When White Liberals Attack – Gene Lyons On Race

Melissa Harris-Perry wrote a very thoughtful piece exploring the reasons why President Obama, with his many successes in the face of great opposition, is struggling in the polls with white liberals. It is something I’ve been frustrated with since before the President was sworn in — when people on the left began attacking him about his appointments to various cabinet positions.

At first, I didn’t want to believe that race was a large part of that equation and chalked a lot of it up to “bitterness” left over from the contentious primary fight with Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Dennis Kucinich and the others. But as his presidency progressed and more evidence continued to pile up, I, as a white liberal, began to see that the source of a lot of that disrespect and vitriol clearly was coming from an elitist and superior attitude, much of it rooted in race.

If you haven’t been following the story, I recommend you read Joy Reid’s piece at The Reid Report. She gives some background on the reaction to some on the left to Harris-Perry’s powerful post.

My first instinct whenever I come across something that is clearly over-the-top rhetoric is to attempt to find out the source of that vitriol. Strong opinions don’t usually materialize out of thin air, they come from somewhere and I like to find out where. Using the Google machine, I decided to go back and read some previous writing by Gene Lyons as it relates to race and particularly, President Obama. What I found was quite shocking, in my opinion. You decide for yourself.

On matters of race, I’ve learned as a white, 49 year old male to listen and defer to those who have a closer connection to the effects of racism. What the hell do I know about suffering from racism, other than what I can learn from those who have suffered through it. It’s impossible for me to completely understand what it is like without having experienced it. I’ve accepted that fact and when a person of color speaks about it, I listen and try to internalize it.

One person that I listen to very intently is Melissa Harris-Perry, a very wise and thoughtful person who always makes sense to me whenever I hear her speak or read her words.

Before I post and link to some of Gene Lyons’ previous writing, let’s first take a look at some of what he wrote at Salon.com…it has since been removed (thanks to Angry Black Lady for capturing the Gene Lyons article before it was removed so you don’t have to click on it).

This just in: Not all the fools are Republicans. Recently, one Melissa Harris-Perry, a Tulane professor who moonlights on MSNBC political talk shows, wrote an article for the Nation titled “Black President, Double Standard: Why White Liberals Are Abandoning Obama.”

See, nobody ever criticized Bill Clinton, another centrist Democrat who faced a hostile Republican congress. Indeed, he was “enthusiastically re-elected” in 1996. Therefore, “[t]he 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.”

The professor actually wrote that. See, certain academics are prone to an odd fundamentalism of the subject of race. Because President Obama is black, under the stern gaze of professor Harris-Perry, nothing else about him matters. Not killing Osama bin Laden, not 9 percent unemployment, only blackness.

Furthermore, unless you’re black, you can’t possibly understand. Yada, yada, yada. This unfortunate obsession increasingly resembles a photo negative of KKK racial thought. It’s useful for intimidating tenure committees staffed by Ph.D.s trained to find racist symbols in the passing clouds. Otherwise, Harris-Perry’s becoming a left-wing Michele Bachmann, an attractive woman seeking fame and fortune by saying silly things on cable TV.

When I first read that, my jaw dropped and my head began to shake back and forth. Contrary to what Mr. Lyons said to Joy Ann Reid for her piece in The Grio, this white liberal has serious problems with what was said. I was deeply offended and immediately penned a letter to the editor of Salon.com telling him exactly how I feel about that piece. I couldn’t believe that Salon would print that crap, to be quite honest. But I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, they print Glenn Greenwald and David Sirota’s crap as well.

One of the earliest articles I found from Gene Lyons regarding race was one he did in response to Don Imus’s racist comments towards the Rutger’s woman’s basketball team. Remember,  he called them “nappy-headed hos” and was fired for it. Lyons starts out his piece by acknowledging that what Imus said was offensive, but then he seems to buy it all back with his justifications for it.

There’s no doubt that Imus’ nasty crack about the Rutgers women’s basketball team was brutally offensive in ways nobody really talked about. Maybe because the actual insult didn’t precisely fit anybody’s script in the ensuing melodrama—neither Imus’ nor those who demanded his firing.

