Archive for media
[Written with Brenda Juarez]
Regardless of whether they believe them or not, most people in US society are well aware of the many visceral stereotypes and images surrounding Black males. These negative representations of Black males are readily visible and conveyed to the public through the news, film, music videos, reality television and other programming and forms of media—the black sidekick of a white protagonist, for example, the token black person, the comedic relief, the athlete, the over-sexed ladies’ man, the absentee father, and most damaging, the violent black man as drug-dealing criminal and gangster thug.
These stereotypical one-dimensional characters in film negate the broader and deeper experience of Black life and the lives of Black men in particular. Reaching into people’s homes through the media, these negative images influence personal opinions, ideas and racial attitudes. As Dates and Barlow explain, “Images in the mass media are infused with color-coded positive and negative moralistic features. Once these symbols become familiar and accepted, they fuel misperceptions and perpetuate misunderstandings among the races.” Indeed, negative understandings of Black males are consistently used to justify the racial disparities they experience in exclusionary school discipline practices, underachievement in higher education, and rates of poverty, homicide, unemployment, and over involvement in the criminal system.
Capturing our imagination as a society, film exemplifies how media images provide us with a reality of misrepresentations that guides societal perceptions of Black men. Take the 2001 film Training Day, for example. Denzel Washington’s role as Alonzo Harris provides one of the most enduring and threatening depictions of Black men as violent criminals. The criminality of Washington’s character is underscored by the contrast to the antithesis of his character, Ethan Hawke, who plays the role of good cop, a moral and righteous man.
Will Smith, in successfully becoming one of film’s leading men, has strategically flipped Hollywood’s stereotypical white perceptions of blacks in the media as always violent and criminal. He is often seen starring as a protagonist fighting the good fight rather than the criminal to be apprehended. Although applauded for seeking and earning leading male roles in Hollywood, his often heroic and hyper-masculine characters play into the theme of protecting whiteness and its virtuous subthemes of justice and freedom such as in the films Independence Day and I Am Legend. In fact, in extreme attempts to avoid the villain prototype, Smith frequently plays the role of the “Magic Negro” archetype in the film The Legend of Bagger Vance and Hitch, for example, where his efforts to save and teach whites about what it means to be good facilitates a mystical theme in the minds of white people about the supernatural powers of a few exceptional Blacks, among a people perceived as being closer to nature.
News media has a similar effect on white consciousness as film in popular media. News, written and conveyed by purportedly unbiased and objective reporters, are nevertheless also influenced by negative images of blacks circulating in larger society reflected in popular American film. For instance, the Internet sports blog site Deadspin broke a story in April of 2011 that illustrates how news media representations of black male athletes reinforces the mythology of them as oversexed, aggressive rule-breakers. In this case, the story centers on a private confessional of a young black man that was leaked to the public.
A basketball player at Brigham Young University, a predominately white Christian school, Brandon Davies was suspended for breaking the honor code by having premarital sex. The elements were present that would make for a sensational story: race, religion, sex and sports. The news of his suspension came about in the midst of the NCAA tournament, and the school was heralded in Sports Illustrated as “America’s University” for upholding its values and standards in suspending him due to an honor code violation.
However, the news media, in its stereotypical portrayal of this young man, failed to report an important aspect of the story. As Deadspin noted upon closer examination of the honor code office at BYU, a troubling pattern emerged for athletes of color, especially African American men, going back to 1993. Athletes of color are more likely to be disciplined than white athletes despite their significantly lower numbers on campus and in the sporting arena. This creates the impression that only black men engage in illicit sex or other honor code violations while white men rarely, if ever, violate these standards, which holds a glaring resemblance to the criminal justice system where black males are convicted and locked up at much higher rates than their white male counterparts for similar crimes committed. As this story highlights, this trend is in part a direct result of negative media representations of Black males that strongly influence white perceptions and racial attitudes.
This is not to say that some African Americans don’t participate in their own marginalization, from music videos and reality TV to roles on the big screen. Yet, the parts they are offered leave black actors with limited options. Conventionally white screenwriters, who view the world through the prism of a white lens, write about subject matters that reflect their own narrow experiences living and existing in a highly racialized society.
