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5 Questions For: MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry on political diversity and being ‘better off’

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This year’s political convention season, says MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry, got complicated. Although she is in Charlotte for the Democratic National Convention this week, she missed going to Tampa, Florida last week for its Republican counterpart because real life got in the way. Hurricane Isaac’s path, which initially threatened the convention before tearing through New Orleans, meant the Tulane University professor and her family had to evacuate their home, which they subsequently lost.

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“In a certain way, the personal drama, set against the backdrop of the convention, helps to remind us that the personal is political,” she told Raw Story Wednesday. “On the one hand, we were having our own personal issues about wind and rain and a hurricane, but the fact is, levees are political, and disasters — whether or not aid is going to come to your community, has to do with who is making those choices from a political position. And so, certainly it’s been hard, but it’s helped to crystallize why elections really do matter.”

Raw Story: Speaking of the personal being political, talk about your journey over the past four years.

Harris-Perry: When I attended the DNC in Denver, I was writing for The Root at that point, was mostly just a blogger, every once in a while showing up on MSNBC as a voice, but not even a contributor. And the idea that four years later I would end up with my own show is… certainly it’s not something I was even thinking about four years ago. But more than anything, I guess, it’s been an opportunity for me to take all the things I care about as an academic and watch them occurring. What I studied, what I spent 15 years doing, is race and politics in the American context. And now we’re seeing all these issues play out on the national stage, and it’s pretty extraordinary to be able to have a voice in that as it’s happening.

Raw Story: From your position, you are well acquainted with the resonance any minute, any sentence, any moment can have in the social media space. And I want to take you back to this past Saturday. I know you apologized, but at the same time, that resonated. What you were talking about struck a chord with people. How well do you find that phenomenon translating, among your colleagues, both as a media presence and an academic?

Harris-Perry: Let me start by saying that when I apologized, my apology was not for what I said. It was not even for the passion with which I said it. But it was for yelling at a guest. I’ve been a guest on many shows — shows where I agree with the host, where I don’t agree with the host, and I do feel like, as a host, the thing that I want to be is not someone who, even if I fundamentally disagree with my guests, makes my guests feel like I’m yelling at them. To me, it makes me feel like a bully. Because I’m sitting there in the host’s chair. So my apology was for yelling at a guest. No matter how much we may have disagreed.

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And no one asked me to do that apology: it was just my initial reaction. I in no way apologized for the sentiment, because I am angry. Like, not just disappointed, and not just finding that it lacks facts — I’m angry at the portrayal of poor, working-class people in this country, and the idea that somehow, poor people, working-class people, have it easier, or that they’re lazy, or that they don’t want, or that they don’t deserve help. You can’t actually have lived in a poor neighborhood and seen how hard it is to live in our neighborhoods, and managed everything from public transportation to schools to crime to finding decent groceries. That stuff is actually hard. And so I don’t, in any way, apologize for the sentiment. My worry — at least at that moment — was that the sentiment would be lost behind the yelling. I studied black women’s self-expression, and I worried that all they would see is a yelling black woman. So I just want to be clear that the sentiment is still there.

On the question of resonating, I think all of us [at MSNBC] see our roles as hosts very differently. Rachel [Maddow]… Rachel’s a teacher, in the sense that when you’re watching Rachel’s show, she’s gonna find some little nugget of something that you never even heard about, and she’s gonna bring it together and connect it into a big story. Ed [Schultz], in my experience, is an advocate. Anything that he sees as a group of people getting the short end of the stick, he’s gonna tell you how those policies affect those people.

For me, I think the kind of teacher I am, I want to be there, I want to be present, but I also want to be facilitating lots of different voices, at any given time. And so, I don’t know about the resonating: I do know we all see our roles differently. And I guess I’ll say this: I don’t know where all my colleagues live. I really don’t, it’s not like we hang out in each others’ houses. I live in a poor neighborhood. I commute back and forth from ruins. We make a choice to live there. I wouldn’t live any other place. The few years I lived in a place that was not a poor neighborhood was an unhappy time for me. So for me, it’s very real.

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Raw Story: This election year, more than any other before, both parties have used diversity as a selling point. It’s still early at this convention, but how do you see that playing out on each side of the campaign trail?

Harris-Perry: The big difference is, the diversity that you see on the stage at the DNC is reflected in the delegates and the voters. The Republicans, there’s just no way around it — they did a good job of putting together a diverse group of speakers. They had Latino speakers, they had women speakers, they had African-American speakers, they even had former Democrats as speakers. So they certainly had a diverse group of bodies speaking. But that diversity on stage is not reflected in their delegations, it’s not reflected in their attendees, and it’s not reflected in the voters who make choices to put those policies in action. It is still predominantly an older white male party. With the DNC, you see black and Latino and South Asian people on stage, but then you also see those same people in the delegations and you also see those same people on the ballot, or in the voting booth casting those ballots.

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Raw Story: Are we building toward some sort of political flashpoint?

Harris-Perry: I think of American politics as very plodding. Even moments that, in many other countries, might cause a crisis of government or leadership — think about 2000, and the question of who’s really President; the fact is, Al Gore didn’t stage a coup. He didn’t go get the military together and say, “I won this.” He stepped aside. Our country, from my perspective, is very slow, it’s very moderate. Part of it is why President Obama, in 2008, was talking about “the arc of history” — he can’t give the revolutionary speech. Americans don’t go for, “Tomorrow I’m gonna do this.” They’re like, “Okay, we’re gonna make a little step toward it and a little step toward it and a little step toward it.”

And I think what you see, not from all Republicans, but from many Republicans right now, is, they look back over the past 50 years, and it looked like dramatic change [to them] but in fact it’s been piecemeal. Tiny, tiny, tiny. Even the Republican party itself is changing. When you look at who’s gonna show up in 2016 to be their candidates, they’ll look very different than the folks now. You’re gonna have Marco Rubio and Nikki Haley and Bobby Jindal. It is going to be a brown and white and female coalition of people who are running the Republican party in 2016. It’s like, “Change is here – hello!”

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Raw Story: In the 24 hours between Sunday and Monday, we saw the Democrats stumble on the question of, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” And then they reversed course. Why do you think they slipped up like that?

Harris-Perry: On Sunday morning, when we talked about who the Democrats are, we talked about “the big blue tent,” and the messy big blue tent. I think one of the messaging problems the Democrats have pretty regularly is that, because there’s not just one demographic, it is hard to send home what the message is.

When you look, for example, at Democratic surrogates, some of them are Congressional Black Caucus members who are in relatively safe districts, who have a long history of being the conscience of Congress, and therefore saying what they really believe even if it’s not the party line. But the CBC now, they need them in line, because turning out the black vote for President Obama is going to be so critical. So I think part of what happens is, there are some aspects of the Democratic coalition that have typically been able to be more aggressive or kind of off-message and that’s been fine, that’s been good, that’s been part of the messiness. But in an election this tight, you have to have one messaging machine.

And at least on Monday, I think the word “stumble” is a good way to describe it — they didn’t quite have their footing. Certainly the First Lady gave an extraordinary speech last night, but it was not a policy speech. It was an amazing rally-the-base, remind you why you love President Obama sort of speech, but only the First Lady can carry that message. What we’re going to hear tonight from former President Clinton, and then of course from President Obama himself, will be what the actual message for the party is gonna be.

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Raw Story: Like a baton relay.

Harris-Perry: It’s like a baton marathon at this point.


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