26, 2011 at 10:19 pm | #


  2. Stephen Zielinski September 26, 2011 at 11:29 pm | #

    What can we learn by comparing Obama to Clinton. For one thing, we can learn that both affirmed the empire, authorized and thus committed war crimes, made deals with reactionaries, augmented the security-surveillance apparatus, sold out the poor, made nice with finance capital, etc. Briefly put, we can learn that neither man was worthy of the support the electorate gave to them, were system politicians who affirmed the system that spawned them. If white liberals are abandoning Obama today, their choice may be due to the fact that the DLC practice of these two Presidents is morally and politically bankrupt and can be know as such.

    In other words, white liberals may have learned something since 2001 or are now beginning to learn something about the Democratic Party and the candidates it fields. One can hope so. In any case, these are, of course, political judgements about Obama, Clinton, the Democratic Party and recent American history. If Obama is unworthy of political and electoral support because of his policies and because of his past ‘achievements,’ then his race does not matter a jot when making this judgment.

    As Brahmsky rightly put it: “Yeesh.”

  3. Lars September 26, 2011 at 11:33 pm | #

    I read that post of MHP’s and thought it was a rare occurrence from Harris-Perry: a genuine clinker of a piece. Bad in exactly the ways that you mentioned. I recall thinking Bill Clinton was a huge disappointment at several specific times, like when he signed the CFMA and Gramm-Leach-Bliley (or DOMA and DADT), and a moderate disappointment overall. And a lot of liberals I knew at the time felt the same. The notion of race being the motivating factor then would’ve been ludicrous not only because both Clinton and I are white, but because the disagreements were clearly policy- (and perhaps ideology-) based.

    Perhaps having had that experience of being disappointed in another widely popular President on such grounds is what made me have such an immediate “are you NUTS?” reaction to Harris-Perry’s suggestion of liberal racism regarding criticism of Obama, but whatever the reason, it was pretty clear – at least from where I sit – that she’d gone out on a limb that either she was gonna saw off behind her, or someone else was going to saw off for her. In fact, it was both so out-there and so out-of-character for what I know of Harris-Perry’s usually very insightful political and social analysis that I pretty much wrote it off as either just a truly bad day for her, or (possibly) that she had some vast reservoir of exposure to other sorts of liberal Obama critics who’d displayed a racist underpinning to their criticism that I’d known immediately wasn’t my own motivation, nor the motivation of the people I’d had conversations with about disappointment with some of Obama’s (in)actions. Maybe, I wondered idly, there really are large groups of liberal racists out there who I, as a lifelong liberal and activist, have somehow managed never to meet or become aware of. Harris-Perry is, after all, better plugged-in than am I.

    So I just sort of let it pass, instead of joining what I now see was a pretty substantial push-back against this column of Harris-Perry’s. It’s good to see that some people reacted strongly enough to make it an issue, but on balance, I don’t regret letting it just sort of slide by me. Know why? Because each of us has only so many hours and so much energy in a day, and even now, I’m sticking with my initial reaction: it was just a lame, badly-thought-out line of reasoning, uncharacteristic of Melissa Harris-Perry.

  4. Virginia Blaisdell September 26, 2011 at 11:52 pm | #

    It’s nice you have a blog, Corey, but I’m not sure it’s exactly a plus for Our Side. I’ve known a lot of lefties for the last 40-some years (and I even am one), and there seems to be nothing we like more than to tear each other to shreds. “I’m the only one in the room who’s right!” is our banner. Feminists do it, blacks do it, intellectuals do it on steroids. No matter how much we have read, no matter how many campaigns and demonstrations and sit-ins we have participated in, it’s like we’d rather do ANYTHING than build a movement. We’ll never “sharpen the contradictions” if all we do is sharpen our knives against each other. Whatever happened to “the revolutionary is motivated by true feelings of love”?

