Some Liberal Racism?

There is a very good discussion of “liberal racism” online right now. I was pointed to this debate by this “smartypants” site’s excellent discussion. It began recently with a commentary by Professor Melissa Harris-Perry at the Nation, where she suggests somewhat cautiously that significant aspects of the backtracking from support of and political attacks on President Barack Obama from liberal/left whites are often racialized:

Electoral racism cannot be reduced solely to its most egregious, explicit form. It has proved more enduring and baffling than these results can capture. 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.

She later accents Obama’s sharp decline in white support in opinion polls and certain contrasts with what happened politically to President Bill Clinton:

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.

Her analysis of subtle racism is of course right on target, even too cautious, as almost all whites still view the society out of a strong white racial frame and do not even try to look seriously at it the way many people of color do. Not to mention the still high levels of blatant racist thought and activity documented in much social science research.

Then the liberal columnist Gene Lyons at Salon attacks Harris-Perry rather aggressively, from a liberal version of the white racial frame:

One Melissa Harris-Perry, a Tulane professor who moonlights on MSNBC political talk shows, wrote an article for the Nation titled “Black President, Double Standard: Why White Liberals Are Abandoning Obama.” . . . . See, certain academics are prone to an odd fundamentalism of the subject of race. Because President Obama is black, under the stern gaze of professor Harris-Perry, nothing else about him matters. … not 9 percent unemployment, only blackness. Furthermore, unless you’re black, you can’t possibly understand. Yada, yada, yada. This unfortunate obsession increasingly resembles a photo negative of KKK racial thought. It’s useful for intimidating tenure committees staffed by Ph.D.s trained to find racist symbols in the passing clouds.

So a white Arkansas columnist mocks a reasonable racial and political analysis by a savvy analyst and tosses issues of white racism out the window, comparing this black professor’s views to, of all things, the KKK. This actually demonstrates the privileged racist framing of too many white liberals. Indeed, “Smartypants” asks readers to post a call for an apology from Lyons for such wild assertions at the Salon site.

White liberalism often has had much trouble with the issue of marginalizing certain common black views and majority opinions, for white liberals also operate out of some version of the white racial frame most of the time.

Commentator Ishmael Reed raised related issues some time back. He suggested that much of Obama’s conformity in regard to tough political realities is necessary given that he is a black man operating in a fully white-controlled society. Reed criticized white and other progressives who have periodically asserted that “He’s weak, he’s spineless, he’s got no balls, primary him in 2012.” The prominent white progressive analyst, Glenn Greenwald, has regularly criticized Obama for being weak in dealing with Republicans:

Obama supposedly “doesn’t try, doesn’t use the weapons at his disposal: the ones he wields when he actually cares about something (such as the ones he uses to ensure ongoing war funding . . . . [This] leads to the rational conclusion that he is not actually committed to (or, worse, outright opposes) many of the outcomes which progressive pundits assume he desires.”

Indeed, Obama’s policy actions, especially on economic matters, have often suggested to many progressives that he is only a political moderate and not the liberal they expected.

Looking at these difficult political decisions, Ishmael Reed has emphasized that the white progressive critics miss certain key racial and other structural realities surrounding Obama. These white progressives

have been urging the president to ‘man up’ in the face of the Republicans. . . . What the progressives forget is that black intellectuals have been called ‘paranoid,’ ‘bitter,’ ‘rowdy,’ ‘angry,’ ‘bullies,’ and accused of tirades and diatribes for more than 100 years.

Therefore, if President Obama ever appeared too aggressive, say like Harry Truman did, he would be strongly dismissed by most whites as another “angry black man,” which is a very negative part of traditional white framing. Such widespread dismissals would make policy goals very difficult to achieve. Instead, President Obama’s rather “cool” approach to political action, as Adia Wingfield and I have argued, has involved being at all times and places calm and in control, never really being angry or threatening. Always conciliatory. The continuing white-racist contexts that prevail inside and outside U.S. politics make this a necessary strategy, as likely seen from Obama’s own perspective.