Are white progressives abandoning President Obama because of race? Are they abandoning him at all? (More)

The Nation‘s Melissa Harris-Perry became the most prominent voice last week for the argument that white progressives are abandoning President Obama because race. She begins by showing that Barack Obama in 2008 outperformed John Kerry in 2004 and Gore in 2000 among white voters, to establish that President Obama was not elected solely or even primarily by voters of color.

Harris-Perry then turns to what she calls “liberal electoral racism … the willingness to abandon a black candidate when he is just as competent as his white predecessors.” She compares President Obama favorably with President Clinton, not to disparage the latter but to show that President Obama’s policy record is at least as good as that of the last Democratic president. She concludes:

President Obama has experienced a swift and steep decline in support among white Americans – from 61 percent in 2009 to 33 percent now. I believe much of that decline can be attributed to their disappointment that choosing a black man for president did not prove to be salvific for them or the nation. His record is, at the very least, comparable to that of President Clinton, who was enthusiastically re-elected. The 2012 election is a test of whether Obama will be held to standards never before imposed on an incumbent. If he is, it may be possible to read that result as the triumph of a more subtle form of racism.

Salon‘s Joan Walsh was quick to rebut Harris-Perry. Walsh calls Harris-Perry’s argument “divisive,” before explaining:

When I say Melissa Harris-Perry is my friend, I don’t say that rhetorically, or ironically; we are professional friends, we have socialized together; she has included me on political round tables; I like and respect her enormously. That’s why I think it’s important to engage her argument, and I’ve invited her to reply.

Walsh then goes on to say that the economy is very different today than it was during President Clinton’s first term, that neither Rachel Maddow nor the progressive blogosphere existed then, and that even Salon had not yet become a prominent voice. She cites white progressives who criticized President Clinton on welfare reform, NAFTA, and other Wall Street-friendly policies, and then adds:

[President Obama] was largely elected due to Americans’ fears that we were headed into an abyss, and their faith that he would bring the economic change he promised. Like a pilot taking over with a plane in a nose dive, Obama kept the economy from crashing, but he hasn’t lifted it into smooth skies. Maybe it makes me an unrealistic and entitled white progressive – that’s pretty much what black author Ishmael Reed called Obama’s white critics – but I think it’s clear that even with a recalcitrant Congress, the president could have done more than he did to dismantle the rigged system that let Wall Street destroy the economy, as well as more to help its casualties.

Finally, she concludes that Democrats’ “admirable 40-year campaign to purge racism” coincides with the incredible rise in wealth among the top 1% of Americans, saying:

I’m not saying our crucial effort to fight racism led to that outcome; I’m just noticing that it didn’t prevent it. I’m certainly not saying progressives should give up attacking racism. But I believe we need to pay much more specific attention to the grinding disadvantages of class as well as race if we want to undo the economic disaster of the last 30 years. Those of us who believe in economic justice must work harder to define a new vision, and a new language, of inclusion and prosperity for everyone. Blaming racism for a diverse assortment of white liberals’ diverse complaints about the president won’t get us there.

Harris-Perry responds to Walsh and other critics in a post at The Nation today that suggests the criticism of her argument falls into three predictable categories:

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. […]

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. […]

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. […]

All three articles are worth reading in full. Harris-Perry’s experience in advocating for LGBT rights was especially instructive:

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.

Well said.