Activism

Melissa Harris-Perry: Fear Is Driving America's Politics, But Hope Is the Only Antidote

In her speech Monday in Washington, D.C., at Take Back the American Dream, Perry explained that racism, anti-immigrant panic and the war on women all drive our politics.

Photo Credit: A.M. Stan

Editor's Note: This is a transcript of a speech delivered yesterday at the Take Back the American Dream conference, produced by the Campaign for America's Future in Washington, DC. Links were added by AlterNet.

Good morning. This is the start of what is going to be an ideologically diverse day for me. I'm going to run off the stage today when I am done with my address, because I am running off to Chicago, where I will join the Bush family for a conversation about volunteerism in America, so that'll be fun. By the end of the day, I will have no idea what's going on in the world. But I am very happy to start my day with you -- and particularly because what I find my [place] within the public sphere is not to be an activist or an organizer per se; I am married to an activist and an organizer, so it's very clear to me which one of us does real work and which one of us talks about the real work that needs to get done in the world, and so that is probably not my comparative advantage. I hope to do a little bit today about what I think my comparative advantage is, which is to try to understand analytically where we are, and how we got here.

So, I'm appreciative of the framework of thinking about this within a historical context -- a kind of robber baron moment. And want to take up a much shorter historical moment -- really just the past decade. And [not] focusing primarily on what the elites have been up to, to think a little bit about how where we are now has been made possible by the choices that we, as ordinary Americans and citizens, made. We were not fully disempowered in these moments: We made choices.

The legacy of September 11

So, I want to start with the moment that is September 11, 2001, because I believe that the era that we are in now begins on September 11, 2001. The election of George W. Bush in 2000, whatever we think about it, was an election that was ultimately a choice that the American people made [interrupted by a shrill, whistle sound] -- okay, that's fine; I've been reading The Hunger Games [laughter]; I really was running through my head what kind of thing the Capitol might have been sending to us at this point.

September 11, 2001 -- my [point] here is that when we elected George W. Bush, or when George W. Bush was handed the American presidency by the Supreme Court of the United States, that decision was made, in part, because we understood ourselves to be in a time of peace, internationally; of domestic economic growth. George W. Bush, for whatever his failings or successes, does seem like a guy to kind of keep the party goin'. So, if you're thinking that you're coming out of the Clinton era and things are good economically and we're at peace internationally, then it does not seem that odd to make the choice of electing a kinder, gentler conservative, right? You've got to go back to 2000 to remember where we were in that moment.

We did not know then that just a few months into the first year of George W. Bush's presidency that there would no longer the good times, that it would no longer be a time of economic expansion, it would no longer be a time of relative international peace, but instead that the new era would begin when Americans finally came into [the place] many of our trading partners, political partners and allies had been for decades, which is in the age of contemporary terrorism.

Americans, of course, responded in very typically American ways to that enter into something that many people in the rest of the world had already experienced. We began with a kind of nationalist fervor that was justified as reasonable patriotism. I'd like to point out that we clearly must have been having post-traumatic stress disorder because, for about a year after September 11th, there were African American men walking around the city of New York with NYPD hats on. That can only be explained as a PTSD response. We'll just let you sit with that for a minute.

But the other thing that happened in that moment I don't want to miss is [we saw] a new version of what America typically needs emerge, and that is a new racial enemy. Americans, in part, identify who we are and who deserves what through our notions of whiteness and the racial enemies that are the non-whites. In this moment, the new racial enemy became not so much Reagan's "welfare queen" (who was imaginary), but instead this imagined other that is somehow Muslim or Arab or Sikh or something else.

We became willing to stomach a kind of horrific racial violence in the name of national security. It's something that we have been willing to stomach as a people over and over again in our history. The PATRIOT Act was not an act of a Republican president acting alone. The PATRIOT Act was a bipartisan decision...it was not bought and paid for by corporations; it was bought and paid for by our fear.

"We made these choices"

As much as we have our eyes on the Citizens United decision, we have to remember that it was our collective angst -- maybe not the people in this room -- but our collective angst that gave permission to Democrats in the House to rally behind Republicans in the White House under the banner of nationalist patriotic security with the goal of reducing both our domestic civil liberties and giving us an entrance into what is, at this moment, an everlasting war. We made these choices.