As a result, the predominately white film industry (from producers to screenwriters to directors), in the market of pleasing their predominately white consumer base, lacks diversity in the depth of their characters. This would explain why most popular shows or cinematic themes of American life reflect the interest of white people with strong white themes and often very little representation of difference with respects to writing and casting. Based on past and current Nielsen ratings, the most popular shows consist of the likes of The Bachelor/Bachelorette, The Big Bang Theory, CSI, Friends, and Seinfeld.
Darron Smith and Brenda Juarez
Last week, we were reminded again of the false construct of a post-racial society when Naomi Schaefer Riley posted a vitriolic and careless article in The Chronicle of Higher Education maligning three Black studies graduate students at Northwestern University, their professors, and the entire area of study. In her piece, she openly sneered at each woman’s dissertation (none of which she had read) and basically characterized their work as useless, “irrelevant,” outdated, and predicated upon victimization.
Already, responses have been generated by the NU students as well as the faculty. A Chronicle editor has also responded with a rather weak defense of Riley’s blog, claiming that, “It is a blog for opinion . . . not news reporting by the staff.” Besides the feelings of intense rage and sadness I felt over Riley publicly defaming these scholars at the beginning of their careers, I had another overwhelming feeling.
It is simply exhausting to fight those who have no awareness of the presence and manifestation of their own White privilege. It is the additional energy that Blacks must expend particularly when they dare to trespass through areas perceived as “White terrain” (Feagin 1991) which academia most certainly is.
Riley’s piece exposed the White privilege that Peggy McIntosh spoke of long ago in her 1988 landmark essay. In it, McIntosh includes a laundry list of nearly 50 invisible privileges conferred to her at birth simply by virtue of being born White. Based on Riley’s piece and her equally as sarcastic and misguided non-apology, we could adapt and add to some of McIntosh’s original items, because through Riley’s pieces, we’ve learned White privilege also includes:
1) The ability to make pronouncements and declarations on which dissertation topics constitute “legitimate debate” and who is a “legitimate scholar” based on precious few sentences about the work in question.
2) The privilege to substitute snark for responsible research and have it published in the leading publication on higher education without the editors challenging its integrity and in fact defending its inclusion as merely “an opportunity– to debate.”
3) The privilege to stunt the spirit of academic inquiry and intellectual curiosity simply because a research topic pertains to Blackness.
4) The privilege to pretend all is well where race relations are concerned and that if there are racial disparities or tensions, it’s because people of color caused them. [FYI: Ms. Riley, any of Tim Wise's books, or Eduardo Bonilla-Silva's Racism without Racists (2009), or Joe Feagin's recent White Racial Frame (2010) can help you with this one.]
5) The ability to attack any Black person at any time and particularly those who have achieved scholar status because they threaten White hegemony.
And so, because Ms. Riley decided to wield these elements of her privilege like a weapon, we are stuck defending ourselves and expending the energy to respond.
Essentially, what she told the NU students is: You do not belong. It’s a message sent to Blacks whether they are doctoral students at a leading research university, student-athletes on the Rutgers women’s basketball team, or a child walking around a White neighborhood armed only with an iced tea and Skittles. And yes, Ms. Riley, even President Obama is regularly told he doesn’t belong when he’s the only president who’s been called a “liar” in a televised address before a joint session of Congress or who has to prove citizenship over and over again like a freed slave showing manumission papers.
Fortunately, as Black folks, we have learned to multi-task—to resist our oppression and defend ourselves and our labor even as we go about our research, teaching, and daily lives. Yet, the fact that we must do both speaks to the very nature of the racial inequality Naomi Schaefer Riley claims has all but disappeared.
If you follow basketball at all, you’ve no doubt heard about Jeremy Lin, the basketball sensation currently playing for the NY Knicks. Lin’s story is one of a classic underdog. No NBA team drafted Lin out of Harvard. The Golden State Warriors signed him and then waived him after one year; the Houston Rockets waived him after two weeks. Until just a few weeks ago, he was sleeping on his brothers’ couch. Once he got the chance to play with the Knicks, scoring an astounding 38 points (against Kobe Bryant’s 34 points), Lin became a sensation, puns abounded (“Linsanity!”) and remarkably, almost no one – hardly an NBA coach, general manager, scout or fan — saw it coming.
