Tuesday, September 27, 2011

White liberals, white racism and criticism of Obama

Melissa Harris-Perry's article Black President, Double Standard: Why White Liberals Are Abandoning Obama The Nation 09/21/2011 is getting quite a bit of attention. She uses only some very general statistics and no individual examples to strongly suggest that an "insidious form of racism" is behind criticism of President Obama by white liberals/progressives.

Joan Walsh has a long, thoughtful response to the article in Are white liberals abandoning the president? Salon 09/25/2011. Harris-Perry responds to Walsh's criticism in The Epistemology of Race Talk The Nation 09/26/2011.

I think Walsh definitely has the better of the interchange, which I won't try to summarize here, other than to say that the gist of it is that Harris-Perry makes an unconvincing, impressionistic case that (a) white liberals are more critical of the Obama Administration than they were of the Clinton Administration, and (2) that difference is likely to result from white racism among progressives. Walsh explains straightforwardly why both premises are highly questionable. Harris-Perry's response could work well for someone angling for a "FOX Democrat" gig arguing that liberals are the real white racists.

Two points I haven't seen in the discussion on this yet:

  1. President Obama in the debt-ceiling negotiations offered the Republicans a Grand Bargain that would cut Social Security and Medicare benefits. This is bad policy in itself and bad politics for the Democrats. These programs are essential for the vast majority of Americans and are very popular because of that. It would be remarkable in the extreme if Obama weren't getting sharp criticism over that.
  2. Obama's "triangulation" politics, especially since the 2010 election, has involved defining himself as a centrist by emphasizing his differences with Democratic liberals. In speech after speech, he's highlighted how members "of my own Party" differ with him over policies. Already in 2009, Obama's then Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel was calling liberal activists "f*****g retarded" for trying to put pressure on Blue Dog Democrats, pressure meant to bolster Obama's ostensible position on the health care reform. Later, Rahm apologized to the disabled for using the word "retarded." No apologies to Democratic progressives were forthcoming.
Harris-Perry's "Epistemology of Race Talk" post employs what I assume is some sort of postmodern standard of evidence that is worth noting:

[There] 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.
Readers can judge for themselves whether Joan Walsh is demanding "irrefutable evidence of clear, blatant and intentional bias" in her article. She obviously is not.

But what Joan does do is look at the available polling evidence and asks whether they indicate race as a significant factor in Obama's approval ratings among white liberals. Which is a perfectly sensible approach. Such patterns can be reasonably detected or inferred from opinion polls and other social-science and marketing data without requiring "irrefutable evidence of clear, blatant and intentional bias." Even the US legal system with the assumption of the innocence of the accused doesn't require "irrefutable evidence" to convict someone of a felony, only evidence beyond a "reasonable doubt."

Melissa Harris-Perry made a claim based on historical assumptions (the popularity of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama during their first terms) for which there is evidence on which to test the claim. I certainly have no "irrefutable evidence" that she's wrong. Nor would I say that "racism must be banned as a possibility." But her claim doesn't hold up to the scrutiny to which Joan Walsh subjects it.

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