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.


  1. Joe

    It is also significant that Greenwald (according to the NY Times) was the lawyer back in 2005 or so for the white Supremacist Matthew Hale, who Greenwald admitted was “odious,” but defended him (and his supremacist group on occasion) any way. http://www.nytimes.com/2005/03/09/national/09hale.html?pagewanted=print&position= He has been the lawyer for Hale for several cases…. Hale was convicted of plotting to kill a federal judge.

    This blog (http://www.nytimes.com/2005/03/09/national/09hale.html?pagewanted=print&position=) also has an interesting Niehbur-oriented critique of Greenwald and others critiquing Obama from the left.

  2. snkscoyote


    “The parade of evils caused by illegal immigration is widely known, and it gets worse every day. In short, illegal immigration wreaks havoc economically, socially, and culturally; makes a mockery of the rule of law; and is disgraceful just on basic fairness grounds alone. Few people dispute this, and yet nothing is done.

    A substantial part of the GOP base urgently wants Republicans, who now control the entire Federal Government, to take the lead in enforcing our nation’s immigration laws. And yet the GOP, despite its unchallenged control, does virtually nothing, infuriating this sector of its party. The White House does worse than nothing; to the extent it acts on this issue at all, it is to introduce legislation designed to sanction and approve of illegal immigration through its “guest worker” program, a first cousin of all-out amnesty for illegal immigrants.

    GOP inaction when it comes to illegal immigration is at once mystifying and easily explainable. There is a wing of the party – the Wall St. Journal/multinational corporation wing – which loves illegal immigration because of its use as a source of cheap labor. And while that wing of the party is important because of the financial support it provides, it is a distinct minority when it comes to electoral power.

    The real reason Republicans treat the need to address the illegal immigration problem like a trip to the dentist — as something they want to avoid at all costs — is because they have been convinced that adopting an aggressive stance on illegal immigration will cost them too many votes among the nation’s ethnic minorities and legal immigrants. And that is what brings us to Sanchez’s Op-Ed, which illustrates just how unconvincing and baseless that alarmist view really is.”


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