PART 2—IT ISN’T ABOUT THE DATA: Why is Melissa Harris-Perry saying these things about white liberals?
We can’t answer that question, of course—but it isn’t about the data. As far as we know, there are no data which are directly relevant to Harris-Perry’s claims. And there certainly aren’t any relevant data in her article itself, although she does throw in a few statistics which basically cloud the issue.
These professors today don’t waste our time with the dry-as-dust recitations of yore! Harris-Perry may be right in her claims—or she may be wrong. But one point is abundantly clear. She isn’t working from data.
(To read part of this report, go ahead: Just click here.)
This might be a good time to ask a basic question: What are Harris-Perry claims? Her article has stirred controversy in the liberal / progressive / Democratic world. But what is she actually claiming?
That question can almost be answered from reading her piece. Right from her article’s headline on down, Harris-Perry seems to be saying that white liberals are subjecting President Obama to a “double standard.” This is the headline which appears above Harris-Perry’s piece:
“Black President, Double Standard: Why White Liberals Are Abandoning Obama”
Did Harris-Perry compose that headline? We don’t know; it may represent an editor’s concept of what the professor is saying. But in her piece, Harris-Perry does at least clearly suggest that white liberals are judging Obama by a double standard—and she constantly tosses R-bombs as she describes that alleged act.
As Harris-Perry starts, she writes that Candidate Obama got a higher percentage of the white vote than Candidates Kerry or Gore before him. On that basis, she makes a slightly hazy claim about the lapsed state of “electoral racism” in “its most egregious, explicit form.” (More about that hazy claim in a future post.) At this point, Harris-Perry starts to make her apparent claim about the current or prospective behavior of these white liberals today. She speaks of a “tendency” white liberals have, or may have. And she discusses an ugly-sounding critter—“liberal electoral racism:”
HARRIS-PERRY (9/21/11): Still, electoral racism cannot be reduced solely to its most egregious, explicit form. It has proved more enduring and baffling than these results can capture. The 2012 election may be a test of another form of electoral racism: the tendency of white liberals to hold African-American leaders to a higher standard than their white counterparts. If old-fashioned electoral racism is the absolute unwillingness to vote for a black candidate, then liberal electoral racism is the willingness to abandon a black candidate when he is just as competent as his white predecessors.“Liberal electoral racism is the willingness to abandon a black candidate when he is just as competent as his white predecessors,” Harris-Perry says. Earlier, she says the coming election may be a test of this form of racism—and she makes it clear that she’s discussing white liberals, not these liberals in general.
The language of these professors today can sometimes be a bit fuzzy! In this passage, is Harris-Perry claiming that white liberals do in fact have a tendency “to hold African-American leaders to a higher standard than their white counterparts?” Is she claiming that white liberals do in fact exhibit “the willingness to abandon a black candidate when he is just as competent as his white predecessors?” At this point, the nature of her claim is a bit unclear. But as she proceeds, her intention starts to seem fairly obvious.
“The relevant comparison here is with the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton,” she says, failing to explain or justify this pronouncement. As she continues, she then compares the achievements of Clinton and Obama. Rather plainly, she seems to say that Obama is being judged more harshly than Clinton was, even as she rather plainly says that Obama’s achievements are at least as good as Clinton’s from a liberal perspective.
Are white liberals judging Obama by a tougher standard? If so, that wouldn’t be a good thing. Such behavior might even justify the use of a set of R-bombs. But this merely clarifies our problem—it sharpens the question with which we started. Why is Harris-Perry saying these things about white liberals? She offers no data, none at all, which are relevant to her apparent claim—to the claim that white liberals are holding Obama to a higher standard.
Harris-Perry does offer some data. But here’s the problem—the data she offers simply aren’t relevant to the claims she is making.
Some of her data are plainly irrelevant. Other data may seem to be relevant—but, alas, they aren’t. The following passage ends Harris-Perry’s piece. These are the only data she offers in support of her brace of bombs:
HARRIS-PERRY: In 1996 President Clinton was re-elected with a coalition more robust and a general election result more favorable than his first win. His vote share among women increased from 46 to 53 percent, among blacks from 83 to 84 percent, among independents from 38 to 42 percent, and among whites from 39 to 43 percent.Harris-Perry is certainly right on one score. In 1996, Clinton received a higher percentage of the vote than he did in 1992. (Overall, his share of the vote went from 43 percent to 49. Just for the record, Ross Perot’s share of the vote dropped from 19 percent to eight.) On the other hand, it’s hard to know why the professor wastes our time with some of those data—for example, with the fact that Clinton’s vote among women rose by seven points. But please note: Amid that swirl of gorilla dust, there are no data concerning Clinton’s vote total among white liberals. Nor does she offer any data about Obama’s support from white liberals.
President Obama has experienced a swift and steep decline in support among white Americans—from 61 percent in 2009 to 33 percent now. I believe much of that decline can be attributed to their disappointment that choosing a black man for president did not prove to be salvific for them or the nation. His record is, at the very least, comparable to that of President Clinton, who was enthusiastically re-elected. The 2012 election is a test of whether Obama will be held to standards never before imposed on an incumbent. If he is, it may be possible to read that result as the triumph of a more subtle form of racism.
As far as we know, such data don’t exist. But there are certainly no such data in Harris-Perry’s column.
Indeed, Harris-Perry offers no data about white liberals at all. Nor does she seem to know that vote totals are a whole different critter from approval ratings. Are we supposed to compare Clinton’s rise in the white vote to Obama’s drop in white approvals?
Are we supposed to make that comparison? If so, why?
These professors today! Harris-Perry drops several bombs as she proceeds with her critique. And the bombs she drops are potent weapons; the R-bomb is plainly the most important bomb in the American arsenal. That said, we’ll close today with one of the questions with which we closed yesterday’s post:
How careful should a person be when she is dropping such powerful bombs? To that, we’ll add another question:
Did the professor understand that she had no relevant data? That she had no data which were actually relevant to her apparent claim?
Tomorrow: Missing data, missing points of comparison