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

Published January 7, 2014 5:44PM (EST)

Melissa Harris-Perry                   (MSNBC)
Melissa Harris-Perry (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.

By 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.

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