You see, it was a “melodrama” that ensued. He continues…

A long-ago graduate of Rutgers —“ The State University” —I’d watched some of the game, read about the slur, figured most New Jersey people had thicker skins than that.


Ethnic insults are a New York/New Jersey art form. My brother used to have a routine where he’d outline who did what on a New Jersey construction job—Mexican laborers, Irish plumber, Polish roofer, Brazilian floor men, Jewish lawyer, etc. He’d close in a loud stage whisper for his Italian partner’s benefit with something about not doing business with “Guidos” at all. But African American is an ethnicity people often don’t let you resign from.


As for Imus, satire’s impossible without giving offense. These ritual banishments only provoke resentment. I’d bring him back, assuming he can find any sponsors.

Well yeah, you wouldn’t want to provoke resentment with “ritual banishments” for people that are overtly racist. Nah, wouldn’t want that…cough, spit.

The great white sage, Lyons, almost a year later in January of 2008 offered his wise counsel that “Democrats best leave race out of the race” as the primaries were heating up and that young senator from Illinois was beginning to make his mark. Gene Lyons was clearly in Hillary Clinton’s corner and was echoing much of what I was hearing during the primaries and beyond from her “cult-like” followers.

In this next post, Lyons takes on the statement by Hillary Clinton during the campaign where she attempted to highlight Senator Obama’s lack of experience by saying that it took President Johnson to implement Martin Luther King’s idealism into law. I won’t relitigate that episode but Gene Lyons’ response to Marjorie Valbrun’s sentiments in the Washington Post are a sign of how seriously Mr. Lyons takes any claims of racism.

“In other words,” wrote Marjorie Valbrun in the Post, “‘I have a dream’ is a nice sentiment, but King couldn’t make it reality. It took a more practical and, of course, white president, Lyndon Johnson, to get blacks to the mountaintop. … Clinton managed to insult a beloved black leader in her eager attempt to insult a rising black leader.”

Except that King himself once told LBJ, “It is ironic, Mr. President, that after a century, a southern white president would help lead the way toward the salvation of the Negro.”

Grow up, Ms. Valbrun.

So yeah, being offended by insults to black leaders is just a matter of “growing up”. It’s that whole, “get over it” mentality of many privileged white people who have no clue what it is like to be discriminated against for your entire life, relentlessly, blatantly as well as subtly. Black people just need to “grow up” according to Gene Lyons. I’m sure he is getting a lot of cheers from racists in both the left and the right for that one.

Jumping ahead a couple of months, after Senator Obama proved that he was the better candidate, as he racked up delegates in state after state, the rhetoric from many white liberal journalists started to boil to the surface. The success of Barack Obama and the dismantling of the Clinton machine started to bring out many white progressives real feelings and I have to say that Gene Lyons didn’t hide his very well at all. But you be the judge of that from his actual words. In this next post, he is quoted by a blogger (original can’t be found) who calls Lyons’ piece “a thumping good column on Obama…

On race and the election

Meanwhile, TV pundits like CNN’s Jack Cafferty warn us that should Obama’s supporters be disappointed in their hopes, you wouldn’t want to live in this country. A more concise way of turning the November contest into a racial referendum can’t be imagined. Who will win that one ? Then what ?


On Obama’s Race Speech

Wright peddles DVDs of his inflammatory sermons on the church Web site. Could Obama possibly imagine they’d help build that coalition that King dreamed of ? Second, what do the Obamas, Harvard Law graduates, tell their two little girls about Wright’s downright delusional contention that the United States government created the AIDS virus to exterminate African Americans ? Anybody named Clinton or Gore who sat still for something like that would be derided as an inauthentic phony – patronizing black folks for political gain, a faker, a con man. Cosseted and protected all his life, Obama’s speech shows that he understands that the Rev. Wrights of this world do as much to keep blacks down as white racism does. All this self pitying obsessing over the sorrows of history leads nowhere.

W.T.F.? What could possibly be his reason for including Jack Cafferty’s “they’re coming for you” quote? Lyons then enjoins Fox New’s meme that Barack Obama should have spoken up about Reverend Wright’s “inflammatory” sermon’s, in this hindsight is 20/20 world — as if Barack Obama should be held accountable for every utterance that comes from his pastor’s mouth, even if he wasn’t even around to hear it.

