Even that of the professors: On Saturday, it was off to the National Aquarium with our traveling companion, who was seven years old.
Her father was coaching one of the teams at the Morgan State Legacy track meet. She caught a ride from Durham on the team bus for two days of quality time.
Throughout the weekend, we skillfully lectured her on the need to question authority. Let’s try to put that into some context:
We always listen to tips from her father about our own high jumping. He was fifth in the worlds in 1991, eighth at Barcelona the following year.
He definitely knows about high-jumping. But even he can be wrong!
Progressives should keep such thoughts in mind when the professors (and the journalists) start to proclaim on some subject. We liberals tend to respect academic authority. That’s sometimes a bad idea.
For our text today, consider the final act in the Jonathan Chait show trial—this essay by Melissa Harris-Perry for The Nation.
As we’ve noted, we aren’t giant fans of Chait’s recent cover piece for New York magazine. Neither is Harris-Perry!
Still and all, we’d have to say we don’t understand this part of her essay. Tell the truth: Do you?
HARRIS-PERRY (4/16/14): Written by Jonathan Chait, the piece asserts that if you “set out to write a social history of the Obama years, one that captured the day-to-day experience of political life, you would find that race has saturated everything as perhaps never before.” Chait defines this racial saturation of political life as the effect of the Obama presidency on debates between white liberals and white conservatives. He points to dueling paranoias about racism and racial innocence that infuse every policy conversation and media moment. Chait’s argument is not wholly inaccurate: he offers evidence that white elites indeed talk more about race in the Obama era. However, any claim that race as a framework for political and policy debates emerged in 2008 must necessarily rest on ignoring black political life. This is nothing new. Gone are black people from the “day-to-day experience of political life.”Please note: In his piece for New York, Chait doesn’t “claim that race as a framework for political and policy debates emerged in 2008." That’s just a bad paraphrase of what he said.
Writing in Slate, Jamelle Bouie argues that Chait’s piece renders black politics invisible and racial politics “a story of mutual grievance between Americans on the left and right, with little interest in the lived experiences of racism from black Americans and other people of color. It’s a story, in other words, that treats race as an intellectual exercise—a low-stakes cocktail party argument between white liberals and white conservatives over their respective racial innocence.”
In an interview with Chait on my MSNBC show, I later argued that a story of white racial attitudes is valid, but that it hardly counts as a robust description of American political life. To tell the story of race in America, black people must be included as agents, not just as subjects. Chait indicated that both Bouie and I were missing the point, and that we were asking him to write about an entirely different topic.
It is difficult to watch a smart, prominent political writer nonchalantly erase black people from the story of American political life.
That said, did Chait “define [the alleged] racial saturation of political life as the effect of the Obama presidency on debates between white liberals and white conservatives?” Did he treat race “as an intellectual exercise—a low-stakes cocktail party argument between white liberals and white conservatives?”
Did he tell “a story of white racial attitudes?” Worst of all, did he “erase black people from the story of American political life?”
We don’t know why Harris-Perry made these statements. Nor do we think she has ever explained those statements—not on her TV show, not in her Nation piece.
Did Chait “erase black people from the story of American political life?” To hear him tell it, he built his claims about the primacy of race in the Obama years around a bunch of social research which includes the views of all Americans—black, white, Hispanic, Asian-American and whatever else we’ve got.
We don’t think he explained the data real well. We regard some of the data as suspect on the conceptual front.
But Chait seemed to say that the data in question included the views of all Americans. In this part of his New York magazine piece, Chait seems to be discussing data which measure the views of “all Americans, across the political spectrum:”
CHAIT (4/6/14): We now know that the fact of Obama’s presidency...has affected not just the few Americans willing to share their racism with reporters but all Americans, across the political spectrum. Social scientists have long used a basic survey to measure what they call “racial resentment.” It doesn’t measure hatred of minorities or support for segregation, but rather a person’s level of broad sympathy for African-Americans (asking, for instance, if you believe that “blacks have gotten less than they deserve” or whether “it’s really a matter of some people not trying hard enough”). Obviously, the racially conservative view—that blacks are owed no extra support from the government—has for decades corresponded more closely with conservatism writ large and thus with the Republican Party. The same is true with the racially liberal view and the Democratic Party: Many of the Americans who support government programs that disproportionately offer blacks a leg up are Democrats. But when the political scientists Michael Tesler and David Sears peered into the data in 2009, they noticed that the election of Obama has made views on race matter far more than ever.When Chait discusses “the mental chasm lying between red and blue America,” he doesn’t seem to be talking about white America only. As he told Harris-Perry during the part of his TV show trial where he was briefly allowed to speak, “blue America” is a coalition of many racial and ethnic groups.
