Sister Citizen: Black Women and Politics

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.