Yvette Carnell: Why Are White Liberals Afraid of Black Liberals?

(The white liberal establishment, says the author, was quiet in the face of Melissa Harris-Perry’s baseless accusations of racism in a 2011 column in The Nation.)

The question itself is already a provocation. As I conjure up the words, I envision the Rev. Al Sharpton rousing the peanut gallery, readying himself to shoot me down. What I am about to say runs headlong against everything white liberals have learned about embracing diversity under the big tent of the Democratic Party. So let me just ask.

Why are white liberals so afraid of black liberals?

Black liberals are allowed to meander far and away from core liberal principles, all the while making unsubstantiated protestations, sometimes even going so far as to denigrate their white counterparts without ever having to worry about facing tangible consequences within the mainstream liberal establishment.

In a 2011 column titled “Black President, Double Standard: Why White Liberals Are Abandoning Obama,” Melissa Harris-Perry of The Nation castigates the white liberal establishment that gave voice to her so-called authentically black perspective by accusing it of racism. Curiously, she begins by applauding white liberals: “Not only did white Democratic voters prove willing to support a black candidate; they overperformed in their repudiation of naked electoral racism, electing Obama with a higher percentage of white votes than either Kerry or Gore earned.” Then she concludes that white liberals who supported Obama morphed into racists over four years.

If those on the white left are willing to allow Harris-Perry to besmirch them as racist, they should at least force her to make an actual case that withstands criticism.

Harris-Perry supports her supposition that white liberals are closeted racists with the flimsiest of defenses, speculating that “electoral racism cannot be reduced solely to its most egregious, explicit form. It has proved more enduring and baffling than these results can capture.” In other words — it’s complicated.

The white liberals who took a chance on a young black man with a thin resume and elected him to the highest office in the land were painted with the broadest of racial brushes and offered no defense. In fact, white liberals remained uncharacteristically quiet in the face of Harris-Perry’s inflammatory accusations.

Certainly there is nothing odious about exploring the possibility of whether racism would play a role in the reelection of the first black president. She should’ve explored that topic. She also should’ve reached a very different conclusion than the one she reached, especially considering the tenuous examples she laid out.

Harris-Perry uses the Clinton administration as a model for unequal racial standards within the liberal body politic, noting that Clinton was unable to pass health care reform but that “progressives complain that Obama’s healthcare reform was inadequate because it did not include a public option.” What is missing from her critique is that Hillary Clinton pushed for universal healthcare, not a hybrid Mitt Romney-endorsed imitation. It is easier though for black liberals to push a racialized assessment of American politics than to get bogged down in the minutia of hard details related to actual policies.

This isn’t to say that white liberals can’t be racist – or can’t align with racist elements in American politics. Blacks didn’t gain access to FDR’s New Deal until well over a decade after the legislation was passed, mostly due to an unholy alliance between FDR and Southern Democrats. But if those on the white left are willing to allow Harris-Perry to besmirch them as racist, they should at least force her to make an actual case that withstands criticism.

Black liberals like Harris-Perry are quick to use abstract anecdotal interpretations to call into question the progressive bona fides of white liberals, but surprisingly enough, when black liberals pivot to the political right, joining forces with right wingers to attack bedrock liberal agenda issues – such as gay rights and opposition to charter schools – white liberals are reluctant to full throatedly voice justifiable criticism.

Harris-Perry is not alone among black liberals who wield racialized rhetoric as a tool for silencing white liberals. Sharpton, now an MSNBC pundit, co-authored a 2009 op-ed published in The Wall Street Journal titled, “Charter Schools Can Close the Education Gap,” and has a $500,000 connection to charter schools.

Even if Obama hadn’t trounced Romney, there were plenty of legitimate reasons for a principled liberals to renounce support for Obama, the most notable of which are his doubling down on Bush’s war policies and embrace of austerity measures. Harris-Perry owes the white left an apology. White liberals should demand it.



Yvette Carnell is a former Capitol Hill and campaign staffer turned writer. She is currently an editor and contributor to Yourblackworld. You can reach Yvette via Twitter @YvetteDC or on Facebook.


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