Tuesday, September 27, 2011

When Racism Talk is Counterproductive?

I have been following the recent kerfuffle between Melissa Harris-Perry and her critics over whether white liberals are holding President Obama to higher standard than they would a similarly-situated White President and whether this double standard is evidence of white liberal racism.  I'm a big fan of Professor Harris-Perry's work; she is one of the more insightful voices in pundit land. I am also sympathetic to what she wanted to do in the piece.  Specifically, I think what I take to be the essence of her claim--that on average, black citizens see the political world differently that white liberals--is an important point. But I think the column is generally off the mark on the racism charge and it does a disservice to the essence of the claim, which does deserve a hearing.  This is one example of where I think racism talk is counterproductive and I'll say more about that below.  Professor Harris-Perry also offered a response to the critics, which I found useful in parts and unpersuasive in other parts.  Here I'll focus on the main article.

Let's meet the charges.  In a recent article that has apparently caused a firestorm, Professor Harris-Perry writes:
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.
Professor Harris-Perry then explains that White liberals are guilty of electoral racism because they are abandoning President Obama when they did not abandon the last Democratic President Bill Clinton, even though Obama's record as president is similar to that of Bill Clinton's record at comparable periods in their respective tenures.

Harris-Perry's argument seems quite simple on its face, but requires a lot of assumptions/factual assertions that makes her argument pretty easy to attack and the responses to her argument quite predictable.  First, are white liberals in fact abandoning President Obama?  What is the evidence for that claim?  Second, is Obama comparable to Clinton (Harris-Perry's preferred baseline)?  That is, isn't Obama's performance in office worse than Clinton's performance as president. Third, did white liberals fail to criticize Clinton?  Fourth, what about the fact that African-American leaders have also been quite vocal in their criticism of the President and that support for the President among African Americans has started to soften?  Are they alone entitled to be critical and unsupportive?  Fifth, assuming that there is a double standard, what is the evidence that it is racial?  Maybe white liberals are more impatient now than they were under Clinton.  Maybe the expectation for Obama was greater because of his campaign rhetoric.  Or maybe the stakes are higher now than they were under Clinton. Or maybe there is now a more militant and more vigilant liberal base that came of age post-Clinton.  Sixth, Harris-Perry's temporal comparisons are not comparable.  She's comparing Clinton's reelection numbers to Obama's current popularity. Seventh, isn't the charge of racism simply a political move meant to silence the President's perceived opponents? Etc.

The bottom line here is that there are a number of strategies for meeting and parrying the racism charge.  The response to Professor Harris-Perry has been quite predictably along the lines outlined above, though of course not as systematic.  See for example Salon's Joan Walsh's piece, Salon's David Sirota's response, and Corey Robin's here. These responses are generally hard-hitting, but not unexpected when one accuses people of racism.  I found most of the responses, at least the serious ones, generally thoughtful.  By that I meant they met the claim on its merits and attempted to refute the claim with merits-based arguments.

To accuse someone (or a group of someones) of racism is to level a significant charge that requires the complainant to meet a great burden.  In my view, Professor Harris-Perry did not meet her burden which left her open to the rejoinder that the racism charge is too facile and misguided. By the same token, I think the critics missed the core of Professor Harris-Perry's complaint, which is that disparate racial perceptions are consequential.  But I also think that that core complaint was occluded by the charge of racism, which is why racism talk here is ineffectual.

This exchange between Professor Harris-Perry and her critics is an example where racism talk is counterproductive.  Those times include when the complainant has not met his or her burden of proof and when the real aim of the complaint is not so much racism but disparate impact.  Disparate impact can be the product of racial animus and racism, but that is not always so.  Moreover, simply because a disparate impact is not the product of conscious and intentional racial animus does not mean that disparate impact is irrelevant to racial justice.  In the context of Professor Harris-Perry's column, I would much rather have a discussion on disparate racial perceptions than a discussion on whether white liberals are racist.  (Thus, for example, when Professor Harris-Perry writes in her response to her critics that perceptions of racial inequality by folks of color ought to count, I think that opens a real avenue for conversation about the agency of citizens of color this democratic polity and how far perceptions of legitimacy ought to take us.)

Though I think that Professor Harris-Perry's initial column failed to meet its burden of proof, it was not clear to me how to take her response to her critics.  In her response to her critics, she sought to expose three "common discursive strategies that are meant to discredit" those of us who write about race and politics.   I'll only focus on the first strategy here. The first strategy of the critics is to demand proof of racism.   Professor Harris-Perry observes:

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. 

. . . .
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.
 I think Professor Harris-Perry is clearly right that intentional racism does not exhaust the racial inequality category.  However, I also think that race scholars need to be much more precise about what they mean by racism.  In particular, I think we need to do a better job of theorizing the link between racial inequality and disparate impact.  Keeping with what I've said above, it is not clear to me that it is helpful, either rhetorically or theoretically, to call disparate racial impact racism when disparate racial impact is unmoored from intentional racial discrimination.  (Here's a hypo: suppose you find out that one of the most liberal members of the Supreme Court after reasonably opportunity has never hired a black clerk, is that Justice a racist?  Is it useful to label that Justice a racist?  Or should we simply talk about why that practice is problematic and leads to racial inequality?  Are we better off taking about making sure that all doors are open to all regardless of race, or are we better off by saying that Justice so and so is a racist.)  If Professor Harris-Perry is urging us to broaden our concept of racial equality outside of a racism/not-racism frame or racism-as-intentional discrimination construct, I think that's helpful.  If she's saying that racial inequality claims are hard to prove and therefore claimants should be relieved of proof, then she's off the mark.

I was not sure how to process the other two claims, so I won't dwell on them here.  My bottom line is two-fold.  First, when scholars or intellectuals of color (or anyone else for that matter) level a charge of racism, we need to meet our burden of proof.  Second, we also need to think hard about when it is productive to talk about racism and when it is productive to talk about practices or perceptions that lead to racial inequality even though there is not a bad actor that serves as the prime mover.

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