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Is white liberal abandonment of Obama racist?

September 27, 2011

Melissa Harris-Perry caused quite the stir with her recent article in The Nation, “Black President, Double Standard: Why White Liberals Are Abandoning Obama.” Perry, formerly a professor of political science at Princeton University, and now Tulane University, asserts that white liberal frustration and disillusionment with President Obama is motivated by racism, and white liberals demonstrate an insidious form of electoral racism by holding “African-American leaders to a higher standard than their white counterparts.”

By all accounts, Perry is an intelligent, eloquent observer of race and the role that it plays in modern American political culture; I know this first-hand from engaging with her often brilliant and always articulate cultural and political criticism. Because of my familiarity with Perry’s work, I couldn’t help but find myself both bemused and disappointed by her most recent piece. And it does not appear that I’m alone: Perry has faced a deluge of criticism, much of it fair and well-constructed counterargument. But she also has several supporters and defenders who support her premise that Obama’s declining enthusiasm among white liberals is the result of racism.

Let’s examine that sentence more fully: Obama’s declining enthusiasm among white liberals is the result of racism. As both Joan Walsh and David Sirota point out, Perry fails to cite any polls or studies measuring white liberal support for President Obama. This isn’t to suggest that racism might not be a factor in declining white liberal support for President Obama, but Perry hasn’t effectively established that there is declining white liberal support for President Obama; there is only anecdotal, not empirical evidence to support this assertion. What we do know is that President Obama’s approval rating is between 39 and 43 percent, representing a noticeable decline in popularity amongst all groups, which might suggest that there has been a decline in white liberal support for President Obama. Of course, according to Washington Post-ABC News polling, President Obama went from an 83 percent “strongly favorable” rating among blacks in April 2011 to 58 percent by September 2011. That’s an alarming drop in political enthusiasm coming from President Obama’s most reliable and fervently supportive constituency.

Perry does point out that support for President Obama among white Americans has dropped 28 percentage points since 2009; this development may be motivated by racism–in fact, it likely is–unfortunately, neither Perry nor I can discern the impact that white liberals have on the overall polling results of white America. Perry uses “white liberals” and “white Americans” interchangeably as she builds her case for electoral racism, weakening the strength of her argument; for all we know, disenchanted conservative and moderate white Americans are fueling the significant decrease in support among white Americans.

Perry leaves herself vulnerable to criticism and attack by comparing President Obama to our last Democratic president, Bill Clinton. Perry suggests that it is a fair comparison because Clinton and Obama are “two centrist Democratic presidents who faced hostile Republican majorities in the second half of their first terms, forcing a number of political compromises.” This is an accurate portrayal, and the only comparison that Perry can make, but it also undermines her argument: both Clinton and Obama represent the center-right neoliberal and corporatist wing of the Democratic party that is constantly at odds with social democratic liberals such as Paul Krugman and Glenn Greenwald, two prominent liberals who have openly (and equally) criticized and critiqued both President Obama and the radicalized right-wing of the GOP.

Walsh and Sirota are right to point out that prominent progressives–mainly, social democratic liberals– were (and continue to be) disaffected by the Clinton administration, for many of the reasons that Perry uses as evidence of double standard racism, such as Clinton’s support of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” his inability to pass meaningful healthcare reform, his passing of welfare reform (which disproportionately and adversely impacted African-Americans), and repeal of the Glass–Steagall Act.

Despite this, Clinton was able to gain additional support from African-Americans, women, independents, and whites during his 1996 re-election bid. But he was not “enthusiastically re-elected” as Perry asserts, as he captured just 49 percent of the vote against Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole. And unlike Clinton, President Obama does not have the benefit of a robust and growing economy; instead, he is facing unemployment figures that have stubbornly persisted at 9 percent overall nationally, with unemployment at 16 percent for African-Americans. Disappointingly, Perry doesn’t address any of these points in her rebuttal to her critics, “The Epistemology of Race Talk.” Some of her defenders attempt to do so, but not in a way that Perry would deem “fair and important.”

Perry’s charge of while liberal electoral racism is slightly obtuse because she really aims to critique and condemn white liberal opinion makers, and not the white liberal electorate, however that is defined. Citing Gallop poll data, Walsh notes that 75 percent of Democrats approve of Obama’s performance, compared to 74 percent for Clinton at the same point in their presidencies. Much of the white and black liberal criticism President Obama faces comes from prominent social democratic liberals who have lost ground and footing for nearly three decades to the center-right neoliberalism represented by Clinton and Obama; this amounts to stark differences in political ideology, not electoral racism.

But electoral racism exists–again, it may help explain some of the decline of overall white support for President Obama. We’ve witnessed electoral racism with the rise and growing influence of the Tea Party, a movement that capitalizes upon racialized fear and anxiety. But Perry overlooks that Obama was able to garner a higher percentage of white Democratic votes than either Kerry or Gore before him because he was buoyed by young and hopeful voters (and an unprecedented outpouring of African-American supporters) who were inspired by the opportunity to witness positive change and transformative leadership–precisely because they have been so dissatisfied with the performance of his white predecessors, Republican and Democrat alike.

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From → National, Politics, Race

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