So, that was September 11, 2001. An interesting thing happens a few years later. The Democrats need to run a presidential candidate. And it turns out Democrats are really very bad at one thing -- actually, a couple of things, but one thing in particular --- and one of the things we're very, very bad at is trying to think about what kind of Democrat Republicans will vote for. Right? This our, like, predictive ability thing. Probably the only reason we wound up with candidate Obama is because we ran an open-seat race, and so we didn't really know who we were running against and so we got all, like, free with our actual preferences, and ended up with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama as the final two. We never would have made those choices had we been running against an incumbent; we undoubtedly would have picked John Edwards. Let's just be honest.

But in 2004, we chose what we thought would be the good, moderate candidate, one that would get Republican votes, and that, of course, was John Kerry, who showed up at the 2004 [Democratic National Convention] and saluted and said, "Reporting for duty."

We did not, in the fall of 2004, launch, as a Democratic Party, an attempt to push back against the war effort; quite the opposite, Democrats decided to run a soldier under the banner -- the idea that he could do even better at the war machine. So what changed it?

August 29, 2005.

The legacy of Hurricane Katrina

August 29, 2005, was the day that the levies failed in the City of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Maybe it's actually not that day, because on that day, and on the five subsequent days immediately after the levies failed and the city flooded, we behaved just as we did in the immediate post-9/11 moment. We got scared of our racial enemies.

The governor of Louisiana, a Democrat; the mayor of the City of New Orleans, a black Democrat; jointly decided to suspend search-and-rescue efforts in order to focus on law and order. Until -- until -- the national media recognized that there were people -- black people, actually; women, elderly and children -- starving and dying (video) in the city center. It wasn't until the images of African American women, the elderly and children who were dehydrated in the heat of a New Orleans August finally turned the language away from this kind of law-and-order language and into what The Economist called "the shaming of America."

I don't know if you remember this, looking at the image right now -- if I'd have gotten myself together I would have put it up as a PowerPoint -- was the image of The Economist magazine, in the second week of September, 2005. An African American woman is on the cover; she's wearing a New Orleans tee shirt, and [the headline] says, "The Shaming of America."

I'd like you to pause and ask yourself how many black women have appeared on the cover of The Economist magazine. And I don't know her name. I live in New Orleans, I've studied Katrina, and I don't know her name. And yet there are very, very few black women who ever have appeared...and yet the notion that there was still a collective shaming that happens in a country that fancies itself a place where women and children are first -- Hurricane Katrina actually shames us into an anti-war stance.

Here's how it goes: From September 11, 2001, until about September 4, I'm gonna give it, of 2005, we are trying to participate in the nationalist, patriotic fervor against the imagined racial enemy that is those others over there that are activating terrorism against us, right until the levies failed, we realized that we allowed our own citizens to drown, to die, dehydrate, on camera, and we go, "Oh, if you can't give water to an American city for a week, how can you prosecute a foreign war?"

And the Democratic Party feels a little steel drop down its spine. All these media folks who live in New York City who realize that if this is how we respond to disasters, they're screwed -- and for the first time we start hearing an active anti-war message [from the party]. This, of course, is how, in 2006, Democrats win back the House.

They win the House in 2006 because, for the first time, they have articulated an actual paradigm difference to the Republican Party for the first time in five years. And, of course, we remember the response to the anti-war message that won the mid-term elections in 2006: the surge. The response to the American people saying, "We want out of the war," is that the White House sent more soldiers into the war.

It is exactly the opposite that happens in 2010 when, by taking over the House, the Republican Party decides it as a mandate from the American people to turn back what they had just done in 2008. [The Bush] White House, in 2006, told us, "We don't care what happened in the mid-terms. We are running this war effort." And we let them.

An accidental senator?

Of course, we know what happened then, right after that. The young guy, he was a state senator in Illinois, he managed to make it into the U.S. Senate only because the Republican Party in Illinois was in such a shambles that their decision for a candidate to run against him was Alan Keyes. And on a Wednesday, I can probably beat Alan Keyes for almost any race. This is not to say that State Senator Barack Obama is anything short of exceptional, but the ease with which he walked into the U.S. Senate had everything to do with the failures of Judy Baar Topinka and the Illinois Republican Party. Thanks, Judy; we appreciate that.

In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the national figure who emerges is Barack Obama on one hand, and Hillary Clinton on the other, and the sense among the American people that what we had just done and had been doing since 2001 was not the best of who we were, that we were capable of something else.