By the outset of Obama’s presidency, they found, the gap in approval of the president between those with strongly liberal views on race and those with strongly conservative views on race was at least twice as large as it had been under any of the previous four administrations. As Tesler delved further into the numbers, he saw that race was bleeding into everything. People’s views on race predicted their views on health-care reform far more closely in 2009 than they did in 1993, when the president trying to reform health care was Bill Clinton. Tesler called what he saw unfurling before him a “hyperracialized era.”
In recent history, racial liberals have sometimes had conservative views on other matters, and racial conservatives have sometimes had liberal views. Consider another measure, called “anti-black affect,” a kind of thermometer that registers coldness toward African-Americans. Prior to 2009, anti-black affect did not predict an individual’s political identification (when factoring out that person’s economic, moral, and foreign-policy conservatism). Since Obama has taken office, the correlation between anti-black affect and Republican partisanship has shot up. Even people’s beliefs about whether the unemployment rate was rising or falling in 2012—which, in previous years, had stood independent of racial baggage—were now closely linked with their racial beliefs.
Racial conservatism and conservatism used to be similar things; now they are the same thing. This is also true with racial liberalism and liberalism. The mental chasm lying between red and blue America is, at bottom, an irreconcilable difference over the definition of racial justice. You can find this dispute erupting everywhere. A recent poll found a nearly 40-point partisan gap on the question of whether 12 Years a Slave deserved Best Picture.
(So is red America, though to a lesser extent.)
Were black views “erased” from the data which drove Chait’s premise? Not to hear him tell it!
That was the debate as we understood it (1) from reading Chait’s piece in New York, (2) from watching his interview with Harris-Perry and (3) from reading Harris-Perry’s piece in The Nation. We don’t think Harris-Perry ever explained the objections she made in her piece. Nor did we think the guest professors on her TV show explained their complaints about Chait.
Just out of curiosity, though, we looked for more information about the data Chait used. And uh-oh! In this paper by Tesler and Sears, we found this passage:
TESLER AND SEARS: We showed elsewhere that racial attitudes had a greater impact on presidential voting in 2008 than they had in any other general election contest on record (Tesler and Sears 2010). We also found that this larger role of racial resentment on McCain-Obama vote intention was brought about by the two sides of racialization: Racial conservatives were more opposed to Obama than they probably would have been to a white Democratic candidate who was ideologically similar to him, such as Hillary Clinton; and Racial liberals were more supportive of Obama than they were of previous Democratic candidates for presidentLike everyone else on the planet, we don’t really understand what that final highlighted passage means. It seems to say that the Pew data did not include reactions from African Americans.
Our cross-sectional time-series data also allows us to assess whether racial attitudes had a similarly larger impact on President Obama’s approval than previous presidents. Since 1987, the Pew Research Center and its predecessor Times Mirror, in their series of surveys on American values, have regularly asked a battery of four race-related questions that approximates the content of Kinder and Sanders’s (1996) racial resentment battery. These questions gauge the extent of discrimination against African Americans, the group’s societal advancement, whether we should do everything we can to help blacks and other minorities even if it means giving them special preferences, and whether the country has gone too far in pushing for equal rights (see appendix for question wordings). The items do not form quite as reliable a scale as the racial resentment battery (α = .54 across survey years compared to about .75 for the racial resentment scale). They are also especially unreliable for African Americans (α = .29 across survey years), who as a result are excluded from our Pew analyses. Nevertheless, Pew’s April 2009 update of their values time series provides substantial insights into how racial attitudes affected job performance evaluations of President Obama compared to those of his immediate White House predecessors.
Can we talk? We’ve looked at the work of the professors, the journalist and the researchers. Our conclusions:
We have no idea why Harris-Perry (the professor) said the things she said in her piece, nor did she really try to explain them.
We don’t think Chait (the journalist) explained his analysis very well. We don’t understand what Tesler and Sears (the researchers) were saying in that paper.
In our view, the onus lies on Harris-Perry, then on Chait. But all in all, we have no real idea what their dispute is about.
Alas! We find that our professors and our journalists are often quite expert at creating confusion. “Always question authority,” we thoughtfully told our young charge on our weekend rambles.