Melissa Harris-Perry, founding director of the Project on Gender, Race, and Politics, and professor of political science at Tulane University, has done extensive academic research inspired by a desire to investigate the challenges facing contemporary black Americans and to better understand the multiple, creative ways that African Americans respond to these challenges. She shared some of her knowledge with the Madison community as the keynote speaker at the YWCA’s Racial Justice Summit Oct. 15 at the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center.
Harris-Perry is a regular commentator on news programs, including those broadcast on MSNBC and “Bill Moyers Journal.” She also reaches thousands of readers as a columnist for “The Nation” magazine. Prior to her position at Tulane, Harris-Perry served on the faculties of Princeton University and The University of Chicago.
Each year, the YWCA Madison hosts a racial justice summit that brings together community stakeholders to work on eliminating barriers that foster racism in the community. The summit focuses on institutional racism and involves nationally known keynote speakers and researchers, as well as local experts and advocates.
This year’s summit featured numerous workshops and breakout sessions geared towards encouraging deep discussions on a variety of interesting topics including racial justice, diversity, prejudice, immigration, racial disparities, educational equity, and much more. The summit also featured a talk by Carlos Munoz, Jr., a prominent political scientist, historian, journalist, and public intellectual. He spoke in the morning on “Latin@s and the Politics of Race.”
Harris-Perry laughed and joked and took pictures with people at the summit before her keynote speech and signed her new book “Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America.” She opened her talk by chatting about some of the humorous things about her life, her friends, her children, and her work.
“I am incredibly enthusiastic to have a job where I get to talk about race and gender and justice on a regular basis,” she said. “I especially love it when progressives send me tweets and texts and e-mails about what I should go tell my bosses at GE [General Electric] or MSNBC or the evil corporate giant for which I work and I always feel like, ‘Do you tell your boss about his racism?’”
Harris-Perry’s extensive academic research has been published in scholarly journals and edited volumes. Her interests include the study of African American political thought, black religious ideas and practice, and social and clinical psychology. Her keynote talk on “Race, Citizenship, and American Politics” included a slide show with all kinds of photos from throughout U.S. history from her years of research.
“To live in a democracy is the right to govern and not simply to be governed,” she said. “All people have to be part of the process of governing. Everybody should have a stake that includes not simply being a subject. To be a citizen is to have a stake and not simply be a subject of the state. You have the right to rule and not just to be ruled and to be heard and not to be silenced.”
In short, she says, in a democracy you have to be able to lose an election without fearing that the winners take all. “This is insight from the great Lani Guinier who talks about being a loser in a winner-take-all system,” Harris-Perry says. “Winning an election is not the same thing as staging a coup [d'état]; just because you lose does not mean you have to shut up. Losing an election should be about a 50/50 experience if all things are fair and equal.”
She added that if you plan on being part of a coalition that always wins, you should prefer totalitarianism. “It’s more efficient and things get done more quickly,” she said, “and if you’re always going to win, you should want a system where you’re going to get it all. Democracy is for losers.”
Harris-Perry is the author of the widely celebrated book “Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America,” which argues that persistent harmful stereotypes profoundly shape black women’s politics, contribute to policies that treat them unfairly, and make it difficult for black women to assert their rights in the political arena.
“That moment was extraordinary four years ago when a black man was elected president, a Catholic was elected as his vice president, a woman had been on the Republican ticket and it was all reported on by an out, butch lesbian [Rachel Maddow],” Harris-Perry said. “That was a hot moment. That was a changing of our discourses and a changing of our fundamental difference in what we think is even possible in the world. And right behind it, we have a Latina on the Supreme Court.”
Harris-Perry added that we must ensure that there are not just changing faces at the top, but that there is penetration of that down through ordinary folks to the bottom.
“Our struggles are all interconnected — housing, employment, marriage, reproductive rights, incarceration, citizenship, education, voting — these are not black issues or Latino issues or gay issues,” Harris-Perry said. “These are the issues of our social contract. They are interconnected with each other. You can’t just pursue one at a time.”
Harris-Perry added that we have to recognize the interconnectedness of our struggles and that just being community-based is not sufficient. “You need to be community-based and tolerant … not tyrannical to those who are subordinate to you,” Harris-Perry said. “Because capitulation to the powerful is always the norm. The challenge is the sustained localization of the marginal but democracy — that thing where everybody has a voice, that thing where everybody gets to rule, and the thing you can lose without the fear that the winners take all — requires communities with less power to check the tyranny or the majority. And it is not easy.”
Harris-Perry closed her speech by quoting the poet Audre Lorde:
There are so many roots to the tree of anger
that sometimes the branches shatter
before they bear.
Sitting in Nedicks
the women rally before they march
discussing the problematic girls
they hire to make them free.
An almost white counterman passes
a waiting brother to serve them first
and the ladies neither notice nor reject
the slighter pleasures of their slavery.
But I who am bound by my mirror
as well as my bed
see causes in colour
as well as sex
and sit here wondering
which me will survive
all these liberations.
For more information about the YWCA’s Racial Justice Summit, visit www.ywcamadison.org