I loved the 2008 campaign. It was great fun. It was -- it just was, that 2008 campaign -- great fun. But it wasn't fun because the Obama for America campaign was so brilliant; they were fine. It was great fun because of the freelancing that went on. Remember the freelancing that went on? Here Barack Obama goes and does this amazing thing in New Hampshire. He loses [the New Hampshire primary], and then gives a victory speech -- which takes real gumption. He loses in New Hampshire and he's like, screw it, I'm gonna give "Yes We Can" anyway. He stands up and gives [his] "Yes We Can" [speech]. It's an amazing moment. Wow, that's hot! And then we walk away -- until, a week later, and what happens? Will.I.Am remixes "Yes We Can" (video).

When you think about why "Yes We Can" matters, it's not because of Barack Obama giving it; it's because Will.I.Am remixed it and you post it on your Facebook wall and then you emailed it, and it became viral. The excitement of the 2008 campaign was the way in which, [through] freelancing and technology...ordinary people decided that what we had been doing since September 11, 2001, was no longer the best of who we were, and how the 2008 campaign might provide an opportunity for us to indicate the best of who we were, the exceptionalism that we define as what made us exceptional: our willingness to think about either a white woman or a black guy [as president of the United States]. That's cool...

The response from the right was a kind of anxiety about what that meant -- a willingness to pull us back into what we had been doing for the years before. So, once President Obama is elected, the language is that he is a secret Muslim. Of course he's a secret Muslim because remember on September 11, 2001, the racial enemy becomes the Muslims. Of course, you can't be a secret Muslim. You can be a secret Christian; it's a different kind of religion. A Christian, all you gotta do is [say], "I love Jesus, he's in my heart," and then you can be a Christian. You can just do that secretly. But, like, if you're a Muslim there are certain kinds of practices that you have to do, so you can't, like, secretly be one. That's not how it works. You notice them praying five times a day.

Racism, anti-immigrant panic and the war on women

But along with that kind of anxiety about this kind of secret outsider was also the revival of the anti-immigrant panic. And we areas much, on the left, to blame for failing to recognize this and stem this at the moment that it occurred. Do you remember the Joe Wilson moment? President Obama is speaking [before a joint session of Congress]; [Rep.] Joe Wilson, R-S.C., stands up and says, "You lie!" and the left freaks out. It's racism. Black guy speaking, white guy from a former Confederate state says "you lie" while a black guy is speaking -- that looks like ordinary, old-fashioned racism.

But don't forget this: President Obama, when he was speaking, in that moment, talking about the healthcare reform bill, said, when this passes, don't worry; illegals will not be allowed to partake in the healthcare reform that we are passing, and then Joe Wilson stood up and said, "You lie."So the president was actually, in that moment, drawing a bright line, a boundary, between citizens and non-citizens between on this issue of a fundamental human right -- healthcare reform -- before Joe Wilson stands up and says "You lie!"

So the terrain there is multiple levels. Yes, there's probably some of that old-fashioned Jim Crow racism, but there's also this brand-new anti-immigration panic. Notice that when the president this week was interrupted by a journalist [from The Daily Caller] in the Rose Garden that that interruption came when he was talking about immigration.

That laying on of anxieties is about this new fear, this old fear, and mixed together with American racism. Of course, there's plenty of old-fashioned American racism going on among us, as people. We are not talking about elites. The shoot-to-kill laws that took Trayvon Martin's life are the same shoot-to-kill laws that were enacted in the days immediately following Hurricane Katrina. They are based in our same great fear that emerged immediately post-September 11th -- this kind of vilification of bodies that we assume to be criminal.

Lay on top of all of that the war on women, the war on women that I noticed was occurring -- I wasn't sure it was occurring, but I started seeing it when President Obama nominated Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court.

If you can take yourself back and remember the gauntlet that she was forced to walk through those Senate confirmation hearings -- just for fun, for kicks and giggles this afternoon, watch the Jamie Dimon hearing (video) right next to the Sonia Sotomayor confirmation hearing (video). Just watch it.

Right after Sonia Sotomayor was put through what I like to call an Elizabeth Eckford moment -- Elizabeth Eckford is the girl, the teenage girl who was forced to walk that gauntlet in Little Rock, with those screaming, yelling faces behind her, so much like what I saw when I was watching Sonia Sotomayor [testify] -- right after that, we then have the vilification of Shirley Sherrod.