Jeremy Lin is also Asian American, and the NBA’s first American-born player of Chinese or Taiwanese descent. So, in the white-dominant culture of the U.S., this necessarily means that race is central to Lin’s story. As David J. Leonard point out, Lin’s success has energized many in the Asian American community who see in Lin a role model, while at the same time, highlighting the persistence of racism.
The most recent, and high profile, form of racism directed at Lin has come from ESPN, the sports network, which ran the headline, “Chink in the Armor” on Friday, under an image of Lin in action, on its mobile website:
ESPN has now fired the employee responsible for an offensive headline. In a statement today, ESPN says it conducted a thorough review and dismissed the employee responsible for the headline “Chink In The Armor” about Lin’s nine turnovers during Friday night’s game. ESPN says it removed the headline 35 minutes after it was posted. The term “chink” is a racial slur, used to denigrate people of Chinese descent.
But this is not the only racism toward Lin from ESPN. A similar incident went mostly unremarked upon. On Wednesday, an ESPN anchor Max Bretos asked Knicks legend Walt “Clyde” Frazier: “If there is a chink in the armor, where can he improve his game?”
In a statement, ESPN says that Bretos has suspended for 30 days for his comment. Kevin Ota, the director of communications in digital media for ESPN, posted a message today that reads, “We again apologize, especially to Mr. Lin. His accomplishments are a source of great pride to the Asian-American community, including the Asian-American employees at ESPN.”
More than apologize, it seems that ESPN needs to review its internal policies and beef up the corporate diversity training on the use of racial slurs.
The “Un-Fair Campaign,” a public awareness campaign about racism, is generating some discussion. In light of the recent video from BYU (see previous post), this campaign makes a lot of sense and is quite timely. The tag line is: “It’s hard to see racism when you’re white.” The idea behind the campaign: if we recognize racism, we can stop it.
The focus of the campaign is very clearly on white people and this makes sense given the demographics of the region where the campaign is posting billboards. The Twin Ports (Duluth, MN and Superior, WI) is a predominantly white community (89%).
The campaign is the work of several organizations committed to racial justice in the Twin Ports area, and grows out of a recent Knight Foundation report, called Soul of the Community. In a three-year study detailed in the report, researchers found that people in this region were less likely to say that it’s a good place for racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants, than those in comparable communities elsewhere. Based on these findings, anti-racist activists in the area are trying to change things through the “Un-Fair Campaign.” Here’s a brief description from the campaign’s website:
People of color experience incidents of racism every day, and they have long asked “when will white people in our community stand up and speak out about racism?” This campaign is part of a response to that question. Racial justice will never be achieved until we as white people address white privilege and work to change it.
The insight that “it’s hard to see racism when you’re white,” has been a central message here at this blog for some time, so perhaps not a new or controversial idea for regular readers here.
But the campaign (which just launched January 24) has already generated some heated backlash from whites who are not too keen on the ideas of having their whiteness pointed out to them, much less learning to notice white privilege or acknowledge racism.
The (white) mayor of Duluth has received death threats because of the campaign, and according to one account (h/t Lisa Albrecht, Assoc Prof, U of MN, member of leadership team of SURJ), other activists involved in the campaign are enduring a daily barrage of threatening emails and phone messages suggesting she should leave town, be raped because she ‘hates white people.’ And, of course, the campaign is getting a lot of play on the usual white supremacist sites.
The question the campaign – and the white backlash against – raises a perennial one for those interested in racial justice: how do you get white people to address white privilege and work against it? The Un-Fair Campaign is an innovative approach to this persistent dilemma. The next challenge will be how to use the backlash to further the cause of racial justice.
Have you ever been somewhere or doing something and thought to yourself, “This is strangely familiar. I have been here before, right?” The American comic Steven Wright once said, “Right now I’m having amnesia and déjà vu at the same time.” At this moment in time, this quote holds true for the current process of nominating the Republican Great White Hope nominee. Even though I was not around during the 1940s and 1950s (thank God, I do not know if I would have been tough enough), I am feeling as if our country has been here before, politically and socially.
