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.


  1. Blaque Swan

    I’ve been saying that since January 09: much of the angst from the white left is racist. I wasn’t paying much attention to politics during the Clinton years. I was much more interested in surviving adolescence. So I can’t really use the Clinton comparison to make my point. Fortunately, I have a back-up plan: Congress. I mean, if white liberals were really concerned about policy, shouldn’t they be as pissed at Congress, if not more so? Where were they during the ’10 midterms? Why didn’t they primary some of the Congressional Dems?

    If all else fails, there’re facts and common sense. Obama did sign the Ledbetter Act. Some sort of stimulus was passed. Healthcare was overhauled. Big Finance will face stronger regulations. And Obama did end combat in Iraq, and as of a few days ago, gay soldiers could serve openly.

    What does the white left expect to happen when rather than organizing to push their agenda, they wait to see what happens? The tea pots ain’t setting around waiting to see what happens. I mean really, white libs. Take a hint.

  2. John D. Foster

    Thanks for the post. I can’t help but think of how many white colleagues of mine in sociology departments around the country would agree (at least privately) with the view of Lyons’? @BlaqueSwan, you’re absolutely right. It seems like only very recently have libs really started to question the benefits of bipartisanship, while members of the U.S. Senate like Blanche Lincoln (who lost last year) or Ben Nelson (who likely will lose next year) ultimately lost their seats anyway, all while playing the game of moderation while blocking the public option, energy legislation, and other important things. Our President doesn’t have free reign to do whatever he pleases.

  3. rbalders

    As a white liberal, this post hits home for me. I have heard many friends (of similar politics) express disappointment in what Obama has/has not done and consider not voting for him in 2012. It is not that Obama can do no wrong (e.g. Keystone XL tar sands pipeline) but I agree that it is important to check ourselves to be sure that it is not Obama’s race that is causing our disappointment.

    It seems that this higher standard is affecting people of color even at my own university. I recently heard fellow students speak about the need to ‘prove that they belong’ to a place of higher education, and that they deserve to be here. This is not something we would ever ‘ask’ of a white student.

    Would we ask this of a white president?

    Although we live in an era much different from that of blatant racism (50’s, 60’s, Jim Crow), it’s important to be wary of how racialized our society (which often becomes our thoughts and actions) still is.

    It is appalling and a huge oversimplification of the issues and racism altogether by Lyons to say that “only blackness” matters to people like Harris-Perry.

    I am thankful for posts like this @Joe and Harris-Perry who aim to bring up these important issues and ensure that we do check ourselves on things that might otherwise slide right under our white liberal noses.

  4. Blactor


    Personally, I absolutely reject Ms. Perry’s assertions, and the basis of this entire discussion.

    The general debate about the expectations we have of our leaders–the context of which almost always being Obama’s tenure as president–is absurd in and of itself. If we didn’t have high expectations of our leaders, we wouldn’t vote them into positions of leadership. How the hell are we in the midst of a country that is decaying economically, educationally, culturally, and even physically, and yet we’re asking ourselves “Are we too hard on our leaders?” That’s absolutely ridiculous. The reason we’re where we are now, is because we haven’t held our leaders accountable for far too long.

    Furthermore, when a candidate brands himself as an agent of major change, and then serves to consistently undermine and contradict that brand, one can understand a little disillusionment.

    As far as this president, playing the race card dilutes the discussion and lets the president off the hook for very real examinations of his controversial policies and decisions. Is it POSSIBLE that racism plays a part in the white left’s withdrawal of support? Obviously, it’s entirely possible. But I’m a leftist, I am black, and I no longer support the president, not because he’s black or because I’m afraid he makes black people look bad or because I feel like I can prove myself to whites by being hard on him. No. The man who ran for president, and the president he became, are simply two different f*cking people. THAT is why support for him is diminishing. To pollute the waters with cries of racism obscures any objective discussion of the failures of this administration.

    Also, I’ve been reading Glenn Greenwald’s work since 2005. He is an articulate, passionate, and intelligent writer, who was just as critical of the Bush administration as he is of Obama’s administration. Furthermore, when the president does something that he agrees with, he will say so. He is a former constitutional lawyer, so he holds ALL politicians up to a high standard, just as WE should.

    It’s as if people don’t realize there is a growing realization on the black left that perhaps this is NOT “change we can believe in.” In fact, the people over at Black Agenda Radio have been skeptical of Obama since at least 2007, and have been just as critical as writers like Greenwald–and they certainly write from a BLACK perspective.

  5. cordoba blue

    Are we having the same arguments again and again? It seems like a circular deja vue in a time the movie Ground Hog Day with Bill Murray.
    We wake up and ferret out racism in yet again one more cubby hole. Even if you are a white person married to a black one, you’re still “secretly” in your heart of hearts a racist. Even if you’re lefter than Josef Stalin or the port side of the Titanic, you’re really secretly a racist. If you voted for Obama, but don’t support him anymore you’re a racist. If you think black kids should study for exams and do their homework, you’re a racist. If you think Afican Americans in poor communities should consider using birth control because of all the fatherless families,you’re a racist. If you think black men in poor communites should marry the mothers of their children, you’re a racist. If you support programs to help poor black families get pre-school care for their kids, you’re a racist because black families don’t need any help from White Charity.
    White people shouldn’t tell black people how to live and blacks don’t need help from whites. If this is true, then why do blacks want reparations for slavery? Isn’t the whole concept that this money should come from whites? So which is it, blacks are asking from help from whites or blacks just want to be left alone? If whites ignore blacks, they’re racists. If whites attempt to help blacks, it’s condescending. LOL! Can anyone make logical sense of this? If a white man makes an effort to support African Americans, that’s a beginning. Without beginnings, there won’t be a middle.Wait, that’s being self congratulatory, and that’s racist. Hey, I think I’m beginning to understand this game. It’s fun too!

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