Now, I want to point out here that, on this point I'm not making a critique of the administration; I'm actually making a critique of the NAACP, an organization that I think has been doing extraordinary and exceptional work especially recently, but who, in that moment, when Shirley Sherrod was first presented to the American people by Andrew Breitbart as a racist, the leadership of the NAACP initially -- although they came around pretty quickly -- initially saying she should be ashamed of herself for her comments. Now, that had to have happened because they just didn't know who Shirley Sherrod was.

And see, that's fine if you didn't know who Shirley Sherrod was; maybe it's okay if I didn't know -- but I did. But if you have ever watched "Eyes on the Prize," which I assume anyone who is in the leadership of the NAACP did, then the name "Sherrod" in the state of Georgia should have rung a bell for you because Charles Sherrod and Shirley Sherrod liberated the rest of Georgia while [Martin Luther] King was taking care of Atlanta. But that willingness to see a rural black woman from Georgia as inherently expendable--

And then, of course, post-2010, the full assault on women through the personhood amendments, through the fight between Komen and Planned Parenthood, they're putting contraception on the agenda in the 21st century. I'm sorry, I have to laugh. Like, seriously? We're talking about the Pill in 2012. The outlawing of abortions that never actually occurred, telling Sandra Fluke that she has to basically defend against being a slut in order to speak to the American people as though she were in Egypt and she has to submit to a virginity test in order to be in the public sphere-- oh, yeah, and that 2010 "year of the GOP woman" is the first year that we actually lost ground in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate in terms of women's representation in 30 years.

We did that. And when I say "we" I mean the American people in the broadest sense. That our fear, our anxiety, our willingness to frame others, whether they are unruly women, "illegal" immigrants, "lazy" black people, "terrorist" Muslims -- our willingness to not see ourselves in them, but to see them as the other make possible all of these policy moments.

Now, this is the last thing I will say, and then I will run from this building: There is no reason to lose hope. We are just not perfect people. We're kind of like an adolescent country. Remember adolescence? My daughter is almost 11; I had forgotten. Adolescence is hard. You just randomly feel bad, and get afraid, and wonder about the security of childhood that you once had. And particularly for a country that became so dominant so quickly, that became so wealthy in the context of such inequality, that understood itself as standing on the shining hill -- we are in our adolescence and we're making a bit of a mess of it.

Reason to hope

That said, there is no reason to lose hope. The fear that has activated the last decade cannot be countered with more fear of what is coming. Is there money in the political system? Yup. Is the Supreme Court friendly? No. Are there folks willing to actually damage the very core of our democratic principles in order to win short-term gains? Um-hm.

Maybe it's coming from people who were slaves and Mormons -- my white people [ancestors] were Mormons; my black people were slaves. Everybody was basically after them. The Mormons got ejected out of Missouri, had to push handcarts across the American West. The black folks got enslaved for a couple of centuries. I don't know, I guess struggle doesn't worry me in the sense of being struggle itself.

What I do know is that my enslaved grandmother who was sold on a street corner in Richmond, Virginia, believed in God. Now, I'm not asking you to believe in God; I'm asking you to think about this: This is a woman who never knew anything but slavery for herself, never knew anything but slavery for everyone she'd ever been related to, never expected anything but slavery for all of the people she would be related to in the future. There was no empirical evidence that any being cared about her circumstances. There was no empirical evidence that there was a loving God who had any power. And if there was a loving God, he was pretty pitiful, or if he was powerful, he didn't seem to love her.

I'm not asking you to believe in God or to accept any kind of supreme being. I'm asking you to think about the faith that is associated with the hope that is not necessarily rooted in the empirical realities you see around you right at this moment, that says that we can still be part of something that is bigger than ourselves, and something that we cannot necessarily see at the moment, but simply requires us not to be afraid of each other. Because it's our fear of each other that makes us exceptionally easy to divide.

I know I've talked a lot, but I really do have to go talk to the Bushes now, but it's because I'm not afraid of them. I'm not angry with them; I often disagree. But I am not afraid of any person with whom we are struggling. We can get to another place.

Melissa Harris-Perry hosts an eponymous weekend show on MSNBC and is a columnist for the Nation. She is professor of political science at Tulane University, where she is founding director of the Anna Julia Cooper Project on Gender, Race, and Politics in the South.