For me, I have seen this before with the political career of provocative Strom Thurmond. In the beginning, he was known as a progressive legislator with the Democratic Party. Although a racist Dixiecrat, he was once responsible for arresting members of a lynch mob that killed a Black man named Willie Earle in South Carolina. For his pursuit in this matter, he was congratulated by the NAACP.
Later as a presidential candidate in 1948, he began to change his proverbial tune. In order to win, he realized that the nation was negatively reacting to the actions of President Harry Truman and the general Civil Rights movement that was occurring in the U.S. He loudly played to the fear and hatred being felt by Whites. As the presidential candidate, Strom Thurmond won an astounding 39 electoral votes. The formula worked and he continued on this road to later be elected in 1954 to the U.S. Senate. Later in 1964, he even switched parties.
Today, the spirit of Strom Thurmond is present within the current Republican Party nomination process. The likes of Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, and Newt Gingrich, and Ron Paul have all had their turn publicly battering people of color and the poor to the jeers of misguided conservatives who have felt that their country has been stripped from their White hands by a Black man.
Instead of explicitly spouting racist comments, their approach has been quite clever. Throughout the debates we have seen the emergence of exploiting the same “state rights” (10th Amendment) argument that was used to argue against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Simply, the candidates are utilizing the amendment that reserves rights to the state and its people and not to the federal government in order to rid the federal muscle protecting issues such as health care, abortion, immigration, new ID laws which make it difficult for marginalized populations to vote, and civil rights. This is a coded but clearly understood message that makes a call for times of yesterday.
A more explicit example of social ignorance that has been front and center during this election period can be found with Ron Paul and the evidence that has recently been discovered by the press. Ron Paul’s previous political newsletters have been shown to contain numerous statements marked by bigotry and racism. Even though Ron Paul and his supporters have claimed that many of the articles were written by others using his name, I still find him guilty of supporting the weight of what was said. He was a part of newsletters that called Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, a “Radical black Anglican.” In addition, Ron Paul’s newsletter has been connected with:
• Arguing that whites should arm themselves due to the oncoming race war
• Agreeing with the racist findings and comments of eugenics advocate Jared Taylor
• Asserting young Black males, unlike their counterparts, should be tried in adult courts due to the fact that they are “big, strong, tough, scary, and culpable as any adult, and should be treated as such [http://www.tnr.com/sites/default/files/Sep92PolRepRacist_0.PDF]
• Defending the previous owner of the Cincinnati Reds, Marge Schott, when she referred to her players as “million dollar niggers.”
This is not to mention the fact that the newsletter agreed as well to her statements that held Hitler in high regard.
Moreover, during the greatly expected Republican debate in South Carolina, which happened to fall on the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday, racism and social ignorance were on full display. The Black moderator, and socially conservative Juan Williams, asked Newt Gingrich if he felt that his previously public comments relating to the need of Black Americans to demand jobs and not food stamps was insulting to the poor and Blacks. As Newt undauntedly said, “No, I don’t see that,” the crowd of mostly White participants erupted into cheers. As Juan attempted to push the matter further, the crowd booed and actually gave Newt a standing ovation.
What was equally upsetting was the fact that the other nominees said nothing. They stolidly stood silent as the social assault on the poor and people of color went down. They were all complicit in their silence to rhetoric that echoed white supremacy. Due to the lack of a critical examination by Matt Lauer or his other blockheaded news associates, I find them complicit as well. In my mind, they were all guilty of the message that was portrayed to the world. David Axelrod was correct when he said, “campaigns are like MRIs for the soul…” We as a country are truly diseased.
As the Republican presidential context heats up, so does the racist rhetoric. And, in some quarters, white voters are giving that kind of rhetoric a standing ovation. Yet, The New York Times, the nation’s leading news organization, seems unwilling to clearly and unequivocally call out the obvious racism of the GOP.
(Image from CNN)
In an excellent piece at FAIR, Peter Hart writes that:
“When a Republican presidential candidate goes around talking about Barack Obama as the ‘food stamp president,’ eventually reporters are going to have to write about racism.”