But Lyons goes further by trotting out the ole’ “if it were a white guy” bullshit when he says if Clinton or Gore had “sat still for something like that”, they would have been called “inauthentic phony – patronizing black folks for political gain, a faker, a con man.” Ah, no, Gene…it would have never been an issue. Fox News started the whole charade and you can bet they wouldn’t have even thought to go after Clinton or Gore for their pastors. It wouldn’t have even been an issue.

He then calls Senator Obama “Cosseted”  (def: 1. to treat as a pet; pamper; coddle.) and claims that Senator Obama knows that the “Rev. Wrights of the world” do as much to keep blacks down as white racism does and that “(A)ll this self pitying obsessing over the sorrows of history leads nowhere.” More of the “get over it” mentality that seems to be an underlying theme for Gene Lyons.

In May of 2008 as Senator Obama was pretty much assured a victory in the Democratic primaries, the shrillness from Hillary supporters became much worse. I remember this time vividly because I had a heated argument with a friend who was a supporter of Hillary. It was not pleasant, she was pulling out many of the same talking points that Gene Lyons’ peppered into his columns during that time. I’ll just give you some highlights from what poured out of his computer. This next piece was titled “Clinton navigates ‘perfect storm’ of naysayers” and it included these gems…

It’s long been my opinion that if Hillary Clinton could be appointed president, nobody could do the job better.

In a parliamentary system, she’d stand an excellent chance of becoming prime minister, since political parties tend to select leaders more on the basis of competence than the dubious skills of a game show host.

That’s just a sign of how deluded Gene Lyons’ thinking had become. I know “sore loser syndrome” is a bitch and no one likes to lose, but really — fantasizing about Hillary being appointed president or about a parliamentary system where she would have “an excellent chance” of becoming prime minister is really sad to read from a grown man or woman. Those were just the first two sentences of his piece, it continues…

Clinton didn’t help herself with an infelicitous demographic allusion, citing an Associated Press story “that found how Senator Obama’s support . . . among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again.”

This prompted even so normally sensible an observer as my good friend Joe Conason to compare her to George Wallace. So did New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, who’s been fanning the racial flames since Obama’s New Hampshire loss. This because under the politically correct rules of engagement preferred by the Obama camp, only the Illinois senator gets to make ex cathedra observations about such ticklish matters as race and class, which must be treated as infallible. Pundits like Herbert and The Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson have been chattering about the so-called “Bradley effect” ever since New Hampshire, but the Clinton camp must not.

You have to just love his characterization of Hillary Clinton’s remarks as “an infelicitous demographic allusion.” And then to refer to talk about the “Bradley Effect” as chattering…nothing like dismissing two respected journalists who happen to be black. If you want more of his whiny excuses for why Hillary Clinton was beaten, go read the whole thing.

In that same month, Lyons also penned a piece called “Democrats who reject Obama”, which was basically a collection of responses he shared from Democrats he had talked to. I’ll just include a few of the worst…

If nominated, Obama can’t possibly defeat Sen. John McCain without bringing Clinton voters to him. Recently, however, I’ve been hearing from many passionate Democrats who say they can’t and won’t vote for him in November. So I asked a few to explain why./snip

Mine is no scientific survey. Ranging from 26 to 86, my correspondents live in seven states, north, south and midwest. They don’t know each other personally. None participates in politics except on a local, volunteer basis. I chose them because they’re unusually articulate./snip

“I‘ve voted for every Democrat from President to dog-catcher since 1952. That will end with Obama,” insists H., in Maine. “He won’t get 150 electoral votes, more than he deserves. The Democratic party’s been teetering on the edge of extinction. Obama’s arrogance will kill it…“/snip

Just four years out of the state senate. If he were white or female, his candidacy would be a joke.“/snip

It’s the Obama campaign’s cynical use of race beginning in South Carolina that’s the deal-breaker for others. “He is making his way to Denver by dividing our party over race, which is maybe the most idiotic campaign tactic ever,” writes C. in Kansas. “This time the witch hunt is coming from our side. It’s heartbreaking. Obama supporters want you to think Bill and Hillary Clinton are lifelong members of the KKK…”/snip

J. in Florida agrees. “Obama and his supporters’ use of the ‘race card’ against the Clintons (with the help of the in-the-tank media) is sickening. Now we have vile, racist, crazed-for-power Hillary./snip

“I’ve decided I won’t help Obama and his personality cult transform the Democratic party into an organization that represents only the interests of rich social liberals.”

