An attack on Melissa Harris-Perry

I am a huge fan of Ta-Nehisi Coates. He writes unique things on important topics. So, catching him in error  fills me with a giddiness not unlike finding a typo in a William Safire column might thrill an amateur grammarian. He errs in his “defense” of Melissa Harris-Perry.

Here is her segment in all its inane glory:

I have little doubt that Harris-Perry didn’t think she was saying something offensive. Unfortunately, her awareness is not required.

All children of course go through points when they feel their parents aren’t representing their interests (perhaps by not buying them Grand Theft Auto at age 5). Only the adopted child, however, will can mentally log this as evidence of not really belonging to her parents. It is quite easy for an adoptee to feel she has no “real” family since her first family is gone and her second isn’t hers in exactly the same sense that the other kids’ families are theirs. This is unfortunate, and good adoptive parents do what is necessary to assuage their children’s doubts, but I think they would agree that this is a challenge they face as parents that is disturbing in its implications if not handled properly.

And that’s before someone points out to the kid that he doesn’t really belong on national TV and that the idea that he is a member of his adoptive family worthy of a full minute of public mockery. The saving grace is that the child as pictured seems too young to perhaps appreciate what was said and that I suspect Romney knows how to direct his kids’ attention away from the nattering nabobs on TV.

It’s disappointing to find that Coates resorts to criticizing the criticizers:

When not attempting to shame their enemies on trumped-up charges of racism, the conservative movement busies itself appealing to actual racists. We are into the sixth year of the era of a black president. In that time the conservative movement has gorged on a steady diet of watermelon jokeswaffle jokes,affirmative-action jokesmonkey jokesbarbecue jokesterrorist machinations,secret Muslim plots, and dastardly Kenyan conspiracies. Three months ago, the movement reached a new low, waving the flag of slavery in front of the Obama’s home. It is tempting to call this the climax of a long campaign. That would exhibit an unearned optimism at odds with history.

Melissa Harris-PerryThe research is an impressive distraction. Harris-Perry’s segment was offensive irrespective of the failings of those who might criticize her. A character assassination of conservatives, regardless of its merits, does not make for a defense of liberals.

The argument presented by Coates is the basis for only-Republicans-can-be-racist, and it is simply incorrect. Not being one of the designated Bad Guys doesn’t make you good. Harris-Perry ought to receive no comfort from the failings of her detractors. If she does, then that simply means she is incapable of failings.

Update: The Atlantic changed the title of the linked piece from A Defense of Melissa Harris-Perry to “The Smartest Nerd in the Room”

Photo credit: Flickr user Tulane Publications

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52 thoughts on “An attack on Melissa Harris-Perry

  1. I remember during the Clinton years that there were calls to “leave Chelsea out of it.” No fan of Clinton was I during those years, but I agreed to leave Chelsea out of it. I also thought to leave the Bush daughters out of it even when Jenna Bush kind of made a spectacle out of herself despite having concluded that I wasn’t a fan of W, either.

    Ms. Harris-Perry should also be chastised for mocking the Romney family in 2013. in 2011, there would have been a point to it, albeit a mean-spirited one. But today, Mitt Romney is yesterday’s news.

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    • I was gonna say that, as awful as the segment was, it was mostly about GOP tokenism and not an attack on Kieran Romney but the “one of these things is not like the other” ditty is just indefensible. It’s the kind of stuff some jackasses think they can get away with because they’re usually on the “right” side of race issues.

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  2. I have a friend who is white from college. His older siblings are adopted and black. He wrote on facebook and his blog recently that transracial and national adoption is considered a bigger taboo on the left than the right.

    By left, I think he means the radical left and not just middle-class liberals like me because plenty of middle-class liberals engage in transnational and transracial adoption. Though there are problems. This American Life did a show on how some international adoption agencies basically engage in deceit, fraud, and basically kidnapped children from their parents. I can’t find the name of the episode about a google search revealed lots of problems.

    http://prospect.org/article/international-adoption-or-child-trafficking

    There are also issues with colonialism, cultural dominance, etc and loads and loads of other issues.

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    • I don’t know about it being a bigger problem on the “left,” but it is, in my experience, a bigger problem among black people than white people, and I think there may be some legitimate concerns.

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    • FWIW I did not know that this was a big issue on the left until my friend wrote about it on his blog but I do not really follow “left-wing” politics and am probably an amatuer political junkie/theorist compared to many activists.

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      • I agree that there are lots of corruption, deceit, and child welfare problems with international adoptions but I’m unmoved about the concerns relating to colonialism. There are too many factions on the Far Left that use colonialism and imperlialism as the source of all evil and throw those words around the way that the Far Right throws certain words around. This isn’t to say that we aren’t still dealing with the legacies of colonialism. We are but it sometimes seems that some factions of the Far Left want it both ways, where the developed world is cosmopolitan but certain countries get to remain particular in the name of anti-colonialism.