    Melissa is probably being a little tendentious in her argument about white liberals, but she is describing something that people on the wrong side of the power structure know in their gut–something that is not exactly quantifiable and does not show up readily in polls. And in my experience–and no doubt in Melissa’s–well-meaning but occasionally defensive white guy allies can sometimes start hollering “Prove it!” when they feel they have been left out of the conversation. But it’s something we all know–that blacks and women are never going to be allowed to skate the way white men are. What’s acceptable behavior for them would be total ruin for us. In this matter it might be good for you to just open your ears and catch the drift.

    • Corey Robin September 27, 2011 at 12:16 am | #

      Ginny, I think we’re talking past each other here. And I hate to harp on this but it really does come down to what you think it is I am asking you, or Harris-Perry, to prove. I’m not asking for proof that whites, including white lefties, are racist. I believe it, I’ve seen it, I know it in my own life. That’s really not what this is about.

      The argument is much smaller than that. Harris-Perry is saying, first, that white liberals/lefties are more critical of Obama than they were of Clinton — and more critical than non-white liberals/lefties are of Obama — and, second, that it’s because of their racism. I keep asking for proof not of the second point but of the first — not b/c I’ve been left out of any conversation but b/c, to be honest, I think it’s total bullshit. For the life of me, I can’t see how this is even remotely controversial. If she can provide some proof of that first claim — which is not a very hard thing to do if it’s true (and she, being a highly trained quantitative political scientist, should be able to do it) — then I’m all ears to talking about what’s driving the difference. I’m probably more skeptical of the racism argument, but I’d certainly be open to it and not be demanding proof of it, precisely b/c I know such things are hard to prove. But we can’t get to that second discussion because she doesn’t have the goods for the first.

      As for whether or not my blog is good for our side, and whether it contributes to building a movement or not, I am surprised to hear you say that to me in the context of a very prominent academic/journalist basically saying, in a very public forum, that a whole swath of the movement that you’re a part of is motivated by simple racial animus when it criticizes President Obama for siding with the banks and the corporations and the free traders. To be honest, it was to combat that kind of move, on behalf of that movement, that I wrote the post. It wasn’t I who felt accused by Harris-Perry’s article; I loathed Clinton with every fiber of my being and voted for Nader in 1996 and 2000. But I did feel like she was accusing others, who do actual work on the ground, and abusing her privileges as an academic in doing so.

  5. Anne Ferbr September 27, 2011 at 5:53 pm | #

    A few days ago Melissa Harris-Perry wrote an article in the NATION that the reason for the loss of support for BHO is due to racism-a new kind of racism—among Liberal Democrats. She illustrates this point by comparing Obama’s poll numbers to Bill Clinton’s during the 90s.
    I cannot figure out why she wrote this particular article just now. We are not yet in the heat of the general election. Republicans are shooting themselves in the foot (not to mention other body parts) daily and it seems that right now would be a good time for Democrats of all persuasions to sit back and watch. There is no way that the progressive vote will ever go to the Republican candidate, and a third party throw away vote will lead to disaster—thank you Nader voters.
    The fact that there has been a continual criticism of Obama by the progressive left since he gave in on the public option, tax breaks for the rich, and other compromises, has resulted in a progressive mini –tsunami of self defensive reaction. The more eager progressives complain that Obama should have rammed progressive programs through Congress during the first two years when he had a “Democratic Two House “Congress. Anybody recall the Blue Dog Democrats? They were just old time Republicans dressed up in donkey suits and attained their seats as a result of the 50 state strategy of the National Democratic Committee which ended in a good result, but at what cost!! Obama never had a REAL two house majority. And there is no doubt that his campaign rhetoric was not followed up by cabinet appointments. “Hopey Changey “ would have had a much better chance with the likes of Paul Krugman and Robert Reich in the room.
    Now, of course, after the 2010 debacle, people are sitting in the HR who really believe what they campaigned about (except the jobs part, of course)and are voting against the interests of all Americans, including themselves.
    Melissa, Joan, Corey, David, you may or may not be friends, but you all play on the same team and soon it will be time for “America to do the right thing” for we are quickly “exhausting all the other alternatives”.

