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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.
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.
Adding to the discussion of Haley Barbour, The Rachel Maddow Show did a nice segment on him last night:
Tonight, MSNBC aired “The McVeigh Tapes,” a television documentary about the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Lou Michel, author of American Terrorist, recorded the interviews with McVeigh while he was in prison awaiting execution. The description of the piece from MSNBC’s site says:
“Drawing from 45 hours of never-before-released interview audiotapes recorded during McVeigh’s prison stay, the film reveals the bomber’s descriptions of the planning and execution of the horrific attack and offers insight into how a decorated American soldier became a dangerous, anti-government terrorist.”
The show did much more of the former, focusing almost exclusively on “descriptions of the planning and execution of the horrific attack” and very little on “how a decorated American soldier” became a terrorist. The 2-hour news show was a standard re-enactment of the events leading up to the attack. There were two elements to the story that made it cable-television-worthy: 1) the audio tapes and 2) the computer graphics in which an actor played Tim McVeigh, and then graphic artists altered the face to look more or less like McVeigh. Personally, I found the computer graphics distracting (my partner said “it’s working for me,” so clearly, people disagree on how effective these were). The really compelling story at the heart of this, though, was the juxtaposition of McVeigh’s cold, emotionless voice recounting his actions set against the horrific damage done to the victims, many of them children. People today in Oklahoma City continue to walk through the pain that he left in their lives, either through injuries that linger or through the grief they continue to carry for loved ones. For his part, the McVeigh in the tapes is beyond remorseless, he’s “content and peaceful” that he has succeeded in carrying out his plot to take as many people with him as possible in his “state-assisted suicide.”
The events of April 19, 1995 are methodically retold here with little that’s actually new. There is an enormous amount of detail on how they (McVeigh and his accomplice Nichols) built the bomb inside the rented Ryder truck, so much detail in fact, that I winced while listening to it wondering if it were offering a blueprint for others watching the show. This reenactment is serviceable enough, as such things go, but not really compelling television. The reason that I, and I suspect millions of others, tuned in was for the second part of the tease – the “how a decorated American soldier” became a terrorist bit. This is where viewers with any interest in the racial ideology that motivated McVeigh will be disappointed because it is a story completely denuded of any discussion of race.
At the time of the bombing, Timothy McVeigh was not officially a member of any white supremacist group. Yet, he was radicalized by his reading of The Turner Diaries, a dystopian white supremacist novel written by William Pierce under the pseudonym “Andrew McDonald.” The Turner Diaries depicts a violent revolution and race war, that leads to the elimination of all Jews, non-whites and ‘white race traitors.’ In the week after the Oklahoma City bombing, an article in The New York Times called the novel “explicitly racist and anti-Semitic.” The article in The New York Times went on to note that the Oklahoma City bombing had been “foretold” in this “Bible of the Extreme Right.” One of the central ideas in The Turner Diaries and in white supremacist ideology is the equivalency of “government” with “Jewish interests,” or simply “Jews.” In fact, in this rhetoric the federal government is often referred to as “Z.O.G.” which stands for “Zionist Occupied Government.” The language about “anti-government” in white supremacist rhetoric is almost always code for “anti-Jewish.” A key theme in this racial ideology is that “Z.O.G.” is trying to ruin the white race by encouraging “race-mixing” (marriage and children across racial lines).
The importance of this text to McVeigh’s radicalization as a white supremacist terrorist cannot be underestimated. According to reports at the time and from monitoring organization, ADL, in the days before the bombing, McVeigh mailed a letter to his sister warning that “something big is going to happen,” and sent her an envelop with clippings from The Turner Diaries. When she learned of her brother’s arrest in connection with the bombing, McVeigh’s sister burned the clippings. F.B.I. agents also found a copy of a passage from The Turner Diaries in the car McVeigh drove on the day of the bombing. And, during the bombing trial, several of McVeigh’s friends testified that he had sent them copies of Pierce’s novel with notes encouraging them to read it. Testimony also showed that McVeigh sold The Turner Diaries and Hunter, Pierce’s follow-up to The Turner Diaries, at weekend gun shows. One of the chief reasons McVeigh went from being an American soldier to a terrorist is because he read The Turner Diaries.