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    • Adoption is a huge issue with Native Americans and , i believe, First Nation’s people. As recently as 30 -50 NA children were taken away from their parents, often for decent reasons like neglect or alcoholism, but they were then adopted to White families across the country. The NA parents didn’t have a chance to get them back nor did their families have a chance to raise the children. This strikes at the heart of NA tribal identity since they see their all their children as part of the tribe with the group having responsibilities to raise them ( darn commies). There is now a federal law ICWA that puts major regs on how NA children can be adopted. Family and tribe comes first so that those child don’t lose their heritage and the tribe can maintain itself.

      I won’t say i haven’t seen some silly things done in the name of group identity under laws like ICWA, oh because i have, but on the whole the law has kept tribes and families together. Go to any reservation and you will get an earful about it.

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      • The number of Native children still being taken by unscrupulous “Christian” adoption agencies continues today and the Native community’s protection by ICWA is being challenged and ignored by these agencies by taking infants to states where rights of fathers and tribes are easiest to strip and where laws are most favorable to adoption.

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      • I am a linky luddite posting here but amazingly the Wiki article is pretty good if you look up Adoptive Couple vs Baby Girl which was a SCOTUS case this summer. This case has spawned a grassroots movement that links Native groups, father’s rights groups, and groups for ethical adoption practices across the US. If you thought talk on the reservation in AK was bad, Oklahoma and the Dakotas are probably just as bad if not worse.

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  3. That’s not really Coates’ argument, though. His argument is actually here:

    It would not have surprised me if those concerned about adoption, equality, and racism voiced some protest about the segment. Instead what we got was week of invective driven mostly by a conservative movement with less lofty concerns.

    He’s not even suggesting that only Republican’s can be racist. Hell, he says outright that people who are actually concerned about racism might be concerned about what she said. What he’s saying is that the people who are criticizing her are not actually concerned about racism. We can debate whether that’s true (and address his arguments about these same critics letting other instances slip, because they were by members of their team, whether that team is Mormons or conservatives), but that’s the argument to discuss.

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    • This is the first I’ve seen of the skit. But I heard and saw a lot of the conservative backlash against it. I will say that it did not live up to the hype. But what else is new?

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    • >What he’s saying is that the people who are criticizing her are not actually concerned about racism.

      You’re right, Chris; he does say that. But I don’t think that excuses the segment. He additionally says that Harris-Perry show is otherwise good in the strongest possible terms. That also doesn’t excuse this particular segment.

      >He’s not even suggesting that only Republican’s can be racist.

      He doesn’t explicitly say that, and I’m guessing he would disown that suggestion. However, it would be de facto result if everything that a conservative might complain about is OK because conservatives are bad.

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      • Vikram, he’s not trying to excuse the segment. He explicitly says, in the sentence I quoted, that there are legitimate criticisms of the segment. I mean, I just quoted it, so I really can’t figure out where you’re getting that he excused the segment. His “defense,” as it was called, was of Harris-Perry generally, not of the segment itself. Explicitly, like in the sentence I just quoted (I repeat myself, but I’m not sure you’re reading it).

        His post, again explicitly, is not about legitimate criticisms of the segment, which he notes (in the sentence I quoted), but about who is going crazy about it, and why they might be doing so, since it’s clear (he argues) that racism is not their actual concern. I just don’t see where he’s unclear about any of this, because he says all of it explicitly, like in the sentence I quoted.

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  4. If you’ve read TNC then you know he does not think only R’s can be racist. He has written many times about how deeply racism is woven into the fabric of this nation.

    This ” That is because the conservative movement does not believe that racism is an actual issue to be grappled with, but sees it instead as a hand grenade to be lobbed into an enemy camp.” is the real point of his essay. Of course its buried so maybe it isn’t, but i think the point is made. Conservatives only seem to notice racism when they can hurl it as liberals as an attack. Anything else is ignored. Many conservatives even use the term “race card” in which the entire metaphor is that its all a game, not something to taken seriously or as a real thing. It’s just a game and race is only a weapon used against C’s.

    MHP sporked up and she apologized. Good on the apology and do better. Should we hold other people to the standard of looking for an apology after something deeply offensive. As a i remember from one of the threads about Duckman, he was actually the target of oppression and just leave him alone. It sort of makes TNC’s point.

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    • Good point, this is elegantly demonstrated in the quote TNC found at Breitbart: “P.S. The Duck Dynasty family has an adopted black child. Maybe this is why the media hate them so much.”. Which ignores (even, defends) the overtly racist remarks made by the Duckman just to toss a completely unsubstantiated accusation at the liberal media.

