At Monday’s opening plenary of the progressive Take Back America conference in Washington, D.C., Tulane University professor and MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry traced the complex path progressives have taken in the post-September 11 world, pointing out how creating racial enemies creates a “fear of each other” that makes Americans “exceptionally easy to divide.”
Harris-Perry looked at significant post-9/11 events in the last decade, from the 2004 election to Hurricane Katrina. It is this latter event, she pointed out, that seemed to wake progressives up. “We realized we’ve allowed our own citizens to drown, to die, to dehydrate on camera.” At that moment, the power of warmaking faded in the eyes of the American public, launching Democrats to retake Congress in 2006.
She also pointed out that the emphasis on “law and order,” perpetrated by a Democratic governor and a Democratic mayor in post-Katrina Louisiana, is what led to “shoot first” laws, also known as “Stand Your Ground” legislation endorsed by the American Legislative Exchange Council, that are ultimately under question after the shooting of 17-year-old Florida teen Trayvon Martin in February.
Harris-Perry followed the complex the racial divide in America. The infamous “You Lie!” moment, in which Joe Wilson interrupted President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech in 2009, “looks like ordinary, old-fashioned, Jim Crow racism,” Harris-Perry said of political commentators at the the time who saw the event as a fracture in black-white race relations. Harris-Perry reminded the Take Back the American Dream audience that in fact this interruption came while the president was insisting that health care reform, something he called a “right” during the 2008 election, would not extend to undocumented immigrants.
She concluded her speech, which weaved together many of the key issues progressives are trying to use to motivate voters this November — from the War on Women to “Stand Your Ground” laws to immigration reform, by saying America was an “adolescent” country that was still undergoing change. “We’re making a bit of a mess of it. That said, there is no reason to lose hope. The fear that has activated the past decade cannot be countered with more fear of what is coming.”
“I guess struggle doesn’t worry me in the sense of being struggle itself,” Harris-Perry said, reminding the audience of the struggles of her own grandmother. “What I do know is that my enslaved grandmother who was sold on a street corner in Richmond, Virginia, believed in God. And 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 anyone she was related to. Never expected anything but slavery for all the people who she would be related to in the future.”
“I’m not asking you to believe in God, or to accept any sort of supreme being,” like her grandmother did, Harris-Perry said. “I’m asking you to think about the faith that is associated with the hope that is not necessarily rooted in the empirical realities that you see around you 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 this moment but simply requires us not to be afraid of each other. It’s our fear of each other that makes us exceptionally easy to divide.”
Harris-Perry said she was about to leave to go to talk with the Bushes about volunteerism because, even though she didn’t always disagree with them, she wasn’t afraid of them.
Van Jones took the stage after Harris-Perry, echoing many of her sentiments.
Jones called out those who were vocal in 2008 but were noticeably quieter now. “You have more power and influence than you recognize,” Jones said. “Careful now. It is a dangerous time to be reckless and irresponsible with the power we do have. We are now in danger of immobilizing and demoralizing people at the very moment they need to be lifted up.” He said, “democracy is not an app.”
He pointed out that when conservatives get in power, “they decimate us,” Jones said, but when progressives get in power, they want to be “bipartisan.”
He lauded young undocumented immigrants, who knew that had more to gain in the short term by keeping their heads down and saying nothing, yet they were coming out as undocumented and demanding immigration reform. “They stepped forward. When it was hard. When no one would have counseled them to do it,” Jones said.
You can see the full video of the morning session, broadcast by C-SPAN2, here.
Kay Steiger is the managing editor of Raw Story. Her contributions have appeared in The American Prospect, The Atlantic, Campus Progress, The Guardian, In These Times, Jezebel, Religion Dispatches, RH Reality Check, and others. You can follow her on Twitter @kaysteiger.
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