So, if we viewers were interested in understanding “how a decorated American soldier” became a terrorist, it seems that at least some discussion of The Turner Diaries and the white supremacist ideology behind it would be in order. Not so in “The McVeigh Tapes,” In the 2-hour show, there’s one glimpse of the computer-graphic-McVeigh sitting on his bunk while in the army reading a copy of The Turner Diaries, yet no mention at all of race or antisemitism or white supremacy. All descriptors of McVeigh’s ideology are scripted as “his anti-government views,” a description that is misleading for the half-truth it tells.
This omission of any discussion of race is so systematic and total throughout the 2-hours of the film that it must be intentional. The question is why? Why intentionally leave out this important element in understanding how McVeigh became a terrorist?
The best answer I (and those in discussion on Twitter hashtag #OKC) came up with is that MSNBC has a primarily white audience that is uncomfortable with discussions of race, racism, antisemitism or white supremacy. While perfectly capable of listening to a discussion about “anti-government views,” the explicit, straightforward discussion of the racial ideology that animated McVeigh and inspired his horrific act is too much for us as a nation. As @Sonyers put this to me: “A lot of people don’t have the courage to see the reality of race. It’s ugly and powerful.” I guess that’s true. It’s a shame though. We could understand more if we had an analysis that included a critical understanding of race. Specifically, we could understand more – not less -if we had an analysis of the racial ideology of The Turner Diaries how it “foretold” the Oklahoma City bombing.
What “The McVeigh Tapes,” leaves us with is a description of the excruciating detail of each minute leading up to that moment on April 19th, 1995 but almost no analysis of what would prompt a young, white, man to target a federal building with a daycare center in it, or why so many would rally today, in 2010, to “celebrate” that heinous act fifteen years ago.
A white Republican caller from a southern state called into C-Span recently complaining, of all things, about too many blacks calling in to C-Span asking questions about the news:
Well, this is rather interesting. He does not like blacks calling in so much (as independents and Republicans) on the Republican line, and claims that 80 percent of these inquisitive callers are black. And not really Republican-oriented.
Well, how does he know that they are 80 percent black? And, since he really believes they dominate the questioners, why doesn’t he praise their great interest in questioning and learning about US politics and related matters. Is that part of a certain traditional southern “white culture’s” white framing of black folks?
“Media Matters for America” put up a youtube mashup of right-wing commentators’ racializing the swine flu (possible) epidemic (h/t Rosalind).
Once again, the right wing (Notice how white these excerpts are too) seems obsessed with creating racialized “others” for US folks to fear. This time it is Mexican immigrants, even though the mass media reports also indicate that it was white visitors to Mexico who apparently brought the flu across the border.
Viewing this video gives one a sense of what it must have been like to listen to the hostile and fear-mongering ravings against the Jews by Adolf Hitler’s “brownshirt” (paramilitary) and other demagogues in Nazi Germany in the 1920s-1930s. Is that what these commentators intend?
Jay Severin, the fiery right wing talk show host on Boston’s WTKK-FM radio station, was suspended yesterday after calling Mexican immigrants “criminaliens,” “primitives,” “leeches,” and exporters of “women with mustaches and VD,” among other incendiary comments. Heidi Raphael, a spokeswoman for the station, said Severin had been suspended indefinitely from his afternoon drive-time show. She declined to say which of his comments – made since an outbreak of swine flu was linked to Mexico in recent days – sparked the suspension. . . . Severin’s comments sparked deep concern among Mexicans and other Latinos living in the Boston area, prompting what Tobia described as a flood of complaints to station management in recent days.
The elite white media, including elite white bloggers, fail to get it when it comes to talking about race and racism (photo of News Corp Building, from here). So, how is the elite white media handling race and racism in the wake of the Obama election? The short answer is: not very well. One of the longer, and better, answers out there is from Janine Jackson of FAIR. Jackson has a really excellent piece (to me via Alternet) exploring some of the elite white media’s response to Obama:
Journalists were sometimes embarrassingly frank about how they interpreted Obama’s blackness and what they hoped his success might mean. “No history of Jim Crow, no history of anger, no history of slavery,” declared NBC’s Chris Matthews (1/21/07). “All the bad stuff in our history ain’t there with this guy.” “For many white Americans, it’s a twofer,” opined the New Republic (2/5/07). “Elect Obama, and you not only dethrone George W. Bush, you dethrone [Al] Sharpton, too.” (See Extra!, 3–4/07.)
