A few weeks ago, I wrote an essay that got me a much larger truckload of hate mail than usual. The piece concerned the persistent problem of denialism in parts of White America when it comes to race. I lamented how, despite media and political insinuations that whites have become an oppressed group, it is people of color — and in particular, African Americans — who remain the real casualties of discrimination:
You can see [this racism] in black unemployment rates, which are twice as high as white unemployment rates — a disparity that persists even when controlling for education levels. You can see it in a 2004 MIT study showing that job-seekers with “white names receive 50 percent more callbacks for interviews” than job seekers with comparable resumes and “African-American-sounding names.” And you can see it in a news media that looks like an all-white country club and a U.S. Senate that includes no black legislators.
I stand by my argument. It is a fact that the most problematic and widespread application of this denialism takes the form represented by white conservatives who angrily insist that racism against minorities is not only dead, but that African Americans enjoy undue favoritism.
That said, as the 2012 presidential campaign begins in earnest, we are seeing a new strain of fact-free denialism — one that is not as dangerous as that coming from the right, but one that is nonetheless counterproductive to the cause of racial equality.
This iteration, exquisitely outlined in the Nation magazine last week by Tulane professor/MSNBC contributor Melissa Harris-Perry, insists that liberals’ rising dissatisfaction with President Obama is primarily motivated not by the president’s failure to pursue his campaign promises, his aggressive embrace of Bush policies he promised to oppose, his inexplicable fealty to the recession-creating oligarchs on Wall Street, or even the recession itself. Instead, the argument goes that, despite all these factors (factors which depressed enthusiasm in the past for white presidential candidates), and despite white liberals voting in droves for Obama in 2008, this progressive dissatisfaction is motivated by racism.
To support her thesis, Harris-Perry argues that bigotry can be seen in a supposed racist “double standard” whereby white liberals today “hold African-American leaders to a higher standard than their white counterparts.” She 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.
The relevant comparison here is with the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton. Today many progressives complain that Obama’s healthcare reform was inadequate because it did not include a public option; but Clinton failed to pass any kind of meaningful healthcare reform whatsoever. Others argue that Obama has been slow to push for equal rights for gay Americans; but it was Clinton who established the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy Obama helped repeal….Today, America’s continuing entanglements in Iraq and Afghanistan provoke anger, but while Clinton reduced defense spending, covert military operations were standard practice during his administration…
[These] are comparisons of two centrist Democratic presidents who faced hostile Republican majorities in the second half of their first terms… One president is white. The other is black. [Obama's] 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.
There’s no doubt that modern racism does translate into White America as a whole often applying different standards to white and black public figures. (As just one example of that troubling dynamic, see this column I wrote during the 2008 election, noting that while Obama was hammered for his relationship with the black pastor Jeremiah Wright, the media ignored the fact that: A. “John McCain solicited the endorsement of John Hagee — the pastor who called the Catholic Church ‘a great whore,’” and B. Hillary Clinton both belongs to the “Fellowship” — a secretive group “dedicated to ‘spiritual war’ on behalf of Christ” — and is friendly with Billy Graham, the reverend caught on tape spewing anti-Semitism.)
However, just because double-standard racism exists, that doesn’t mean it’s the automatic, case-closed explanation for every political problem faced by African American public figures — especially politicians who are serving during recessions and who have made deliberate base-shattering decisions. Indeed, Harris-Perry’s attempt to invoke the very real phenomenon of racist double standards as a means of explaining away President Obama’s electoral troubles in 2012 willfully ignores a number of important facts.
First and foremost among these is the fact that President Clinton was not “enthusiastically re-elected,” as Harris-Perry well knows. When Clinton triangulated against his liberal base with NAFTA, welfare reform and “don’t ask, don’t tell” (among other issues), he faced just as vociferous liberal criticism as Obama does today, and in the very journals like The Nation for which Harris-Perry now writes.
As a result, America saw the opposite of “enthusiasm” in 1996 — that presidential election, in fact, saw unprecedentedly low turnout. Additionally, Clinton — after dissing his base — won a meager 49 percent of the vote in that election, despite running against one of the weakest, least charismatic Republican presidential nominees in recent memory. In short, just as many white liberals were dissatisfied with a white president for abandoning the Democratic Party’s base back in 1996, so too are many now dissatisfied with a black president for doing the same — or, in many cases, worse.