What do I think? I suspect most will grudgingly return by November, but that non-African-American working class voters won’t.

How did that work out for you Gene, he won in a landslide. Just over a week later, Gene Lyons continued his whining and crying and revealed a little bit more of his scorn for people who aren’t as lily white as he…

The potential exists for a schism between two of the party’s most loyal and enduring constituencies: African-Americans, and blue-collar white voters in what was once the nation’s industrial heartland along the Ohio River./snip

Which doesn’t mean one must support Clinton or be deemed a woman-hater. Any more than voting against Obama renders one a Klansman. Indeed it’s possible to agree with Judis (John Judis) that race constitutes America’s Original Sin – although feminists would argue that black men won the vote generations before women of any color – while also recognizing that it’s deeply wrong for the national media to go in the tank for any politician. Did pitchers lob softballs to Jackie Robinson?

And finally, (is it ever going to end) I came across a piece from February of this year where Gene Lyons explores racial identity head-on in his piece titled “Racial identity no longer a ‘black’ and ‘white’ issue.

Weary of partisan bickering? Here’s an anodyne topic sure to stimulate lively conversation among your friends. Which boxes should President Obama have checked to identify his race on the 2010 census form?

As the world knows, Obama’s mother was a white woman from Kansas, his father an exchange student from Kenya. But there’s no box labeled “African-American.” So the president checked “black.” He could also have checked “white” but chose not to. /snip

Checking the “black” box on the census form, however, was the politically canny choice. Americans aren’t far enough from the days when absurd categories like “mulatto,” “quadroon,” and “octoroon” had the power to determine people’s lives. Sadly, had he checked the “white” box too, many African-American voters would have resented it. Probably more than white racists, if the truth were told.

More’s the pity. /snip

Obviously, it’s easier to declare independence from some traditions than others. People don’t know these things about me unless I tell them. Even so, demands for racial and ethnic groupthink are crippling no matter the source. All racial arguments are reactionary in effect — indications not of strength but weakness.

As you can see, Gene Lyons clearly has strong opinions about race and has provided us with a window into the thinking of some of the white “liberals” who seem to be congregating at Salon.com and helping to defend the poor, poor white people who have had it so bad in the last few years, since the election of our first black president. I personally hope the next president we elect is Melissa Harris-Perry in 2016. I’ve already offered to be her campaign manager, I’m still waiting for her reply.

Cross-posted at Angry Black Lady Chronicles

Updated: Someone tweeted that Lyons article on Melissa Harris-Perry’s piece had been taken down, I should have verified that info, it is still up…but I’m against giving Salon clicks, so no linky.

9 thoughts on “When White Liberals Attack – Gene Lyons On Race

  1. Wow, you take me back to a powerful but painful moment.

    At my women’s book group that summer one of my friends cried as she talked about the sexism Hillary was experiencing as part of the campaign. I acknowledged her feelings and said that many people felt as strongly about the racism Obama was experiencing. Her response…”What racism?”

    This was a liberal highly educated lesbian white woman. I was stunned!

    But that’s how things were shaking at the time. And I also suspect that its a big part of the subcurrent we’re hearing now in many people’s “disappointment” with Obama.

  2. Obama raised over 70 million dollars so lets just say that I’m not overly worried about a minority of certain liberal groups have to think about Obama. Also lets put it another way if certain liberal groups started praising and loving everything Obama does their might even be pause for concern.

  3. I am not especially worried either; as a result of the money involved and the liberal groups who are unhappy.
    They would be unhappy with any Democratic Party president. Those groups have little influence; they do not concern me very much. I am more concerned that 50% of the voting population does not vote. How do we get them interested enough to be informed? And, to make a logical decision about their vote?

    And, have serious economic problems that are very hard to solve. It took years to get here and there are many ‘guilty parties’. There are no easy repairs.

