Salon op-ed compares Melissa Harris-Perry to Bachmann, KKK

Sep 29, 2011 by

Yesterday, published an op-ed by white liberal columnist Gene Lyons in response to Melissa Harris-Perry's recent writing for The Nation on racism as a factor in declining white liberal support for the President. Rather than disagreeing thoughtfully and respectfully with Harris-Perry's argument, Lyons chose not to focus on criticizing the substance of her articles but instead on attacking her as a black female intellectual.

The short version: Lyons dismissed Harris-Perry as a "fool" and "a left-wing Michele Bachmann, an attractive woman seeking fame and fortune by saying silly things on cable TV." He claimed her argument that white racism may be a factor in liberal disillusionment with POTUS is a "photonegative of KKK racial thought," and dismissed her writings on race as "useful for intimidating tenure committees staffed by Ph.D.s trained to find racist symbols in the passing clouds." On top of all that, Lyons mocks black experiences of racism and our right to speak out about it thus: "Furthermore, unless you're black, you can't possibly understand. Yada, yada, yada. This unfortunate obsession…"

There's absolutely no question that this is an outright attack on Prof. Harris-Perry's race, gender, and professional accomplishments. Even more disturbing, it's an attack on all black people and all other people of color who dare to study or publicly raise the issue of racism on the left.

Lyons makes no serious attempt to engage with, much less disprove Harris-Perry's hypothesis. Instead he tries to discredit her by sexualizing her appearance and portrays her as a silly, greedy, self-interested woman with nothing of worth to contribute to public discourse. He basically mocks her for having a Ph.D and dismisses her training and expertise as not just worthless, but actually fraudulent ("trained to find racist symbols in the passing clouds"). Again, this is not just about a personal attack; his comments imply that the entire field of critical race studies is a joke and a con.

Lyons' comparison of Harris-Perry, a careful, accomplished, and much respected scholar of race, to Michele Bachmann, a woman who believes that black families were better off under slavery and praises the policies of an era where the U.S. placed racial and geographic caps on immigration, is particularly outrageous. Given that virtually the only thing Bachmann and Harris-Perry have in common is their gender and presence in the public sphere, Lyons' implication that any woman he disagrees with must not be worth listening to is unmistakable. So too is his apparent belief that the physical appearance of any woman who exist in public is open to his appraisal.

The bottom line is that Harris-Perry's great offense is daring to be a black woman, publicly saying something about race that Gene Lyons didn't like and found irritating. And this irritation apparently justifies thinking that being a black woman with an opinion on race a white liberal finds inconvenient is tantamount to the kind of racial thinking that led to black people being lynched, burned alive, raped, beaten, and terrorized by white Klansmen. Lyons clearly either has no clue what the KKK did, or simply doesn't care. He clearly needs an education, or a reminder, in what the effects of actual KKK racial thought looked like [warning: images of violence]. To take this history so lightly as to use it as a tool to lecture people of color about how we should talk about race, as a label to undermine a woman of color, is an incredible affront to all people of color and a breathtaking display of clueless white privilege.

This is how white privilege and racism work. Lyons' article is poorly written and incoherently argued. He makes comparisons that are logically and factually insupportable, and wildly inappropriate and irresponsible. His thinking on race and gender is both prejudiced and sloppy, yet he got paid to mock someone who is trained to think and write about race, and has done so with distinction. And he got the privilege of being paid to do all this in a nationally respected "progressive" new media publication.

This is so much more than an attack on one black scholar. If Salon allows this article to stand without making any comments or apologies, it's sending a chilling message to people of color and anyone who attempts to have an honest, substantive discussion about race in American politics.

Salon is sending the message that it's appropriate for a white man to equate a black woman talking about race to violent white supremacist thinking, which supported a decades-long campaign of racial terrorism that devastated countless black bodies and communities; to use black people's history of enduring and surviving domestic white terrorism as a weapon against us, simply because we point to the continued legacy of the forces and attitudes that drove such terrorism in the first place; to undermine the credibility of an entire field of study pioneered by and centered on people of color because he finds it annoying; to denigrate the physical appearance, educational achievements, and intellectual competence of women he disagrees with. They're sending the message that they are comfortable with paying writers who rely on white male privilege rather than logic, fact, and nuance to make their arguments.


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  1. Wow. Just, wow. When it comes to issues of race, I find Melissa Harris-Perry to be one of the most perceptive and nuanced commentators in America.

    If Gene Lyons were half as good a writer and a thinker as Melissa Harris-Perry, he could have critiqued her logic without hamhandedly attacking her intelligence, her motives and her character. His thesis could have been, "I disagree that white liberals' disappointment is motivated by race and instead posit that their attitudes are more about Obama's failure to achieve the soaring vision he proposed during the presidential race" or "People liked Clinton better because the economy was good under Clinton" or whatever he thinks the reason for Obama's poor approval rating among whites is. What he wrote instead isn't even worthy of publication in a high school newspaper, let alone Salon.

    I can only conclude that Lyons felt threatened by what Harris-Perry wrote. Which sort of proves her point.

  2. I missed seeing this piece when it was first posted, but I'm glad I caught up with it. I totally agree that Lyons' response proved MHP's point. In fact, the startling speed with which many white liberals who'd formerly praised Dr. Harris-Perry's work work instead became icy dismissal of her ideas proved her point too.

    It's dismaying that "lefty" critique points out systems but often cannot account for its own immersion in that same system of power relations. Defensive, angry, scared responses devolve into individualized denials of racism and re-enactments of epistemic violence ("prove racism exists"/"your sovereign subjectivity is conditioned upon my validation").

    It's a tremendous and painful blind spot to encounter among allies. Seriously, are we blaming an African American president for the racism generated by those who can't handle that he's black? That can't be right.

    And it leads to dangerous thought pathways, because the answer cannot always be: get a white progressive (and a "real" one at that) in there to do the job. How is white privilege ever dismantled, at what point is a POC (a woman, someone LGBT, non-Christian, etc) ever able to hold the nation's highest office if we do not find an effective counter to Tea Party/resurgent "Southern Strategy" racism? This problem is bigger than Obama. If we'd had Clinton as president, I'm firmly convinced the same faction that's threatened by Obama would be having analogous obstructionist seizures over HRC's presidency. Surely the overt misogyny we saw during the primary would convince anyone of that. Had HRC been president, would we now secretly be concluding that it'd be better if we'd had a man as president instead? That can't be right either.

    It's the parallel yearning for LBJ, FDR, or any other heroic (and deeply flawed) white and male progressive of an earlier era that is such a disappointment to me. Because this wishful thinking reinscribes privilege in the name of a narrow progressivism. It flees intersectionality and true coalition-building before giving it a real chance. And it abdicates responsibility that we all have to dismantle the systemic cudgels that a freaked out right will use against any president it is threatened by.

  3. r4

    Lyons' article is poorly written and incoherently argued. He makes comparisons that are logically and factually insupportable, and wildly inappropriate and irresponsible.