She’s Not Even an Acquaintance

Prof. Carl L. Bankston III


Melissa Harris-Perry is not my friend. Although my university recently hired her, I have never met her. When and if I do meet Dr. Harris-Perry, I will be careful never to commit the offense of calling her a friend, even if our interactions are amiable.  Normally, I would not be so stand-offish. My usual habit is to consider as “friends” all of those with whom I have pleasant exchanges and to refer to them as such. But this easy-going practice is likely to provoke a furious reaction from Dr. Harris-Perry.

This past September, Dr, Harris-Perry published an article in The Nation in which she claimed that the decline in support for President Obama among “white liberals” was due to “electoral racism.”  Now, it seems to me that the only logical way to support this argument would be to offer evidence that there was some increase in racism, however measured, among white liberals during the period that that support for President Obama declined. Now that the President’s numbers seem to be going up again (at least for the time), supporting this thesis would now require demonstrating that this mysterious phenomenon of electoral racism somehow went back down again. But Dr. Harris-Perry’s main form of “evidence” was to claim that “progressives” are disappointed with Obama’s healthcare program, but that Bill Clinton was re-elected without having passed healthcare legislation. Well, Tulane did not hire Harris-Perry as a full professor on the strength of her rather dubious analytical and methodological skills, but because she’s on TV a lot.

Joan Walsh, defending the good name of white liberals, responded to Harris-Perry in the online magazine Essentially, Walsh said, in more detail, what I just said, that there isn’t any evidence for the professor’s claims. But I think I’ll just ignore Walsh’s arguments. That’s what Melissa Harris-Perry did. Instead of responding to arguments, she denounced Walsh for referring to her at the opening of the Salon piece as “my friend.” This, supposedly, was an instance of a rhetorical strategy that white people use to protect themselves from the righteous indignation of black people speaking up against racism. I couldn’t see how Harris-Perry could stretch the two words “my friend” into “I’m not a racist because I have a black friend,” but the accusation does show imagination, if not logic. Harris-Perry went on to scold whites for a series of other strategies that they use to avoid facing up to the evil truth about themselves.

This past month, I received an invitation to attend the inaugural lecture of the Anna Julia Cooper Project on Gender, Race, and Politics in the South. To the best of my understanding, this project was created to make a position for media figure Melissa Harris-Perry, who serves as its founding director. The lecturer was Duke University Professor of English and Law, Karla FC Holloway. Professor Holloway is herself no stranger to indignation and groundless accusations. She was prominent among the Duke University faculty who publicly condemned the lacrosse players accused of rape. Even after the players inconveniently turned out to be innocent, Professor Holloway continued to lambast them as perpetuating some pervasive and vaguely defined injustice.,

I’m afraid that the selection of the inaugural speaker may set a pattern for Dr. Harris-Perry’s new project: lots of moral outrage and shibboleth and very little clear reasoning. In fairness, though, I could be entirely wrong because I didn’t attend the talk. I probably would have been welcome if I had managed to avoid giving voice to any nonconformist views. But there’s always the risk of being accused of strategic friendliness.

The Moral Liberal Sociology Editor, Carl L. Bankston III is Professor of Sociology at Tulane University in New Orleans, LA. He is the author and co-author of a number of books and numerous articles published in academic journals. An incomplete list of his books includes: Growing Up American: How Vietnamese Children Adapt to Life in the United States (with Min Zhou, 1998), Blue Collar Bayou: Louisiana Cajuns in the New Economy of Ethnicity (with Jacques Henry, 2002), and A Troubled Dream: The Promise and Failure of School Desegregation in Louisiana (2002), Forced to Fail: The Paradox of School Desegregation (hardback, 2005; paperback, 2007), and Public Education – America’s Civil Religion: A Social History (2009) (all with Stephen J. Caldas). View Professor Bankston’s full bio, here. He blogs at Can These Bones Live?

Copyright © 2011 Carl L. Bankston III.


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