Yes, There Is Racism on the Left

There’s a culture war erupting on the left. I guess Melissa Harris-Perry started it, by claiming in her recent article in The Nation, where she dared to suggest that maybe, just maybe, our current President is held to a higher standard than previous Presidents of any political persuasion because he happens to be the first African-American to be elected to the Office.

The article has provoked an outcry amongst the left, notwithstanding several well-known talking heads – not only because of Harris-Perry’s comparison of the current Administration with that of the last Democratic President, Bill Clinton, but also because Harris-Perry dares to suggest that the underlying cause of many Progressives’ abandonment of the President may be an indication of subliminal racism.

In 1996 President Clinton was re-elected with a coalition more robust and a general election result more favorable than his first win. His vote share among women increased from 46 to 53 percent, among blacks from 83 to 84 percent, among independents from 38 to 42 percent, and among whites from 39 to 43 percent.

President Obama has experienced a swift and steep decline in support among white Americans—from 61 percent in 2009 to 33 percent now. 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.

I happen to agree with Harris-Perry’s assessment, but I also accept that it’s only natural that many on the left vehemently deny that there be any racial motive at all in their perceived abandonment and disillusionment of the President.

After all, no one wants to admit to any racism of any sort. Even the most strident Tea Partier, standing under a banner of Barack Obama as a stereotypical African native or holding a stuffed monkey called “Little Hussein,” would admit any sort of racism, no matter how overt their manifestations were.

In fact, more people on both the right and the left will admit to sexist attitudes than will ever admit to harbouring a racist thought; but funny enough, just as many on the left are called out by their own for their sexism, they, too, revert to denial.

Yet this is also a fact: sexism and racism aren’t confined exlusively to the right. Regarding racism, I have a sneaking suspicion (and it’s only my opinion) that many on the left thought they’d purged the Democratic Party of its perceived racist element when, forty years ago, its new appropriators turned their back on the old base – the rural Southern and Midwestern working class and the industrial workers in the Rust Belt, as well as the old union chieftains.

As Senator James Webb and the late Joe Bageant both, painstakingly, reiterated in their books, Born Fighting and Deer-Hunting with Jesus, the newly-controlling element in the Democratic party, some forty years ago pushed, relentlessly, the idea that this particular abandoned demographic was totally and utterly racist, irredeemably so.

They were the herd-following albatross around the new Progressive idealogues who’d taken over. They were to be tolerated, but not encouraged; and they were definitely not for engaging. Just let them turn out in numbers when election day rolled around. After all, they couldn’t really relate to Republicans, could they?

That thesis worked so well. Not.

Neither did it rid the newly-minted Progressive Democrats of any shred of racism either. Even though Joan Walsh’s meandering rebuttal of her “professional friend’s” opinion piece eventually ends with a smug, self-congratulatory pat on the back to Democrats for “fighting racism” for forty years (whilst ignoring economic issues, according to Joan, ever moving the goalposts in a tactic learned from the Tea Partying right), the “fight” is really just a euphemism for sweeping the problem under the carpet and looking the other way.

Anyone who came of age during the 1970s – and that includes Joan, as well as myself – would know that Affirmative Action (which was designed to help both racial minorities and women) was only ever designed to give those minorities and those women a small piece of the pie going up the ladder. At the end of the day, the white male would always prevail in society.

I had no doubt from the very beginning of his Presidency, that Barack Obama would be held to a higher standard because of his race, just as I had no doubt, had Hillary Clinton won, that she would be held to almost the same standard because of her gender. People closely examined John Kennedy’s Presidency for evidence that he was, in some way, kowtowing to the Pope instead of the Constitution. I suppose the same would hold true should Mitt Romney (heaven forbid!) assume the Oval Office, regarding his faith, which many assume to be a cult and unChristian.

Even the President’s oldest daughter, who was ten when he was inaugurated, remarked that as he was the nation’s first African-American President he’d “better be good.” So much for out of the mouths of babes and sucklings.

The very unease and anger that’s unleashed every time people from the left try to call their own out on racist remarks – or rather, remarks that ooze white privilege – is remarkable. Recently, we’ve had the Michael Moore-Bill Maher kerfuffle as well as Markos Moulitsas purging his Daily Kos site of most of the African-American participants because they dared speak out on perceived racist remarks made by his overly-white, overly-male contingent of regulars.