  4. I hear ya, Smartypants. I remember how frustrated I was in ’08 when I’d hear white women complain (rightly so) about the sexism thrown at Clinton, and become furious when anyone denied or minimized it. If it was a man in particular doing the denying, they’d say, “You have no right to tell a woman what sexism is when you haven’t experienced it yourself.”

    Then some of these same women would turn around and make racist comments about Obama, or deny or minimize the racism he was receiving. None of them saw the irony.

  5. I am most concerned with the many Republican state legislatures taking “voter suppression” actions, denying the right to vote to so many seniors, college students, and minority voters, knowing that in 2008, these groups were strong for Obama. It’s “Jim Crow” all over again and the Justice Department must take action. Also Democratic groups need to summon volunteers to take these people to be registered, to get the needed photo ID’s, (now often many miles away with their closing down license bureaus in less populous counties), etc., Give me a list of names and addresses and I would gladly drive them to the polls to vote.

  6. I’m an insider. That is to say I know racism when I see it and when I hear it. I don’t use the term “racism” lightly – never have. I will say that I was actually stunned to read the racial name-calling of the President on left blogs – firebaggers. It amazes me how disingenuous some of the left are with their lack of “back slapping” the President for any accomplishment. To let them tell it, he hasn’t done a thing in 3 years and all those sites that list 244 accomplishments must be talking about somebody else. I really didn’t even expect “YOU LIE” from a Republican shouted at the President on the House floor. Sure I heard the racism during the campaign and I knew he would be faced with some should he win. I was just kinda taken aback at the extent. Oh and may I say a word about Tavis Smilely and Cornel West who are hell bent and determined to bring down the first AA President for God knows what reasons – other than personal hatred and jealously. Also, many AA’s are sitting back watching the OWS ’cause we hear a lot of anti-Obama rhetoric. I had one OWS supporter tell me on Twitter that the President is an Uncle Tom. His profile did mention Firelakedog or whatever and that he and “many others” want Nader to run.

  7. “On matters of race, I’ve learned as a white, 49 year old male to listen and defer to those who have a closer connection to the effects of racism. What the hell do I know about suffering from racism, other than what I can learn from those who have suffered through it. It’s impossible for me to completely understand what it is like without having experienced it. I’ve accepted that fact and when a person of color speaks about it, I listen and try to internalize it.”

    THIS is an essential component of any discussion about race.

    IMHO, many white Americans don’t seem to understand that, because of this nation’s history of forced assimilation of blacks, we blacks know much more about what life is like for White America, but they know very little about what life is like for Black America, and to assume that the playing field is level is a gross misconception. Even when we achieve great things, we are never entirely free from bias that comes in one form or another. I cast my first vote in my first year of college in 1972, and I’ve never known an American president that has had to show a birth certificate to verify that he is a native-born citizen. PBO has achieved many things in his life, but it still didn’t allow him to escape the “bad cloud” that some Americans think hovers over the head of every black person in America. A “bad cloud” whose existence is perceived by them to have an “inherent connection” to the amount of melanin one has in one’s skin. Most white Americans would be surprised to discover just how often this happens to black people, even in the 21st Century.

  8. Some white liberals, while they claim they don’t have a racist bone, show a condescension towards blacks. Remember the remarks about Obama being described by Joe Biden as “articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” Harry Reid said in 2008 that Obama was “light skinned” and “with no Negro dialect”.

    I went to college with an outstanding black student, captain of the varsity basketball team and a Phi Beta Kappa graduate in English literature. He went on to Columbia for graduate work and ended up heading all of the libraries for the University of Illinois system. Growing up in a 100% white rural community, I had only had interaction with black hot dog/peanut vendors at the nearby Chicago ballparks. This fellow student was actually the first black person with whom I ever had a complete conversation. He had a great grasp on the English language, and although growing up in Chicago, he had no urban dialect. Once, another student complimented him on his mastery of the English language in such a way that it actually sounded condescending. The black student came back telling that white student, “Forget that I am black, but don’t forget I am black.” At first we scratched our heads at an obvious contradiction in his statement, then realized that he wanted us to see him beyond race and stereotypes, but also not to deny his race and heritage.

    BTW, I Googled to see if this student wasn’t quoting somebody but only found this article:


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