Sister Citizen: Black Women and Politics

Monday, September 26, 2011

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show, professor of political science at Tulane University, contributor to MSNBC and author of Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America, Melissa Harris-Perry, talked about the political lives of American black women and what stereotypes keep black women from civic engagement.

Politics of recognition (and emotion)

Melissa Harris-Perry's research focuses on what she calls the "politics of recognition"—when a black female politician expresses anger or indignation, will people really listen, or will they just see a "mad black woman"? Being stamped as angry or emotional can undermine an elected representative's policies in the eyes of voters; do stereotypes leave black women less leeway to say what they think?

Harris-Perry points to Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) as an example.

The actual content of what she's discussing gets lost because there's this assumption that her anger is based in her identity, rather than in the politics that she's trying to respond to.

Harris-Perry said it was curious that we see emotion as a handicap for politicians at all, especially given that American policy in the last decade has been essentially one big emotional reaction to tragedy.

We put [policies] into motion in the weeks and months immediately following 9/11, when we were basically as a country experiencing a kind of national post-traumatic that has had literally a decade of political reverberations as a result. And yet we still tend to think of ourselves as entering into the political world as our little rational selves.

Pragmatism in the age of Obama

Much of the rest of this morning's show was about the Wall Street protests and national malaise. Some in the media have wondered why Americans aren't rioting the way citizens have been in countries like Great Britain, even Egypt earlier this year.

But if we're surprised that Americans aren't rioting, perhaps we should be shocked that black Americans aren't. As Brian Lehrer and Harris-Perry observed, that old saying, "When white people get a cold, black people get the flu," holds true economically in America. Indeed, Harris-Perry said for the last 30 years black unemployment has been consistently double white unemployment. What keeps them from taking to the streets? Harris-Perry said it was pragmatism, apparently trumping emotion.

We are pretty used to experiencing double the rate of unemployment of white communities...There's tremendous pragmatism on the part of African-Americans who will not see their suffering suddenly used against a Democratic president. It's not just because he's black...The recognition on the part of pragmatic African-Americans is that there's no great racial progressive savior about to show up. The alternative is President Perry, President Bachmann, or President Romney.


Melissa Harris-Perry


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Comments [28]

The Truth from Becky

Ignorance abounds here today.

Sep. 26 2011 11:19 AM
Bob from Poconos

Black women are stereotyped?

In the first of 15 years I lived at the far end of WNYC's block, I stuck my head out the bedroom window on the first warm spring day and saw a tall Black woman pulling weeds in the next yard, friendly, cheerful, warm, obviously hard-working. I wondered where the people who must own the place found help like that.

Later, I learned this one grew up poor in Mississippi and learned to pull weeds while singing for a living. You just take the A-train to the Metropolitan Opera and ask for the soprano who holds their record for the longest standing ovation, ... and whether she wants to buy your place and pull those weeds too.

Black women are stereotyped.

Sep. 26 2011 11:12 AM
Sophie from Poughkeepsie, NY

At Walmart I've also seen the scariest combination; packs of Angry-Jezebel white women ready to scratch your eyes out in the cereal aisle!

Move aside *itch!

Sep. 26 2011 11:11 AM

The unfortunate thing about the race divide in this country is that it has been very harmful to the feminism. I think most black women will define themselves as black first and women second and this leads to a more entrenched form of self-censorship and self-sexism where you see young hip-hop women defending obviously sexist imagery and lyrics (and even performing them) because supporting the success of black men, even at the expense of the women, is seen as more important. I think the obvious discomfort and avoidance of your guest in targeting men in the black community speaks volumes. I also think that Oprah's choice of Obama over Clinton, who in terms of experience undoubtedly outranked Obama, was a prime example of the problem, since both of their platforms in that primary were essentially identical.

Sep. 26 2011 11:10 AM
Samantha H. from yonkers, ny

I think that a lot of this is class differentiation. Working class men and women of any nationality are more emotional than the professionals of that nationality whether Afro American, Irish, Italian, Latino. It becomes a way of differentiating oneself from the "lower" class when one nationality rises professionally. and they professionals are taught not to be emotional. (telling white women that it is not "ladylike" to be angry) This actually robs them of the ability to fight politically because that is considered --again -- as lower class.

Not being angry, not openly organizing to fight back -- this is hurting the professionals in the Black community. Better they look to and identify with their working class brothers and sisters and learn from them rather than vice-versa.

Sep. 26 2011 11:08 AM

Whatever Northrup. We're ALLLLLLLLLLL prejudice.

Sep. 26 2011 11:08 AM
MichaelB from Morningside Heights

Screaming at someone else for normal, everyday public interactions (such as pointed out by some on this blog, getting off an elevator, or getting onto a subway car), is not the same as confidence, Becky. These other bloggers are not exaggerating.
There are some black women out there constantly looking for a fight, full of self-righteous indignation.

And yes, there are also some youngish black males also looking to get into a physical altercation with all sorts of anti-social, loutish behavior. God-forbid you try to get by them to move into the center of a subway car to make room to allow others to board as well. They give you a look as if you had murdered their mothers and are ready to start a fight.

In effect, it's REVERSE racism. Yes, it is the unspoken secret that never gets talked about.

It's very sad because it does no one any good.

If you have never encountered this, or observed it, you must either be living in a cocoon, or have your face in a very good book!