Looking to find parallels for the “stuff” they did like, journalists turned to fiction, as when Jonathan Alter (Newsweek, 10/27/08) alleged that voters “decided they liked Obama when he reminded them more of Will Smith than Jesse Jackson,” or when CNN (6/22/08) told viewers that Michelle Obama “wants to appear to be Claire Huxtable and not Angela Davis.”
The fondest hope seemed to be that an Obama victory (if not his strong candidacy alone) would absolve us of any need to talk about racism any more. Newsweek’s Howard Fineman (5/14/08) wrote that, in announcing his run for office, Obama was making a statement: that his candidacy would be the exclamation point at the end of our four-century-long argument over the role of African-Americans in our society. By electing a mixed-race man of evident brilliance, moderate mien and welcoming smile, we would finally cease seeing each other through color-coded eyes.
Remember, these are the supposedly liberal media. Note that part of what is so appealing about the Obamas, both Barack and Michelle, is that they are perceived as non-threatening to this elite white media. They embrace real and fictive African Americans that they find attractive and appealing, such as “Will Smith” and “Claire Huxtable,” and eschew those they find threatening or too “angry,” such as “Sharpton” and “Angela Davis.”
And, of course, one of the chief characteristics of elite white racism is the neurotic need to never, ever talk about race. You can see this deep desire not to talk about race is characteristic of growing up white, and glimpses of it emerge in the book and the film about the DeWolf family inheriting the slave trade. As one family member recalls their “No Talk Rule”:
“You don’t talk about unpleasant things. There’s a line in one of our family books that one of our ancestors said, that we should never talk about sex …. religion … politics ….and the Negroes.”
The elite white media is largely drawn from this WASP-y cultural milieu and you can often see them squirm as they try and figure out how to wrap their heads around talking about “the unpleasantness” that is race in their minds. But the reason that this is “unpleasant” to talk about for white liberals it that the silence covers up deeply held beliefs about black inferiority and white superiority, as well as fears about the “threat” that black people pose to unearned white privilege. This elite white “No Talk Rule” when it comes to race extends beyond the old media to include the new media world of blogging.
There’s been a good deal about the liberal bloggers in the mainstream news recently, including this piece in The New York Times, which reports on the coalition of labor unions and MoveOn.org to push the Democratic Party to the left. Yet, nowhere in this article does it mention race or racism as a salient issue for the left. Nor do the academics examining this issue ever discuss the whiteness of the Netroots Lefties, a large part of why race never gets addressed in this eddy of the blogosphere.
As for the elite white media response from conservatives, we need look no further than the recent actions of various Murdoch News outlets, such as FoxNews and The New York Post, which I’ve written about here and here. Of course, as far back as 1993, FAIR was reporting that the paper was a “militant white daily” and that pattern of media racism continues through to today.
Whether it’s the more aggressive form of media racism practiced by those on the right, or the WASP-y form of denial and cringe-worthy patronizing racism practiced by those on the left, the elite white media continues fall short in addressing race and racism in the Obama era.
I usually do not like to promote television news shows when it comes to coverage of racial, gender, or religious matters, for they only give you bits and pieces of information supported by a primitive critical lens. Plus, news shows have a proclivity to have so called “experts” that are mental midgets attempting to demonstrate some form of intelligence. At times, I can not distinguish what is more insulting, the fact that a majority of scholars of color are absent and replaced by a Black person who is not able to handle themselvs in a critical argument with someone on the “Right” or the manner in which these media outlets bring on Blacks who agree that racism is not a factor and Blacks are to blame for their current situation. Regardless, the information is then easily and blindly ingested by other sitting on their couches around the country. But, I think this particular show will be interesting. Tonight on CNN at 8:00p.m. (E.T.) they will be discussing the rate of Black male homicides in the U.S.
Wallace Matthews, in an article titled “Racial issues part of Vick backdrop,” in today’s Newsday, writes that “there still is a sizable portion of the American public that believes none of this would be happening” if Vick were white. Matthews goes on to say:
“Speaking as a middle-aged white male, not particularly a dog lover but of the belief that breeding, encouraging and just watching two animals fight to the death is in some way depraved, it hurts to know that there are some who think I would feel differently about the Vick situation if he were white.
