Melissa Harris-Perry -- Tulane political science professor and host of the eponymous MSNBC weekend show -- began the New Year mopping up a mess she'd made in an ill-conceived segment on her show. In a sketch entitled "Caption That!" Harris-Perry offers photos for her guests to caption. Meant to be clever, humorous and -- let's admit -- kind of snarky, she flashed a picture of Mitt Romney with all his grandchildren. Her guests, actress Pia Glenn and comedian Dean Obeidallah, each cracked jokes about Romney's adopted African-American grandson, Kieran, who Romney holds on his lap in the family photo.
Glenn started off the tasteless humor by singing, "One of these things is not like the other ..." Obeidallah followed, quipping that the lone black baby represents the diversity in the Republican party. The most cringe-inducing moment for me was when host Harris-Perry quips that she hopes that Kieran will one day marry hip hop artist Kanye West's daughter. Presumably, hilarity would ensue if the Romneys got together with the West-Kardashian clan. (How exactly would this differ from any serious political figure hobnobbing with that egomaniacal, shallow pair?) The short segment was part of a show that Harris-Perry considers "Nerdland" -- a geeky, thoughtful alternative to the muck and mire usually seen on cable news. She missed the mark. Her show's stated goals were lost in cheap potshots and decidedly unintellectual banter.
As an African-American female academic, Harris-Perry is an extremely unlikely talk show celebrity. She is the only tenured professor in the United States to have her own weekly national platform. She now has a national audience with whom she discusses the complex overlap of race, gender, and class and their complicated relationship to politics and culture. When the show debuted, Michael P. Jeffries -- American Studies assistant professor at Wellesley College -- wrote an enthusiastic opinion piece in The Guardian asserting that her show represents "MSNBC's recognition that the public thirsts for earnest intellectual discussion, driven by data and evidence and facilitated by trained professionals." He noted that black intellectuals "moderating intellectual exchange" are rarely seen on mainstream television. Harris-Perry, he asserted, seeks to bring the "stuffy" academy to the masses and simultaneously refute the many limiting stereotypes with which black women routinely contend. This was a tall order, but Harris-Perry is certainly well-equipped to succeed and has a clear path to follow.
Longtime CNN anchor Soledad O'Brien, PBS NewsHour and Washington Week anchor Gwen Ifel, and Good Morning America host Robin Roberts are all high-profile women of color who have successfully charted careers of substance in a field that has been overwhelming white and male since its inception. But only Harris-Perry publicly walks the tightrope at the confluence of academician and entertainer. It is a decidedly tricky business, and she knows it.
In a February 2012 interview with New York Times writer Brian Stelter she said, "Part of the way I end up here (on MSNBC) is, I think the ivory tower has a ton of brilliant information that doesn't show up for ordinary people." She was amazed when she did a segment on the Rachel Maddow show about race, class and mayoral politics and was immediately confronted with the power of the visual media: "I gave that lecture a million times ... but I do it once on Rachel's show, and it was everywhere the next day." She's still grappling with a medium that instantaneously reaches millions. There is little time for subtlety, nuance or explanation, which is why it is so critical to get it right the first time.
It was disheartening to see Harris-Perry -- a self-identified African American woman whose mother is white -- and her guests stoop to a position that transracial adoptions are funny, that this family is a joke, and that Romney's grandson is not a legitimate member of his family. Harris-Perry and other liberal academics and pundits who keep tabs on the racism within the GOP, should be more self-reflective and honest about their own prejudices.
Melissa Harris-Perry and Soledad O'Brien both represent the quintessentially American experience: They each have parents of strikingly different cultural backgrounds. From this perspective they can offer critical insight and commentary on American culture and politics. Harris-Perry, as a black woman born into a large, white Mormon family herself, is uniquely situated to facilitate a personal and substantive discussion of the Mormon Church's past record of racism and discrimination. Instead, she chose a path of anti-intellectualism and broke her own rule about the families of political figures being "off-limits" to critique.
This past November Harris-Perry and influential black feminist writer bell hooks engaged in a public conversation about race, womanhood and politics at The New School in NYC. In that televised dialogue, while discussing the movie "Beasts of the Southern Wild," they noted that black children are often viewed differently from white babies. Ms. hooks commented: "I'm hurting because we can't get past the construction of black children as little mini-adults whose innocence we don't have to protect." Clearly, regardless of political stripe, we must all be vigilant about rejecting this damaging trope.
I still have high hopes for Harris-Perry. Her apologies to the Romney family (and to her audience) were not the hackneyed "mistakes were made." Instead, her mea culpa was unequivocal, direct and unambiguous. And her willingness to admit her gaffe could signal a renewed commitment to combatting anti-intellectualism and the cable news grandstanding she distains.
As I write, last Thursday's Reformer sits on the coffee table. On the front page, our town's "New Year's" baby slumbers in his mother's arms. Nathan Ngaleya, whose mother is originally from West Africa, is a newborn Vermonter. He may have been born in one of the whitest states in the union, but he is one of us.