White supremacy wins again: Melissa Harris Perry and the racial false equivalence

What costs white folks a slap on the wrist, or a mildly disapproving look, costs black people our dignity

Topics: MSNBC, Media Criticism, Race, Melissa Harris-Perry, Cable News, Racism, Mitt Romney, Apology, Editor's Picks, ,

White supremacy wins again: Melissa Harris Perry and the racial false equivalenceMelissa Harris-Perry (Credit: MSNBC)

On Sunday, Mitt Romney graciously accepted Melissa Harris-Perry’s apology for making his African-American grandson, Kieran, the butt of jokes during a segment on the last episode of her show in December. To the extent that MHP violated a long-standing rule of political journalism, namely that children are off-limits, I understand why she felt compelled to make an apology. And she offered a genuine and sincere model of how it should be done, a lesson that far more people on the right need to learn.

Still, in my view, MHP took the high road in a situation where she became an unfair target, left at the mercy of the right’s utter dishonesty on questions of race. The GOP is notoriously averse at the policy level to the social and political condition of African-Americans, and this has been demonstrated in everything from attempts to disenfranchise black voters to the wholesale turn to obstructionism as a primary governing strategy. No, Mitt Romney’s black grandson is not responsible for his grandfather’s dubious political views. But he will most certainly be raised in a family where at least one of his uncles once quipped about punching the president in the face. In other words, he will grow to be a black man not only in a politically conservative family with “interesting” views on race, but also in a family that believes in a religion that openly discriminated against Blacks until the 1970s.

Since race still matters, these observations matter, too. And though it is not polite to express this kind of ambivalence about transracial adoption, you can best believe that a whole lot of black folks saw the picture and shook their heads. For good or ill, we care about the lives and livelihoods of little black boys. And we wonder what kind of man Kieran will grow up to be. We know that the lie we are being asked to believe is that the Romneys, despite their politics and religious affiliations, have transcended race so much that Kieran’s blackness is just an accident of birth.

Melissa and, by proxy, all of us who looked twice at the photo are being called into question because we refuse to follow the script of colorblindness and racial transcendence. We insist on asking what it means to be a black kid in a white family.

In many ways, baby boy Romney will probably have a very good life full of all the privileges that being adjacent to whiteness and money can buy. But his grandfather will still be out in the world supporting policies that make those same kinds of access to good schools and jobs, safety and nice neighborhoods damn near impossible for other black boys Kieran’s age.



This faux-outrage on the right about MHP’s racism and insensitivity obscures exactly this set of truths about the right’s shoddy record on race. That both Mitt Romney and Phil Robertson have and love black grandbabies should remind us that racism is not primarily about individual attitudes. White folks can love individual black people and still build a world that is inhospitable to black folks. In fact, individual and exceptional black achievers are necessary to maintain the lie of racial progress. Their presence has very little to do with systemic change, though.

Two professors at Tufts released a recent study that found that white Americans believe they have replaced black people as the primary victims of racial discrimination. While both whites and black people agreed that anti-black bias was high in the 1950s and had decreased over time, white respondents to the study perceived a sharp increase in anti-white bias, while blacks perceived such bias to be nonexistent. The question is whether this perception of anti-white bias bears out in material terms.

White Americans currently have 19 times the wealth of African-Americans. That gap has increased, not decreased, since 1995 when it was at an all-time low of 7-to-1. A 2010 study from Brandeis University found that even among the wealthiest African-Americans, wealth has fallen from $25,000 to $18,000. Perhaps even more shocking is that the wealth of upper-middle-class whites “surged to $240K.” So not only is white wealth increasing, but among African-Americans being “wealthy” on average means you have $18K in assets. That is laughably absurd.

Yet 83 percent of white Americans believe that equality has been achieved or will be achieved in the foreseeable future.  Are you crying yet? The rest of this study will make you weep.

But here is the larger point: Trumped-up white outrage has material consequences for black people. Yet it is rarely rooted in anything real other than the perception of black and brown threat. That perception got Trayvon Martin and Renisha McBride and Jonathan Ferrell killed. It put Melissa Harris-Perry’s job in jeopardy. It has caused us to be less vigilant as a nation in making the playing field equal.

This is the height of cultural delusion: blaming the person on whose neck you’re standing for twisting your ankle. And this delusion has led to a fervent belief in false equivalences that makes white people feel like one-to-one racial comparisons are fair. For instance, they see Melissa Harris-Perry’s misstep as akin to the perpetual misstep that is Rush Limbaugh’s daily commentary. But to quote the song Pia Glenn sang that caused all this brouhaha, “One of these things is not like the others.”

This is just one more way that white supremacy wins. It exhausts people of color in battles over offenses that are in no way equal. It makes the mere perception of threat among whites equal to actual political threats to black welfare.  Then, to add insult to injury, our mistakes cost us more. What costs white folks a slap on the wrist, or more often a mildly disapproving look, generally costs us a pound of flesh and more than an ounce of dignity.