That “worse” part is another issue that goes unmentioned in Harris-Perry’s denialist screed. In many ways, President Obama’s triangulation against the Democratic base has been far more blatant and overt than even Bill Clinton’s was (though again: many progressives — including me — were and remain as consistently critical of the substance of the Clinton record as they’ve been of the Obama record). The key point is that Obama is a president who hasn’t merely tried but failed to achieve what he promised to achieve. He has deliberately and publicly worked to do the opposite of what he promised on key issues.
This is a president who as a candidate railed on adventurist wars and promised to seek congressional authorization for new wars — and then turned around and initiated new adventurist wars without congressional authorization.
Obama is also a man who criticized Bush-era civil liberties policies as a candidate and then as president not only extended those policies — but, in many cases, actually made them worse. Among other things, he has pressed for longer Patriot Act extensions than congressional Republicans, added bipartisan legitimacy to warrantless wiretapping (which he explicitly promised to end) and claimed autocratic powers that even the extremist Bush administration never dared to claim (for example, the power to assassinate American citizens without charge).
And let’s not forget trade and health care. Candidate Obama promised to renegotiate NAFTA and reform the corresponding free-trade template that has cost Americans so many jobs. He also repeatedly pledged to champion a public option to compete with private health insurers and promised to push for legislation allowing Medicare to negotiate lower drug prices with pharmaceutical companies. Now, President Obama is pushing a new series of NAFTA-like deals in Panama, South Korea and Colombia. And, as we now know, he didn’t merely try but fail to pass a public option or the Medicare drug-negotiation provisions — he actively used his power to eliminate those provisions from the final health care bill.
Taken together, we see that Obama — as opposed to Clinton, who at least paid (often empty) rhetorical homage to liberalism — has proudly and publicly stomped on the very progressive promises that got him elected.
By seeing this record and then explaining away declining liberal support for President Obama as a product of bigotry, Harris-Perry exhibits the ultimate form of both denialism and elitism. It assumes voters (and readers of The Nation) are all lockstep partisans who don’t — and shouldn’t — care about actual issues, public policies and governmental actions, and that they should instead just line up with their party’s leaders without question. It further assumes — without any factual evidence — that if and when voters don’t follow this partisan script, it means that some deeper psychological factor like racism (rather than, say, rational, considered analysis of public policy) is the primary motivating factor in their behavior.
Betraying the arrogant elitism at the heart of such an argument, Harris-Perry declares that the “legislative record for [Obama's] first two years outpaces Clinton’s first two years” — a line which suggests that Obama is automatically more deserving of liberal support than Clinton. Yet, in making this part of the basis of her “electoral racism” allegations, she implies that liberal voters are so ignorant that they automatically believe sheer numbers of bills passed trumps what’s actually in the bills. She hopes — or, perhaps, believes — that nobody remembers that many of those bills (the Patriot Act extension, the extension of the Bush tax cuts, the bank bailouts, the no-public-option health insurance give-away legislation, to name a few) were initiatives that many liberals opposed.
Now, for argument’s sake, let’s assume that somehow none of these aforementioned betrayals on war, civil liberties, trade and healthcare might move liberal voters away from a politician. What about this other factor, which also goes unmentioned in Harris-Perry’s argument:
Yes, that’s right — today’s unemployment rate is almost double what it was back in 1996. Though that’s certainly not exclusively Obama’s fault, a shockingly steep rise in unemployment has occurred under his presidency, meaning his economic record, something Harris-Perry doesn’t explicitly address, is in no way “comparable” to Clinton’s leading up to the 1996 elections. On top of that, we’re facing a crushing foreclosure crisis, record increases in poverty and stagnant GDP growth — all factors that were nonexistant at this point in Clinton’s presidency. By ignoring these issues and the data showing that economic factors (fairly or unfairly) typically determine presidential elections, Harris-Perry’s essay sounds a lot like a deliberately deceptive pro-Obama propaganda.
Then, of course, there are the intangible factors of different times and lessons learned — also unmentioned by Harris-Perry.
