Friday, September 23, 2011

That Four Letter Word Again

Two days ago I read an article that I found of interest, "Black President, Double Standard: Why Liberals Are Abandoning Obama." (Melissa Harris-Perry, The Nation, October 10, 2011). Desiring to share the piece with others, I posted it to my Facebook Wall a day ago. Forty comments and a few attacks later, I've decided to further share my thoughts via blogging. 

Some of those who read the article took offense at their perception that the author was labeling all white liberals who don't support Obama as racists. Regrettably, they were unable to get beyond protesting loudly, "I am not a racist." Hush, no one said that you were.

The thesis of the piece is not that white liberals who question Obama's policies are racists. It fascinates me that when the term racism appears in any piece of writing, particularly by a black person, that the immediate reaction of so many whites is to become indignant at being called a racist. Makes it sort of difficult to get to the heart of the matter being discussed.

Harris-Perry's essential point can be summed up in these lines: 
The 2012 election may be a test of another form of electoral racism: the tendency of white liberals to hold African-American leaders to a higher standard than their white counterparts. 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. (The Nation)
Harris-Perry only arrives at this point after carefully explaining the concept of electoral racism: Electoral racism in its most naked, egregious and aggressive form is the unwillingness of white Americans to vote for a black candidate regardless of the candidate’s qualifications, ideology or party. Harris-Perry is also careful to affirm that positive movement has been made beyond such electoral racism in its most blatant form.

She then tackles the issue of the criticism of Obama, who has actually accomplished a great deal, and how the liberal base appears to hold Obama to a far higher standard than the most recent Democratic president, Bill Clinton. Essentially, Perry's discussion is informed by the noble savage archetype that has characterized much of the European interaction with indigenous peoples or with those of African ancestry for generations. (See for example: Noble Savage, Magical Negro, or On Being a Noble Savage) Essential to this archetype is elevating the non-white to a favored status as noble and honest, an admirable race in spite of its oppressed status. This archetypal pattern is particularly seen in American culture, indeed it is promoted in much of early American literature in works such as "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and "The Last of the Mohicans." These unrealistic portraits lead to expectations that are based on a glorified and mythological image rather than the realities of the people of color.

Perry questions whether those archetypal patterns are informing the differing expectations that generate what she labels electoral racism in which some liberals held such unrealistic expectations of Obama that they were bound to be disappointed with the reality of his presidency. In simplistic terms, take Bill Maher's comment, repeated with approval by Michael Moore in which Maher asserts that he voted for the black guy but got the white guy. (See clip from The View) In other commentary, Maher laments that Obama is too professorial and not a real black president, "the kind that lifts up his shirt so that you can see the gun in his pants." (Frances Martel, Bill Maher Disappointed that Obama Isn't a Real Black President, 5/29/2010) 

I don't suggest that Maher is a card carrying racist but there is inherent unrealized racism in his observation. What is Maher's definition of blackness? What is there about Obama that's not black enough for him? What is there in Obama's demeanor that makes Maher define him as acting white? Who is Bill Maher to define what it means to be black? A similar observation with regards to unrealized racism is asserting that, "All Asians are good at math." It doesn't have to be a negative observation, but simply a sweeping generalization that presumes to define an entire group based on a perceived characteristic.

The animosity against Obama is couched in very personal terms. Some accuse him of intentionally betraying liberal or progressive causes, of being a sellout who has turned to the dark side and abandoned all progressive goals. That goes far beyond being disappointed and desiring a change in his policies. It's the worst type of character assassination. Perry raises the question as to why so much vitriol is directed towards Obama on this very personal level when in comparison with Bill Clinton, he has accomplished as much and in many cases more than Clinton. I recall when Clinton signed DADT into law; he didn't get nearly the attacks from the left for signing the bigoted law as Obama has received for not fighting for an anti-discrimination provision in the bill repealing the law.

Race informs all aspects of life in this country. To pretend that it doesn't is naive and unrealistic. Interestingly, I've seen this same article shared by many of my black Facebook friends. Those who have shared it have found it credible. This doesn't mean that black people are always right; however, it does reflect a difference in perspectives along racial lines. The question to ask yourself is do you use these differences to engage in honest dialogue or do you shut down into a defensive posture in which you deny that there is anything to be discussed? I truly appreciate those of you who have elected the first option. I have found your perspectives affirming and comforting. It is through such honest exchange that we all learn and grow.


Nance said...

A couple of months ago, when liberal criticism of the President was boiling over, my instincts led me to a frazzled, copy of Bob Woodward's The Agenda, which reported in great detail on Clinton's early months in the White House, the ones that laid the ground for the famous Clinton budget surplus.

I loved Clinton and still do, but it is obvious from Woodward's report that my hero was both economically naive and lucky as hell, as well as determined and idealistic. This reading put an end to any notions I might have entertained of comparing Mr. Obama unfavorably to him.

We've got a good man in the White House, one who has earned our enthusiastic support. He's not a god, not the answer to every liberal hope, not The One...but he is the one I'll work for and encourage in all his fine instincts.

And, yes, Clinton's DADT was a shameful error. Every president is bound to make some, but that one stands out.

Melissa Harris-Perry is a treasure. Thank you for this. I must admit, I have trouble wading through the small type discussions on FB, even the fascinating ones you participate in. Easier for me to digest your thoughts here in this fine clear font.

Bucko (a.k.a., Ken) said...

It is so disappointing that President Obama does not get more credit and recognition for his considerable accomplishments. It is going to be a long year. The thinly veiled hatred is shameful.