Despite the injustice of it all, Melissa Harris-Perry refused to play small. She owned her “mistakes” without qualification, modeled what real apologies look like, and elevated our level of public discourse in the process. In a world hellbent on disciplining uppity Negresses and stripping black folks of dignity by demanding our obsequity, she remains a class act.

Brittney Cooper

Brittney Cooper is a contributing writer at Salon, and teaches Women's and Gender Studies and Africana Studies at Rutgers. Follow her on Twitter at @professorcrunk.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 7
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    AP/Jae C. Hong

    Your summer in extreme weather

    California drought

    Since May, California has faced a historic drought, resulting in the loss of 63 trillion gallons of water. 95.4 percent of the state is now experiencing "severe" drought conditions, which is only a marginal improvement from 97.5 percent last week.

    A recent study published in the journal Science found that the Earth has actually risen about 0.16 inches in the past 18 months because of the extreme loss of groundwater. The drought is particularly devastating for California's enormous agriculture industry and will cost the state $2.2 billion this year, cutting over 17,000 jobs in the process.

       

    Meteorologists blame the drought on a large zone (almost 4 miles high and 2,000 miles long) of high pressure in the atmosphere off the West Coast which blocks Pacific winter storms from reaching land. High pressure zones come and go, but this one has been stationary since December 2012.

    Darin Epperly

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Great Plains tornadoes

    From June 16-18 this year, the Midwest was slammed by a series of four tornadoes, all ranking as category EF4--meaning the winds reached up to 200 miles per hour. An unlucky town called Pilger in Nebraska was hit especially hard, suffering through twin tornadoes, an extreme event that may only occur every few decades. The two that swept through the town killed two people, injured 16 and demolished as many as 50 homes.   

    "It was terribly wide," local resident Marianne Pesotta said to CNN affiliate KETV-TV. "I drove east [to escape]. I could see how bad it was. I had to get out of there."   

    But atmospheric scientist Jeff Weber cautions against connecting these events with climate change. "This is not a climate signal," he said in an interview with NBC News. "This is a meteorological signal."

    AP/Detroit News, David Coates

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Michigan flooding

    On Aug. 11, Detroit's wettest day in 89 years -- with rainfall at 4.57 inches -- resulted in the flooding of at least five major freeways, leading to three deaths, more than 1,000 cars being abandoned on the road and thousands of ruined basements. Gov. Rick Snyder declared it a disaster. It took officials two full days to clear the roads. Weeks later, FEMA is finally set to begin assessing damage.   

    Heavy rainfall events are becoming more and more common, and some scientists have attributed the trend to climate change, since the atmosphere can hold more moisture at higher temperatures. Mashable's Andrew Freedman wrote on the increasing incidence of this type of weather: "This means that storms, from localized thunderstorms to massive hurricanes, have more energy to work with, and are able to wring out greater amounts of rain or snow in heavy bursts. In general, more precipitation is now coming in shorter, heavier bursts compared to a few decades ago, and this is putting strain on urban infrastructure such as sewer systems that are unable to handle such sudden influxes of water."

    AP/The Fresno Bee, Eric Paul Zamora

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Yosemite wildfires

    An extreme wildfire burning near Yosemite National Park forced authorities to evacuate 13,000 nearby residents, while the Madera County sheriff declared a local emergency. The summer has been marked by several wildfires due to California's extreme drought, which causes vegetation to become perfect kindling.   

    Surprisingly, however, firefighters have done an admirable job containing the blazes. According to the L.A. Times, firefighters with the state's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection have fought over 4,000 fires so far in 2014 -- an increase of over 500 fires from the same time in 2013.

    Reuters/Eugene Tanner

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Hawaii hurricanes

    Hurricane Iselle was set to be the first hurricane to make landfall in Hawaii in 22 years. It was downgraded to a tropical storm and didn't end up being nearly as disastrous as it could have been, but it still managed to essentially shut down the entire state for a day, as businesses and residents hunkered down in preparation, with many boarding up their windows to guard against strong gusts. The storm resulted in downed trees, 21,000 people out of power and a number of damaged homes.

    Debbie Arita, a local from the Big Island described her experience: "We could hear the wind howling through the doors. The light poles in the parking lot were bobbing up and down with all the wind and rain."

    Reuters/NASA

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Florida red tide

    A major red tide bloom can reach more than 100 miles along the coast and around 30 miles offshore. Although you can't really see it in the above photo, the effects are devastating for wildlife. This summer, Florida was hit by an enormous, lingering red tide, also known as a harmful algae bloom (HAB), which occurs when algae grow out of control. HABs are toxic to fish, crabs, octopuses and other sea creatures, and this one resulted in the death of thousands of fish. When the HAB gets close enough to shore, it can also have an effect on air quality, making it harder for people to breathe.   

    The HAB is currently closest to land near Pinellas County in the Gulf of Mexico, where it is 5-10 miles offshore.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

Loading Comments...