The truth is that some liberals may be holding President Obama “to a higher standard” than previous Democratic presidents like Bill Clinton — not because they are racist, but because the times have so momentously changed. With the Wall Street collapse and the economic emergency — combined with Obama’s FDR-like rhetoric and much bigger margin of victory and electoral mandate than Clinton — many were rightly expecting a more FDR-ish posture from the new president, especially because he himself had explicitly promised that kind of posture on the campaign.
For their part, many liberals have learned the painful lesson of meekly accepting so-called “centrism” (read: neoliberal deregulation and GOP appeasement) from the Clinton years, and took Obama at his own word when he told America that the nation would be getting a different, higher standard with his presidency (anyone remember Obama chastising Clintonian triangulation?). Additionally, though Harris-Perry would have us forget this, we shouldn’t ignore the now unmentionable fact that Obama had historic congressional majorities in his first two years — majorities that were bigger than those Clinton had.
Tellingly, Harris-Perry also fails to mention perhaps the most inconvenient fact of all: the fact that Obama has been heavily criticized by African American political leaders and has seen a huge drop in support not just from whites, but from African Americans. As the Washington Post reports:
New cracks have begun to show in President Obama’s support amongst African Americans, who have been his strongest supporters. Five months ago, 83 percent of African Americans held “strongly favorable” views of Obama, but in a new Washington Post-ABC news poll that number has dropped to 58 percent. That drop is similar to slipping support for Obama among all groups.
When the polls show a similar decline in Obama support among African Americans, can anyone credibly argue that racism is the primary explanation for dropping white liberal support for Obama? Considering this, and Harris-Perry’s refusal to note these facts in her essay, her argument is exposed as more than a mere stretch. It looks like calculatedly fact-free misinformation — and misinformation with potentially huge negative consequences.
As I noted earlier, there’s lots of racism in America, and yes, some of it has come from self-described liberals (see, as just two representative examples, Geraldine Ferraro’s hideous comments about Obama and Time magazine’s Joe Klein’s grotesque column on Rep. John Conyers). And that’s obviously a real problem. But it doesn’t justify a public figure circumventing hugely important facts and suggesting that all — or even most — progressive dissatisfaction with President Obama is somehow proof that white liberals (who helped elect Obama to office) have allowed racism to dictate their political reactions. In fact, using such overly broad rhetoric to ignore legitimate, fact-based progressive dissent — and doing so in a liberal magazine like the Nation without marshaling a single empirical fact to support the accusation — does great harm to the cause of racial equality.
For instance, it diverts attention from the real and persistent bigotry in America against people of color, and distracts from the genuinely destructive racism being directed at President Obama from the far right. It also needlessly undermines the hard-earned credibility of the larger — and critically important — anti-racist movement in America by adding credence to the right’s dishonest argument that any criticism of Obama — no matter how substantive — is unfairly and unduly billed as racism.
But, then, at its core, we must remember that the particular form of denialism represented by Harris-Perry is not really about it’s stated goal of combatting bigotry — it is about raw, no-holds-barred partisanship in our red-versus-blue politics.
In this case, Harris-Perry, a longtime lockstep Obama defender, is making the argument in order to contribute to a broader campaign aimed at shutting down principled progressive dissent about this White House’s record. Whether her jeremiad and others like it are aimed at pre-emptively preventing a Democratic presidential primary, or simply aimed at strengthening overall liberal support for Obama in the general election, such denialism tries to fabricate an equivalency between ugly race-motivated opposition to President Obama from the white-supremacist far right, and principled — and perfectly rational — opposition to him from the left. It aims to do to discredit substantive progressive questions about the gap between Obama’s rhetoric and his actions in advance of the 2012 campaign.
Doing that may or may not help Obama in the short term. But it almost certainly harms the larger civil rights movement by flippantly sacrificing that critical movement on the altar of short-term political expediency. Indeed, the outrage here is not that there is predictable and well-justified liberal dissatisfaction with the current White House. It is that in the heat of a campaign season, some public figures now seem so governed by personal political loyalty that they are willing to exploit the cause of racial equality by turning it into just another transparently partisan political weapon.