Mr. Gingrich was clearly making the case that he is the candidate most able to take the fight to Mr. Obama in the fall, but he was also laying bare risks for his party when it comes to invoking arguments perceived to carry racial themes or other value-laden attack lines.
Hart’s take on the reporting here is, “this is the kind of language one expects to encounter when reporters have to figure out ways to talk about racism without calling it racism.”
It’s also an excellent example of the kind of white racial framing that the NYTimes routinely offers readers. And, of course, this is no coincidence. The NYTimes is a HWO (historically white organization) serving a predominantly white readership. (If you have any doubts about how how white the NYTimes is, watch the documentary “Page One” for a glimpse of who’s running the shop there.) So, it makes sense that their reporting is from a white perspective for a white audience.
The NYTimes does not seem to have trouble acknowledging, at least on the opinion pages, the whiteness of the GOP candidates, most notably the unmitigated whiteness of Mitt Romney. (Yet, even in that article, the title is “What’s Race Got to Do With It?” eliding a bit the thoroughly racial content of the article.)
Political heavyweights who declined to enter the 2012 race all had uniquely personal reasons. Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana faced family resistance; former Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi feared being bogged down in the politics of race; Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey doubted his readiness for the Oval Office.
Again, Harwood is side-stepping the obvious issue of racism here with the euphemism of “the politics of race.” Those with a political memory longer than a minute will recall that just last year (2010), Barbour was extolling the supposed virtues of the white supremacist Citizens Council groups in Mississippi. In Barbour’s re-imagined civil rights history, these were anti-Klan activists, when of course, these were simply the suit-and-tie version of the KKK, founded to oppose school integration as critics pointed out at the time. Yet, the NYTimes obfuscates this with their description of the “bog” of racial politics.
Fortunately, there are excellent writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates (The Atlantic) who do not share the timidity of the NYTimes when it comes to the racism of the GOP. Coates writes:
“When a professor of history calls Barack Obama a ‘Food Stamp President,’ it isn’t a mistake to be remedied through clarification; it is a statement of aggression. And when a crowd of his admirers cheer him on, they are neither deluded, nor in need of forgiveness, nor absolution, nor acting against their interest. Racism is their interest. They are not your misguided friends. They are your fully intelligent adversaries, sporting the broad range of virtue and vice we see in humankind.”
Coates is right, of course. Those who stood and cheered Gingrich in South Carolina earlier this week were standing and cheering their own interests. Gingrich’s performance in South Carolina is part of what prompted Chauncey DeVega to call this “air raid siren” racism (instead of “dog whistle” racism).
Rather than offer a scathing critique and analysis of this, the NYTimes gives the GOP and racism a pass.
There are some big changes happening at MSNBC. Melissa Harris-Perry will host her own weekend show on the network, starting in February. Harris-Perry is a professor of political science at Tulane University, where she is founding director of the Anna Julia Cooper Project on Gender, Race, and Politics in the South. She’s also the author of Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America. Harris-Perry has been a frequent guest on other MSNBC shows where she is offers a consistently strong analysis on progressive issues and a cogent critic of the racism in mainstream politics.
This is the first time that an African American woman has had her own show on MSNBC. Harris-Perry follows in the footsteps of other African American firsts, including Carol Jenkins whose career included 23 years as co-anchor of the 6 p.m. newscast and her own local show.
During the same week, MSNBC announced that Pat Buchanan is “out indefinitely” at the network. We’ve written quite a lot about Buchanan’s racism here (and here and here and here) before, so of course, it’s not a surprise to us or regular readers here that Buchanan has some pretty deplorable views. He’s also been the focus of an ongoing campaign by progressive organizations CREDO and ColorofChange to have MSNBC to remove him from airing those views on a major cable news outlet.
What is surprising, and indeed refreshing, is that over the weekend, MSNBC President Phil Griffin announced that Buchanan would not be allowed on the air indefinitely after the release of his latest book, Suicide of a Superpower, and has not decided whether to allow the commentator to return. Deadline‘s Ray Richmond first reported that Griffin was unhappy with Buchanan’s book, and had not made a final decision on whether he would be back on MSNBC:
Griffin told me after the panel, “I don’t think the ideas that [Buchanan] put forth [in the book] are appropriate for national dialogue on MSNBC. He won’t be coming back during the book tour.” Will Buchanan be back at all? “I have not made my decision,” replied Griffin, who did say he will be tinkering with the network’s format as the year goes on. Pat’s a good guy. He didn’t like [being removed from the air], but he understood.”