  6. Virginia Blaisdell September 27, 2011 at 11:59 pm | #

    So, if Obama was getting blowjobs in the Oval Office, do you think white liberals’ responses would be as forgiving as they were for Bill Clinton’s blowjobs? I’m just asking…

    • Corey Robin September 28, 2011 at 9:35 am | #

      That’s a bridge — er, hypothetical — too far.

    • Steve Hohensee September 28, 2011 at 8:09 pm | #

      Just asking, huh?

      Generally speaking, blow-jobs are good things. Regardless of skin color. However, as I recall, it wasn’t liberals that impeached Bill for blowjobs. It was Republicans. Ooops– I guess I have to qualify that statement. I vividly recall that paragon of virtue (“the conscience of the Senate” :)), Joe Lieberman (who was a Dem at the time), staring grimly into the camera, very very very concerned about Bill’s blowjobs.

      I’m a 62-year-old white liberal. I thought Clinton should be impeached– for bombing the pharmaceutical factory in Sudan, among other crimes. Not for blow jobs.

      I despised Bush Jr. I thought he should be impeached and tried for war crimes and crimes against humanity. I still do. I think Obama should be impeached, for similar crimes. Obama should be impeached for Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya. I’d still feel that way if Obama were white. Or yellow. Or tan, even.

      And yes, I must admit I’m one of those sad liberal losers who keep try to vote for a good candidate, rather than falling for the lesser evil trope. I’d vote for Ralph Nader any day of the week. I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t morph into a Wall Street necon Republican.

      There are plenty of good candidates out there, of all skin colors. Too bad we liberals can’t bring ourselves to vote for them. I’ve voted for and contributed to black candidates, along with whites and Hispanics and Asians, my entire adult life. I’d vote for Cynthia McKinney for prez in a heartbeat– how about you???

  7. Bill Jackson September 30, 2011 at 12:51 pm | #

    DISCLAIMER: I am a white progressive.

    With that said, it seems to me that there appears to be a reflexive defensive movement to shield Obama from criticisms of his actions by “Democratic” (I can’t bring myself to call all of them liberals) intellectuals and political scientists/professors/pundits who happen to be black, on the grounds that there might be a racial element to the criticisms that wouldn’t be present if the person in office were white.

    I must say is that this attitude offends me, as a person who tries very hard to be colorblind (I was raised in the South, so I will admit – in the interests of honesty – that every now and then an uncharitable thought will pass across the forebrain). I feel that it is disingenuous in the extreme for black people who adhere to liberal/progressive principles to abandon them in order to defend a black person just because s/he happens to be in office. And I will defend this statement by saying that I would feel the same way regardless of the race or gender of the person in office.

    It is my belief that the idea of progress should include moving beyond these primitive notions that gender and “race” divide the only race I feel should matter: the human race.

  8. Karen October 3, 2011 at 8:47 pm | #

    The problem with Harris-Perry’s argument is that it isn’t based on any facts. We won’t know if white liberals abandoned Obama until after the election. So far, all they have done is criticize him, but Harris-Perry takes that criticism and leaps to “abandonment” and then mind reads “racism.”

    This is all based on Harris-Perry’s “feelings,” but feelings are not facts.

    Even her use of the word “abandon” is very manipulative. Abandon means to foresake, or desert, suggesting that not voting for Obama is to harm him, or leave him vulnerable. Hello…the voters have no such obligation to Obama or anybody else in office. Elected officials serve at our leisure and if we the people are unhappy with their performance we have the right and the obligation to elect somebdy else! Furthermore, we don’t have to justify our vote to the media or political pundits or anybody else!

  9. Rico January 6, 2012 at 12:04 am | #

    Hmmm….it seems to me no one here has read any critical race theory or philosophy of race. MHPerry’s analysis presupposes such knowledge and if you are operating within the usual political dialectic you will surely believe her analysis is wrong, off, confused, or plain silly.

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