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    • “That is because the conservative movement does not believe that racism is an actual issue to be grappled with, but sees it instead as a hand grenade to be lobbed into an enemy camp.”

      I don’t necessarily disagree. I just recognize it to be a poor defense. If that was the main point of his piece, then he should not have selected a case where the person being criticized actually did something wrong. As is, it comes across that saying something wrong is OK as long as only conservatives are there to care about it and that kid’s dad has no right to complain anyway. And I think it comes across that way because that’s the way he wrote it.

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      • No, it doesn’t say that it’s okay. It says that their criticisms are of little worth when they aren’t actually intended to resolve the root problem.

        For point of evidence, see all the people who are littering their criticisms of MHP with “nigger”. Should we take those people seriously? Is taking them unseriously mean we are defending MHP? It seems to me that TNC has done nothing to indicate that what happened on MHP’s show was okay but, rather, is saying that criticism that has zero intention to be constructive is not something that interests him.

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  5. I’d heard about this but hadn’t watched the video. Thanks for sharing it.

    Gosh, that was a mild bit of fun-making to have created so much heat. The Breitbart over-reaction gives the impression of people starving to find something to criticize and latching on to whatever meager morsels they can find.

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    • I had seen it either until now. In fact, your comment is what made me check it out. Agreed that it seems pretty mild. Even the comment that I’d heard people getting bunged about – the one about the diversity in the Republican party – seems much less offensive than I would have thought given the outrage.

      It’s also interesting to me that I’m now commenting on my own reaction to comments that other people have made about the comments some folks have made about someone’s comments. I’m not sure I’m entirely comfortable with that, or how I should feel about that, or how others might feel about how I feel about how they feel about it. But that’s how it is.

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      • It seems odd to me that people don’t provide links to videos but instead rely on quotes. Traditional media’s reluctance to embed primary source materials is sometimes annoying.

        the comment that I’d heard people getting bunged about – the one about the diversity in the Republican party

        I think people might be bunged out on the Republican Party’s behalf. If I were to find offense in that comment, it would only be on behalf of the family, and even then 90% would be allocated for the targeted kid and 10% for the parents and siblings. I think the Republican Party can handle itself.

        It’s also interesting to me that I’m now commenting on my own reaction to comments that other people have made about the comments some folks have made about someone’s comments.

        Yes, there is an element of that. I think I saw Jon Stewart on the Daily Show once critique the media for reporting on tweets reporting their own news pieces. It was funny because he found some particularly stupid examples, but I don’t know that it is a problem by itself. Why are comments about comments less comment-worthy than original comments? Sometimes a person’s reaction is important.

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  6. It seems strange to title this “An Attack On MHP.” I can barely find one, other than a restatement of the consensus view that the segment was offensive, a view whose consensus includes, AFAICT, both TNC himself, who admits the offensive, or at least problematic, nature of the segment, and MHP, who tearfully apologized without reservation for the segment this past Saturday (and acceptance of the apology has been given by the Romneys). Primarily, this seems like an attack on TNC. Which is fair enough; he said a lot of things that are debatable in that piece. But one thing he did not say was that that particular segment was entirely defensible. He does say that what she was doing was not mockery in his estimation, but he says it was a problem and that he would understand how someone who adopted (or presumably was adopted) interracially would likely be offended by it.

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    • The “Attack” title doesn’t really make sense now that Coates’s title is different. And, yes, it isn’t really an attack on her anyway since this segment is all I’ve ever seen of her.

      You’re also right that he doesn’t say the segment is entirely defensible; my claim is that vast chunks of his defense have little or nothing to do with what she said.

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      • Ah. That’s definitely true. But I don’t think, even when it was titled “Defense,” it was claiming to be a simple defense of the segment. It was more an overall defense of her as a person/media figure/public intellectual from from those attacking her general worth in those departments, with a fair amount of acknowledgment that the segment itself could rightly come in for criticism. The title never claimed to be a defense of the segment in particular, and the claims in the piece have always indicated that larger purpose.

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  7. I always thought that the original MHP segment was *OBVIOUSLY* in questionable taste that was best pointed out by showing that picture of Obama and his grandparents while continuing to sing the exact same song.

    It looks like MHP came out and said “we were making fun of something that, seriously, we shouldn’t have been making fun of. On top of that, we brought kids (babies!) into it and that is something that shouldn’t ever happen. We effed up. Dude, we apologize” and Mittens himself said “Hey, they apologized, that’s great. We accept the apology.”

    Which is pretty much where it should end.

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    • But, of course, it didn’t end there.

      There are a bunch of folks out there who are offended on behalf of someone who has already accepted the apology and it’s certainly fair to ask whether these people are sincere in their being offended on behalf of Romney or whether they’re merely pretending to be offended because they’re secretly delighted to (finally!) be able to point a finger and yell racism and make someone else dance the apology dance for once.