Sep. 26 2011 11:07 AM
The Truth from Becky

Funny how people are only addressing the "angry" stereotype.

Sep. 26 2011 11:05 AM

We continue to visit this problem because it is still a problem. Evidence for that is apparent in many of the comments here.

The claim that the stereotype of the angry black woman is debunked by its basis in reality does not wash. Just because you have seen many angry black women on the subway does not mean that the stereotype holds for all black women, right? So what is the point of bringing up these examples? The truth is that both exist: angry black women and the dangerous, toxic stereotype of the angry black woman.

The problem with the persistence of the stereotype is that those who buy into it tend to perceive any strong behavior of black women as "angry." No such preconceptions color encounters with white women.

Sep. 26 2011 11:02 AM
john from office

Tyler Perry is the worst thing to happen to "black culture" and it is sad that he makes money at his "art".

Sep. 26 2011 10:58 AM
MichaelB from Morningside Heights

As for Maxine Waters, sorry but she's a poor example. I have no problem with people having a right to express their anger, especially when there is history and reasons for that anger.

But Ms. Waters has been a long-playing one-note record for years.

I could accept even that, but I have listened to her carefully for years, and in most instances, she goes for the low blow and she has been purposely divisive and an opportunist. I.e., a demagogue.

Sep. 26 2011 10:57 AM
Lamar from Harlem from Harlem

What about how black women are portrayed in television commercials: light skinned with afro like hair dominate when products are luxury or fashion dominate. Dark skin or black women that are dominant in the black community are invisible.

Sep. 26 2011 10:56 AM
dj from manhattan

In NYC as an earlier commentator mentioned, one often sees African American women are angry and abusive to their children in public, but more often, it is the African American men you see "looking for a fight" by walking around angry and hoping someone bumps into them so they can go off on them

Sep. 26 2011 10:56 AM
Dorian from Montclair

Fyi, one of the most charming soft-spoken revolutionary black women of the world died, and would like to hear some response to the peaceful and extraordinary tactics of action that Wangari Maathai used in her own Nobel prize-winning work.

Sep. 26 2011 10:56 AM
Rachel from Brooklyn

These images are applicable to all women; it is the three muses from Greek mythology, updated.

Sep. 26 2011 10:56 AM
Sophie from Poughkeepsie, NY

I see many of these stereotypes in the local Walmart--and these women are white.

Sep. 26 2011 10:55 AM

I agree 100 % with the comments above. The stereotype of the Angry Black woman comes from reality. Especially from one woman to another. As a White woman, I have encountered this behavior in the Subways, lobbies of skyscrapers, restaurants, stores etc.

I am sick of the assumption that I did something to deserve a push from another woman, or deserve to be given an ugly look, or tutted or sighed at over some mistaken slight when really, I stepped off the elevator first because I was closer to the door!!

Stop looking for racism everywhere.

I am NOT the only person who has encountered this.

Sep. 26 2011 10:55 AM
Rachel from Brooklyn

These images are applicable to all women; it is the three muses from Greek mythology, updated.

Sep. 26 2011 10:54 AM
Fuva from Harlemworld.

The "portrayed failures of unrelated fictive kin" will make those blacks feel shame who lack socioeconomic, histroical analysis...Unfortunately, this is widespread.

(And Becky is on point, as she often is. And funny.)

Sep. 26 2011 10:52 AM
The Truth from Becky

If that is true "johnfromtheoffice" what is your stereotype?

Sep. 26 2011 10:52 AM
Sheldon from Brooklyn

I wonder what the guest thinks about Viacom programming - "basketball wives" etc.?

Sep. 26 2011 10:51 AM
The Truth from Becky

Confidence is received as arrogance, outspokeness received as opinionated angry black woman, passivity as weakness, you can't win this game so you find yourself "shifting" all day long.

Sep. 26 2011 10:51 AM
john from office

Most stereotypes are based in truth. I live in NYC and take the train, I have seen Black woman go off on their kids. The behavior then just moves on to the next generation.

Sep. 26 2011 10:49 AM
The Truth from Becky

annnd by the by I am in the Financial Securities world and therefore the stock market is our main concern right now HOWEVER, I so endure the "battle of wits" against the men in the company every day of the week!!

Sep. 26 2011 10:48 AM
MichaelB from Morningside Heights

I'm sorry, but there may indeed be a "stereotype" of the angry black woman, but you'd have to be willfully ignorant to deny that it is based in reality (and I'm not excusing the tendency of the media to do this character to death, usually in "comedies.)

But I've encountered hundreds of episodes of such women on the streets & subways of New York teeing off on someone else. Woe be to the man OR woman who crosses her!

Sep. 26 2011 10:47 AM
Sheldon from Brooklyn

They have tried to put Michelle Obama in that narrative but she hasn't bitten the bait.

Sep. 26 2011 10:44 AM

I wonder if Ms. Harris-Perry has ridden the subway during rush hour. I'd like her to explain her stereotype theories in the face of that. Ever been on an uptown 4 train when the Yankees are at home? Give me a break.

And by the way, Maxine Waters is a hateful politician.

Sep. 26 2011 10:44 AM
The Truth from Becky

Why O Lord do we keep visiting this topic...I personally am no longer interested in making certain people understand this concept. It is not an experience they will ever be able to relate to.

Sep. 26 2011 10:43 AM

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