White Liberals and the Politics of Racism in the Obama Era

It’s relatively old news.hat there might be a racially biased double standard in white voters abandoning Obama   Melissa Harris-Perry pointed this out in a blog post at The Nation back in September, 2011.  One white liberal in particular (Joan Walsh) got pretty bent out of shape about that characterization and pulled the cringe-worthy “some of my best friends are black” routine, which earned a public rebuke from Harris-Perry.  (ouch)

As the presidential politics begin to heat up, so do the racial politics in the Obama era, causing some white (supposedly) progressive writers come somewhat unhinged.  The most recent case in point is Glenn Greenwald.  Greenwald is a lawyer-turned-pundit that writes for Salon.com (the same place that employs Joan Walsh).

Greenwald has been critical of Obama’s signing of the National Defense Authorization Act. The annual NDAA is the essential piece of legislation that pays U.S. soldiers’ salaries, funds equipment for troops overseas, buys ammunition, and also pays our military contractors abroad.

Greenwald is frequently identified as a writer of the left-leaning pundit class who is “disappointed with President Obama” over various policies. The debate over the NDAA (and U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan) between Greenwald and his supporters, and pro-Obama bloggers like Imani Gandy, of AngryBlackLady.com, has taken off on Twitter and resulted in some pretty ugly exchanges, like the following one.

Zerlina Maxwell writing at The Grio, recounts the Twitter throw-down very thoroughly (these two screen shots are from her piece).  On Saturday night, a blogger named “DrDawg” said this about an Obama supporter: “Obama could rape a nun live on NBC and you’d say we weren’t seeing what we were seeing.” In response, Greenwald chimed in, “No – she’d say it was justified [and] noble – that he only did it to teach us about the evils of rape.”


Not surprisingly, Twitter exploded and lots of people called out Greenwald for making a “rape joke.” Greenwald has over 68,000 followers on Twitter so when he says something there, it’s to a rather large audience (at least potentially).  But, rather than apologizing for the comment, Greenwald doubled down, saying that the reference to rape was not a metaphor and in fact Obama supporters would defend the president in the face of “ANY evil: assassinations, child-killings: EVEN rape violent crime like rape.”

In U.S. culture, the image of a black man raping a “pure” woman like a nun (read: virginal) is an incendiary reference that conjures up the legacy of lynching and the myth of the black male rapist that was used to justify that violence. Using the “nun rape smear” to make a point about political supporters of Obama has a lot of people outraged, and rightly so, perhaps chief among them are survivors of actual rape (not the political-point-making-rhetorical-rape). Greenwald got pretty defensive when he thought one of his Twitter followers was accusing him of racism (he wasn’t) and he continues to even acknowledge that the remark might have been offensive.

It’s not clear what the impact of this comment is going to be for Greenwald, if for example, he’ll lose his cushy telecommuting gig with Salon.com or drop below 50,000 Twitter followers. One thing is for sure, if what we need is what legal scholar Ian Haney Lopez calls a “deep engagement” [pdf] around matters of race, this kind of rhetoric isn’t helping us get there.