Leslie Parsley said...

Somehow I missed the FB post, but it does seem a little more sane here. The FB font is atrocious, which is why I have it set to 120%. It helps.

"Perry raises the question as to why so much vitriol is directed towards Obama. . ."

Oh, ho, ho. How many times have I said this very same thing? And received the same indignant reactions!

I don't think people understand the subtleties of racism. They may recognize blatant racism but not the "inherent unrealized racism" you and I speak about.

"The animosity against Obama is couched in very personal terms. Some accuse him of intentionally betraying liberal or progressive causes, of being a sellout who has turned to the dark side and abandoned all progressive goals."

I had a reader who actually said, "I'll always wonder if he is a Repug plant." He also told me I could go to hell - proving my theory once again that the vitriol from the left is as bad as that from the right.

This is, not unexpectedly coming from you, a well stated article and I, of course, will share it.

The Edge Columns said...

Mr. Clinton was an economic neo-liberal of the Tony Blair variety, which allowed the massive market casino to begin its run-up. This allowed American businesses to benefit from large pools of available capital, a free market ideology that allowed them to offshore money and taxable income—while allowing China to pursue a mercantilist policy that protected their own interests at the expense of America's. That was Mr. Clinton. Lucky. No, not really. He was just the one fanning the flames and having a great time doing it.

We don't need to address Bush. What a disaster.

Obama? Well, he got stuck in the cleanup position, not an enviable place. But instead of dealing head-on with and heading off the free market finance kleptocrats he chickened. Black of white, he is Goldman's man.

As to colour, what about that Cain?

And yes, Obama is superior in every way to any of the offerings on the right. I just wish there was a viable offering, again black or white, female or gay, on the true left. (And I do mean the politically possible left, Sheria, not some Utopian revolutionary). But that's a different discussion for a different day.

jack-of-all-thumbs said...

I too missed the FB discussions, but will return and read Ms. Harris Perry's article. As a continued supporter of this President, I don't have to defend back-pedalling on my part. But I do think that one important issue (lightly touched on by "The Edge Columns") may be more important than the issue of his race in the disappointment of white liberals. That issue is the timing of Obama's term on the heels of the absolutely loathed G.W. Bush. I believe that liberals anger by 2008 was at such a fever pitch, that anything less than a total repudiation of W's policies was seen as a sellout. Just my view....

Beth said...

I think Jack might be onto something there. I think a lot of people might have wanted all of Bush's policies immediately killed, and they thought that President Obama could really do that.

I was and am an enthusiastic supporter of our President, and felt then (as I do now) that he has a vision for our country, one that I share with him. However, I never felt that he was some sort of miracle worker who could immediately put right the previous administration's failed policies. Although I believed in his hope and change message, I was realistic about what he would be able to accomplish.

I guess I'm just not sure what people were expecting. I love having ideals, but I am a realist. Were people disappointed in him because he didn't live up to their OWN ideals? That's not exactly fair, is it?

Thought-provoking entry. Thank you!

Richard Arnold said...

While I am not a liberal (Libertarian/Issuist), I have many liberal friends who voted for Obama and they tell me they are abandoning him for one reason only ... he has not performed at the level they expected. They also tell me they think he is woefully unqualified for the job. Not one (and 80% of these folks I speak are white) has brought up his skin color.

And speaking of skin color and race. Obama is just as much white as he is black (50/50). He was raised by a white mom - never lived with his black dad. He really isn't the first black POTUS as he could just as easily claimed he is white. The white folks I talk to about Obama never even bring up his race - just his incompetence. People of all stripes are leaving Obama based on his track record, not his color. Performance and leadership is lacking - that's the bottom line. The American people - white, black and all colors - showed in the last POTUS election that race did not matter. They will show in the next election that performance and leadership DOES matter.

Sheria said...

Richard Arnold, I have to wonder if you read my post as our comment has little to do with the theme of my post nor the article which I referenced.

As for white people not mentioning race, I have found in general that with the exception of extreme racists, white people seldom identify any discomfort with race or any issues remotely connected with race in public conversations. I've never found such reticence to be a reliable indicator that race plays no role in a person's attitudes or beliefs.

Because Obama lives in the U.S., he is not as much black as he is white. This country has defined people by race since the first Africans were brought to these shores in 1619. White people defined blackness as meaning having any "black blood." It was known as the one-drop rule and was still on the books of mos southern states well into the latter 20th century. A single black ancestor in your family tree defined a person as black. Perhaps you should study the history of race and identity in this country before you go off on some tangent that isn't at all grounded in the reality of American culture.

In an ideal and fair world, Obama cold identify himself as white or black , or both. But in this country, if you have any black ancestry then you are designated as black. The terms mulatto, quadroon, octroon were coined to specify the amount of black blood an individual had, as if blood had a color other than red. As late as the 1960s, blood banks kept black blood separate from white blood to prevent the transfusion of the wrong blood into white patients.

I welcome differing points of view at my blog but before you return, take the time to learn about race and the history of racism in this country.

By the way, your pronouncement and that of your friends that Obama is incompetent does not make it a fact; it's just an opinion. My opinion is that your opinion is wrong.

jack-of-all-thumbs said...


Sorry but as a middle-aged white Southern male, I can't imagine that you can really believe that Obama can 'just as easily claim he's white'....Really? Of course, I'm assuming that we're talking political realities here, and not a theoretical math problem.

For what it's worth. I'm solidly in his corner.

Sheria said...

Thanks, Jack, for providing backup!