There is nothing like a good double-take to get the weekend off to a great start. And so it was on Saturday morning as I clicked from Real Clear Politics to “Black President, Double Standard: Why White Liberals Are Abandoning Obama,” an essay appearing in the October 10, 2011 edition of The Nation. The essay is written by Melissa Harris-Perry, professor of political science at Tulane University, where she is founding director of the Anna Julia Cooper Project on Gender, Race, and Politics in the South. Have a look at her impressive credentials on the Tulane website.
Professor Harris-Perry’s essay begins, “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.” Professor Harris-Perry goes on to explain that such cancerous racism appears to have gone into remission in the body politic. But, she hastens to point out, all is still not well.
Because President Obama’s re-election in 2012 is looking less and less like a shoo-in, Professor Harris-Perry has diagnosed a new and equally terrifying form of racism to explain the president’s dimming prospects:
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.
Let’s, shall we, examine the symptoms that have led Dr. Harris-Perry to her diagnosis. “The relevant comparison here,” she says, “is with the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton.” Fair enough. According to Harris-Perry, “liberal electoral racism,” as practiced by progressive white voters, gives Clinton a pass while holding Obama “to a higher standard”:
- “Today many progressives complain that Obama’s healthcare reform was inadequate because it did not include a public option; but Clinton failed to pass any kind of meaningful healthcare reform whatsoever.”
- “Others argue that Obama has been slow to push for equal rights for gay Americans; but it was Clinton who established the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy Obama helped repeal.”
- “Still others are angry about appalling unemployment rates for black Americans; but while overall unemployment was lower under Clinton, black unemployment was double that of whites during his term, as it is now.”
Please remind yourself, as I have had to do repeatedly while attempting to fathom Harris-Perry’s arguments, that the author of them holds a) a PhD; b) a tenured faculty position at a top-tier university; and c) a directorship of a university institute. So busy was Harris-Perry collecting her academic credentials that somewhere along the way she forgot how to make a lucid argument.
“Progressives” are “complaining” about Obama care. So what? Does that mean they’ll pull the lever come November 2012 for somebody else? Does Harris-Perry really believe that complaining equals racism? Can this possibly be true? Has it possibly not occurred to Professor Harris-Perry that those same whining progressives might’ve griped about Clinton’s healthcare debacle? And what does the fact that Clinton’s scheme for healthcare reform never became law twenty years ago have to do with a flawed plan in the here-and-now, anyway?
“Others” (unnamed, unsourced, uncounted) take the president to task for his supposed failure to advance gay rights, even though Clinton “established the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy Obama helped repeal.” While I understand that political scientists such as Harris-Perry are not historians and therefore not necessarily familiar with the record, I do feel inclined to point out that both Clinton’s and Obama’s polls on the public’s attitude toward gays in the military coincide with their respective decisions—in 1993, 55% of the public, according to a Time-CNN poll, disapproved of gays serving in the military; by 2010, according to a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll, 72% of adult Americans were favor of gays serving in the military.
As for her observation that people are rightfully disturbed at the appallingly high unemployment rates among blacks during Obama’s administration, she neglects to mention that unemployment—for blacks, Hispanics and whites—fell steadily during the Clinton administration, but has grown steadily under Obama’s. And what about her suspect implication that it’s OK to be critical of black unemployment numbers under a white president, but not under a black’s? Hmmm…methinks the pot…oh, never mind.
Harris-Perry concludes her essay with one last distortion of the truth:
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.
Obama’s record—as indeed any president’s sitting or otherwise—is indeed “comparable” to Clinton’s, and, in Obama’s case, suffers from the comparison. Badly. And were I a student in one of Professor Harris-Perry’s classes, I would ask her how it is possible that a president elected with less than a majority, as President Clinton was for his second term, can be said to have retained his office courtesy of an “enthusiastic” electorate.
There is a saying about lies, damn lies, and statistics. There are also good faculty, incompetent faculty, and faculty ideologues for whom the truth is an inconvenience easily set to one side. Do you wonder what kind of faculty member Professor Harris-Perry is?
Note to readers: In addition to Harris-Perry’s essay for The Nation, sources for this essay include the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and Presidential Responsiveness and Public Policy-Making by Jeffrey E. Cohen.