It hurts even more to admit that in some way, maybe they are right. Maybe race does play a role in everything that happens in this country. For my own sanity and peace of mind, I choose to believe not. I think – and I hope – that Vick is going down solely on the merits of his case.
Clearly, there is hypocrisy in a society that is more outraged with Vick than, say, Brett Myers, who was charged with smacking his wife in full view of witnesses in downtown Boston, or would seek to ban Vick from the NFL while embracing Ray Lewis as ‘God’s Linebacker.’
But that doesn’t change the fact that Vick’s crime baffles the sensibilities to the point that you wonder if there is something seriously wrong with him. Don’t tell me about his upbringing or his environment, please. Unless he was raised by Charles Manson or Son of Sam – both white men, by the way – he would have to know that executing dogs was wrong.
That would be true if Vick were black, white or pinstriped, and you would hope that everyone would see it that way.
But the Vick case once again exposes the great racial divide in this country, in which people who interact daily, conduct civil conversations with one another and even regard each other as “friends” can look at the same individual, the same incident, and see it completely differently.
It reminds us that this ‘one nation under God’ is, in fact, made up of White America and Black America, and sometimes it seems as if there are certain issues we will never agree upon.”
There’s really so much that’s misguided, confused and just plain offensive, in Matthews’ piece it’s hard to know where to begin to discuss it all. As an easy get, let’s start with the fact that Matthews resorts to referring to the racial identity possibilities for Vick as including “black, white or pinstriped.” Now, I know that Matthews is a New York-based sports writer, but when did “pinstriped” get to be a racial identity? Is that a reference to the Yankees or to people who are biracial? At the very least, it suggests a lack of understanding about racial politics in the U.S.
I think what is most telling in Matthew’s piece is that it “hurts him” to think that “race does play a role in everything that happens in this country.” And, for his “own sanity/peace of mind” he choose to believe that’s not the case. Remarkable admission, really, when you think about it. I suggest that Matthews consider the kind of racial privilege he enjoys that allows him to ignore racial politics at his leisure and affords him that kind of “sanity/peace of mind.”
After comparing the Vick case to the O.J. Simpson and Kobe Bryant cases, Matthews continues:
“At times like these, it becomes obvious that black people and white people fear and mistrust one another far more than either group cares to acknowledge. We seem leery of each other’s motives and intentions. Each group seems to think the other is out to get them.
To my white, middle-aged mind, the Vick case is as clear-cut as they come. In fact, the prosecutors must have had plenty more on him for Vick to accept a plea without going to trial.
Yet, to others, this is one more example of how The Man has brought down another rich, successful, young black celebrity. To them, the prosecution of Vick is really a persecution based on race and wealth, a McCarthy-like witch hunt for a minor offense no white man would have had to answer for.
It is understandable that Black Americans, justifiably mistrustful of the police and the justice system, would believe Vick to be just another victim of a racist society. We all have seen enough evidence, from the Scottsboro Boys to Rodney King, to know that such things can and do happen. And it is conceivable that dogfighting, so abhorrent to many of us raised in the Northeast, could be shrugged off as another form of rough entertainment, like boxing, to those who grew up in the South.
But none of that absolves Vick, who has lived a life of wealth and privilege for a long time now, who had run his dogfighting operation for more than five years, and who certainly was aware enough that he was doing something wrong to have kept it a secret, and lied to his employer and the NFL commissioner when asked about it.
No, Vick wasn’t set up and he wasn’t railroaded. By his own admission, he did the crime. Now he will do the time. When his time is served, he deserves to get what every American is entitled to: another chance.
At the very least, perhaps all of us, black and white, can agree on that.”
Matthew’s stance in this piece is really a triumph over cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, he acknowledges in a dozen or so ways the deep, racial divide in this country and the fact that Black Americans would do well to be distrustful of the white establishment. Then, on the other hand, when racial politics make him uncomfortable (for whatever reason), this threatens his “sanity” or “peace of mind,” and can then be chaulked up to an ill-defined, inarticulate paranoia about “The Man.”
So, what we have here is a self-described “middle-aged, white male” in American finds racial politics puzzling. Nothing new in that I suppose.