      Personally, I think that telling this group “knock it off, at this point you’re just using this bullshit for petty political points” is a good thing.

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      • There are a bunch of folks out there who are offended on behalf of someone who has already accepted the apology

        I didn’t read Coates as attacking those who continue to attack Harris-Perry post-apology. I thought he was attacking everyone who criticized her. If it was only the former, then I agree it is fair to ask if they are sincere in being offended.

        Are there people who are refusing to accept the apology? Maybe I need more conservative friends because my FB feed hasn’t shown me that set.

        I’m in agreement that she should feel she’s discharged her duty in apologizing, and it’s a credit to Romney that he recognizes the best thing is for all of this to just be over. I do hope she will be more careful in the future.

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  8. Oh, man, Romney is going to feel stupid when he realizes he adopted the wrong color baby. And he’s going to be in soooo much trouble with the Republicans. They’ll probably never nominate him for president again.

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  9. The Republican outrage is not because Perry made wisecracks about a Republican family, or a child, or a Republican family’s child, or even this particular child of this particular family.

    The outrage is because if, say, Ann Coulter had made exactly the same joke about exactly the same person, it would be seen as Obvious Evidence Of The Right’s Horrible Racism. There would be no benefit of the doubt, no “well she didn’t mean it that way”, no “let’s ask the family what they think”. Nope! Racist! Racist! And if you didn’t agree, well, that meant you were racist too.

    But now we’re seeing “hey, she apologized! The apology was accepted! So there’s no more argument here, and the fact that you still think there is one is Obvious Evidence Of The Right’s Horrible Racism”.

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      • I googled both “Coulter apology” and “Coulter apologizes”. and the first 100 hits for both included

        * Coulter being asked for an apology
        * Coulter refusing to apologize
        * Coulter demanding an apology
        * Coulter criticizing someone else’s apology

        Not one link to Coulter herself apologizing. So, call Mark accurate.

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    • “If someone on the right did this, it’d be an outrage! So we’re going to make this an outrage! But if and when this does happen with someone on the right, we’ll outrage about the outrage!”

      If you want to take a principled stand against racism, I will stand right next to you. If you want to outrage about supposed media hypocrisy but not actually care about racism, well, excuse me if I ignore your comments on “racism”.

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    • And Coulter isn’t perceived as black (though maybe black hearted) and she doesn’t have a mother who’s Mormon.

      So there is a certain amount of who-has-the-privilege-to-use the n-word going on here and who doesn’t, which was part of Coates given defense.

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  10. I don’t completely buy TNC’s defense of Harris-Perry and I think the wholesale attack against conservatives is not particularly warranted in this case (even though it is fairly accurate).

    You are right that this is an uncharacteristically partisan post from TNC. However, this is a case where the exception proves the rule. This post stands out precisely because this is uncharacteristic for him. TNC is still a progressive partisan; he just generally writes in a manner that makes you forget this.

    If he is guilty of anything, it’s writing like 95 percent of the rest of the internet when he normally does not.

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    • I agree. He’s one of my favorite writers out there. I do recognize that there is a fundamental unfairness in my picking on his one piece that is weak when it is not at all representative of what he usually delivers.

      That is the nature of the racket we are in though.

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  11. Why should anyone be surprised that TNC is defending Melissa Harris-Perry, another liberal? Can you imaging the liberal outage if a Repub had said the same thing?

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  12. “So, catching him in error fills me with a giddiness not unlike finding a typo in a William Safire column might thrill an amateur grammarian.”

    I am always amused when I recall that William Safire, along with Pat Buchanan and James Humes, wrote the plague that Apollo 11 left on the moon. It reads:

    Here Men From The Planet Earth First Set Foot Upon On The Moon
    July 1969 A.D.
    We Came In Peace For All Mankind

    Which of course is wrong. The correct way to write the date would have been A.D. July 1969. Putting it AFTER the year has become common usage, a usage I have no doubt Safire would have hated, but it is still technically correct to put the AD before the date. What makes it worse is that this error is on one of the few pieces of English that will have legitimate claim to being immortal on a truly cosmic scale. And it has a typo.

    I have also heard that inserting AD was a way for Buchanan and Safire to sneak God onto the plaque when the words “under God” were rejected. Which makes it even funnier, but I haven’t done the leg work to confirm this part.

    I know it is not a Safire column, but giddiness would still be appropriate, methinks.

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  13. This goes in the dustbin of “person did stupid, person apologized, person learned not to do that.”
    Same as the “white Santa and Jesus” thing (which, really did sound like a joke, if a weirdly tuned one).

    I am willing to give folks a lot of ground to do stupid shit, so long as they’re willing to be sensitive to other folks getting upset.

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