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) was the most recent civil rights group to join the effort to drop Buchanan. The ADL noted that Buchanan’s book includes racist and anti-Semitic remarks, among them claims that America is being damaged “ethnically, culturally, morally, politically” by the rise in minority populations and the lament that the “European and Christian core of our country is shrinking.” MSNBC President Griffin described the ideas Buchanan expressed in his book as not being “really appropriate for national dialogue, much less the dialogue on MSNBC.”
I couldn’t agree more with Griffin on this point. This is part of the argument that we’ve been making about Buchanan for a long time here. It’s not a free speech issue to take away Buchanan’s platform. He doesn’t have a constitutional right to a spot as a commentator on a cable news show. By allowing him to air his views, the network effectively skews the terms of the debate to the far-right for viewers of that show. While it’s quite possibly (likely even) that Buchanan will find a welcome audience for his views over at FoxNews, I still think it’s the right decision (if belated) for MSNBC to suspend him. Griffin should look seriously into Buchanan’s views over the long term and make the next right decision, which is to fire him.
The combination of these shifts at MSNBC – Buchanan out, Harris-Perry in – signal a shift in the direction of a major news outlet. Only time will tell if this contributes to a shift in the conversation about race at the network and in the broader arena of mainstream political discourse.
Who do I have a grudge with this week? Of course, it is with the U.S. government. In particular, my emotions are directed at the United States Board on Geographic Names. In 1967, they were charged with changing the word “nigger” at 143 locations to “Negro.” How dare they have the chutzpah to forget about “Niggerhead” in Paint Creek, Texas? This is the same property owned by the family of poor debating tongue-tied Ricky Perry, Republican presidential nominee and current governor of Texas.
It seems the government run geographical board did not forget about “Negro Bill Canyon” (formerly known as Nigger Bill Canyon, Utah), or “Negrohead Mountain,” which is a peak above Santa Monica, California (renamed in February 2010 to Ballard Mountain). Poorly handled media demonization forced Perry to respond by saying,
When my Dad joined the lease in 1983, he took the first opportunity he had to paint over the offensive word on the rock during the 4th of July holiday…It is my understanding that the rock was eventually turned over to further obscure what was originally written on it.
See, he had to do the job of the federal government on his own. Well, yes it took him three years after the property was bought to paint over it. But still he rolled up his Texas sleeves and did the job. And yes I am aware of the fact that some have reported to the media that they have been guests of the family while hunting on the property and seen the rock that depicts the name at the entrance to the property displaying the naughty name. But come on, who can blame the guy. He has been very busy. When defending his morality, he stated,
I judge folks by their character and ethics. As Governor, I represent a big, fast-growing and diverse state. My appointments and actions represent the whole state, including our growing diversity, such as appointment of the first African-American Supreme Court Justice — whom I later appointed to Chief Justice — and the first Latina Secretary of State.
One cannot forget the hard work he has displayed while helping his home state to increase the number of Blacks executed on death row either. That is one for the record books of equality, huh? Again, how can we solely blame Rick? He is a slave to the chains of the white racial frame. Perry’s allowances for the rock to exist in the first place are driven by the rationale that drove the operation of U.S. slavery. Moreover, Leslie Picca and Joe Feagin in Two Faced Racism (2007) discuss how Whites have the ability to publicly object or not participate in expressions of racism or bigotry, but in private amongst other whites they have the ability to be overtly racists.
Well those are the pains of the white racial frame. Perry is simply a victim of the “oppression.” So shouldn’t we give him a break? But then again, one has to question the good sense of anyone attempting to run for president while shooting (no pun intended) to gain favor from a select group of special people who cheer during a republican debate regarding the execution of hundreds of inmates, allowing the uninsured to die, and turning back to the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” military policy. Oppression of the marginalized is indeed an immortal ideological symbiote that has latched upon the psyche of world consciousness. So do me a favor and leave Perry alone!:)
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.