Also interesting is how people respond when race or racism is presented. Suddenly, the person mentioning it is perceived to be racist, and in the remarks accompanying Joan Walsh’s rebuttal, there are many Progressives alleging that Melissa Harris-Perry, herself, is racist in making these claims. Considering the fact that, like the President, Harris-Perry is biracial, those allegations not only reek of Teabaggery, they’re straight from the Glenn Beck School of Deep-Seeded Hatred of White People.


One of the reasons Joan Walsh refutes Harris-Perry’s claims is that the professor (another biracial professor, yes?) offers no proof through polling figures. Firstly, that’s absurd. As I said, who, apart from white supremacists and open Klan members (one and the same) are even going to admit to racist tendencies?

Harris-Perry counters that eloquently in her inevitable response to Walsh’s article:-

The first is a common strategy of asking any person of color who identifies a racist practice or pattern to “prove” that racism is indeed the causal factor. This is typically demanded by those who are certain of their own purity of racial motivation. The implication is if one cannot produce irrefutable evidence of clear, blatant and intentional bias, then racism must be banned as a possibility. But this is both silly as an intellectual claim and dangerous as a policy standard…

Progressives and liberals should be particularly careful when they demand proof of intentionality rather than evidence of disparate impact in conversations about racism. Recall that initially the 1964 Civil Rights Act made “disparate impact” a sufficient evidentiary claim for racial bias…

I believe we must be careful and judicious in our conversations about racism. But I also believe that those who demand proof of interpersonal intention to create a racist outcome are missing the point about how racism works. Racism is not exclusively about hooded Klansmen; it is also about the structures of bias and culture of privilege that infect the left as well…

It is completely possible that I am absolutely wrong about white racial bias on the left against President Obama. Certainly, it wouldn’t be the first time I was wrong in my political analysis. But listen to this for a moment white allies: many African-Americans (not all, but many) feel that the attacks on President Obama are racialized on both the right and the left. This feeling has meaningful implications for the quality of our national, political fabric. When we tell you that the attacks are racially troubling, painful, we would like you to take our concerns seriously rather than working to simply defend yourself against the claims

Taking race and gender seriously as objects of academic inquiry is widely maligned, particularly in a social and political world that sees itself through the rose-colored lenses of self-congratulatory post-racialism.

I totally agree with this. People who’ve experienced racism or sexism, either directly or indirectly, learn to recognize the dog whistles and the euphemism. No less than that great Republican ratfucker, himself, the late Lee Atwater, who would never call himself a racist, spoke about how, over the years, people learned to use different words and phrases that weren’t directly racist, but were just as racially charged; and the political operative, Atwater, wasn’t afraid to use these apparati to achieve his ends, either.

Friday night, in no uncertain words, former Congresswoman Jane Harman handed Bill Maher his ass because she was offended by an overtly sexist remark he made about another woman. Bill went into coniption fits of denial that only made him look all the more the creepy misogynist he is. (And the left promotes women’s rights). It was no coincidence that another member of the Maher panel, Michael Moore, who’d been castigated by women’s groups for offhanded remarks made about alleged rape victims, kept his mouth shut.

Melissa Harris-Perry and other people of color have easily and frequently detected the not-so-subtle racism and dog whistles emanating from the left, particularly in the euphemistic language that reeks of Atwater, which all-too-often pervades the unending and wanton criticism of this President. In fact, the level of criticism from the left this President has endured has resulted from the higher standard imposed upon him by those people who really should be his allies.

When Bill Clinton’s compromises with the controlling Republican Party were, by-and-large, accepted by the left, one wonders why the same demographic brands Barack Obama as “weak” when he effects a compromise with a Republican Party which would make that one controlled by Newt Gingrich look like flaming liberals. One has only to look at assorted pundits, prior to any Presidential address, tell the nation what they think the President should say, and then listen to their carps after the fact, regarding their perceived inadequacy of the President’s performance. Or just consider the number of people from the left who have publically ridiculed the President as a “moron” or a “pussy” or a “coward.” I wonder if their white privilege abounds in the ignorance that it was a common myth propagated by white society of the weakness and cowardice of the black man?

No one, least of all Melissa Harris-Perry, is saying that the white Progressives abandoning the President are racist, but a lot of their criticisms – including the revising of Hillary Clinton as the Progressives’ dream girl – is not without an element of racism.

Racism doesn’t recognise any particular political idealogy.

Edited by Wendy Gittleson