Yesterday, Salon.com published an op-ed by white liberal columnist Gene Lyons in response to Melissa Harris-Perry's recent writing for The Nation on racism as a factor in declining white liberal support for the President. Rather than disagreeing thoughtfully and respectfully with Harris-Perry's argument, Lyons chose not to focus on criticizing the substance of her articles but instead on attacking her as a black female intellectual.
The short version: Lyons dismissed Harris-Perry as a "fool" and "a left-wing Michele Bachmann, an attractive woman seeking fame and fortune by saying silly things on cable TV." He claimed her argument that white racism may be a factor in liberal disillusionment with POTUS is a "photonegative of KKK racial thought," and dismissed her writings on race as "useful for intimidating tenure committees staffed by Ph.D.s trained to find racist symbols in the passing clouds." On top of all that, Lyons mocks black experiences of racism and our right to speak out about it thus: "Furthermore, unless you're black, you can't possibly understand. Yada, yada, yada. This unfortunate obsession..."
There's absolutely no question that this is an outright attack on Prof. Harris-Perry's race, gender, and professional accomplishments. Even more disturbing, it's an attack on all black people and all other people of color who dare to study or publicly raise the issue of racism on the left.
Lyons' comparison of Harris-Perry, a careful, accomplished, and much respected scholar of race, to Michele Bachmann, a woman who believes that black families were better off under slavery and praises the policies of an era where the U.S. placed racial and geographic caps on immigration, is particularly outrageous. Given that virtually the only thing Bachmann and Harris-Perry have in common is their gender and presence in the public sphere, Lyons' implication that any woman he disagrees with must not be worth listening to is unmistakable. So too is his apparent belief that the physical appearance of any woman who exist in public is open to his appraisal.
The bottom line is that Harris-Perry's great offense is daring to be a black woman, publicly saying something about race that Gene Lyons didn't like and found irritating. And this irritation apparently justifies thinking that being a black woman with an opinion on race a white liberal finds inconvenient is tantamount to the kind of racial thinking that led to black people being lynched, burned alive, raped, beaten, and terrorized by white Klansmen. Lyons clearly either has no clue what the KKK did, or simply doesn't care. He clearly needs an education, or a reminder, in what the effects of actual KKK racial thought looked like [warning: images of violence]. To take this history so lightly as to use it as a tool to lecture people of color about how we should talk about race, as a label to undermine a woman of color, is an incredible affront to all people of color and a breathtaking display of clueless white privilege.
This is how white privilege and racism work. Lyons' article is poorly written and incoherently argued. He makes comparisons that are logically and factually insupportable, and wildly inappropriate and irresponsible. His thinking on race and gender is both prejudiced and sloppy, yet he got paid to mock someone who is trained to think and write about race, and has done so with distinction. And he got the privilege of being paid to do all this in a nationally respected "progressive" new media publication.
This is so much more than an attack on one black scholar. If Salon allows this article to stand without making any comments or apologies, it's sending a chilling message to people of color and anyone who attempts to have an honest, substantive discussion about race in American politics.
Salon is sending the message that it's appropriate for a white man to equate a black woman talking about race to violent white supremacist thinking, which supported a decades-long campaign of racial terrorism that devastated countless black bodies and communities; to use black people's history of enduring and surviving domestic white terrorism as a weapon against us, simply because we point to the continued legacy of the forces and attitudes that drove such terrorism in the first place; to undermine the credibility of an entire field of study pioneered by and centered on people of color because he finds it annoying; to denigrate the physical appearance, educational achievements, and intellectual competence of women he disagrees with. They're sending the message that they are comfortable with paying writers who rely on white male privilege rather than logic, fact, and nuance to make their arguments.