Melissa Harris-Perry Proves Everything Conservatives Have Been Saying About Black Punditry

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Jan. 8 2014 8:54 AM

Melissa Harris-Perry Proves Everything Conservatives Have Been Saying About Black Punditry

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The jokes on Melissa Harris-Perry's show weren't so much a "political" attack as a commentary on Mitt Romney's squareness.

Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images for GLAAD

By now, even Melissa Harris-Perry agrees that her show's short, nasty joke-a-rama about the Romney family's adopted black baby was the result of groupthink gone wrong. It's been 10 days since the segment and four days since she apologized, and I thought everyone (me included, sadly) got their outrage chin-strokes out of their system already. Ah, but I forgot the inevitable last wave of any backlash involving black academics: the accusations of stupidity and affirmative action!

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

Mediaite has bottled both of the big examples. Ann Coulter, who's in her third decade of appearing on TV to say things that will hopefully outrage people, reacted to the story by implying that the MSNBC host was unqualified and hired for her skin color.

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"It's particularly good having Melissa Harris-Perry, of all people, make fun of the Romney child as a token," she said on Sean Hannity's show. "What does she think she is at MSNBC?"

He might have been acting, but Hannity looked to be taken aback by the derp he'd just heard. "Why would you say that?" he asked. "You've got plenty of African-Americans broadcasting on MSNBC."

"You do not," said Coulter.

So, disclosure: I'm an MSNBC contributor. The last time I went on the network was for an episode of "NOW" guest-hosted by Joy Reid, who's black. I'm scheduled to appear again this weekend on the afternoon politics show hosted by Craig Melvin, who's also black. Anyone who gets booked on a weekday afternoon might end up interviewed by Tamron Hall, Touré, Al Sharpton, or a guest-hosting Michael Eric Dyson. Coulter didn't know what she was talking about, which, to be fair, isn't some Halley's Comet-rare event.*

The other outrage-torpedo captured by Mediaite, en route to MSNBC, came from black conservative WSJ columnist Jason Riley. He recognized that the network did, indeed, hire black people. Therein was his problem. "I think there’s a pattern at MSNBC of them hiring black mediocrities like Melissa Harris-Perry, Michael Eric Dyson, Touré, and, of course—the granddaddy of them all—Al Sharpton, simply to race-bait," said Riley.

How do you judge whether a TV pundit is a "mediocrity"? The average cable day is full of people with so-so qualifications, like (random example) a journalism degree and sinecure at a Web-based politics magazine, talking about politics. Riley, who's a Fox News contributor, is a journalist who's been at the WSJ for 20 years. Nothing wrong with that! But Dyson has a Ph.D. from Princeton and has been publishing pop-sociology books for 21 years. Harris-Perry has a Ph.D. from Duke and published her second book about black politics right before getting her MSNBC gig. It's easier to mock Touré or Al Sharpton, but one's a music journalist with a bunch of books behind him, and one's an activist and occasional candidate who has more direct political experience than most TV pundits. (He's also mocked on another NBC product, Saturday Night Live, by black comedian Kenan Thompson.)

Still, why go there? The weirdness at the heart of this is that Harris-Perry's own joke about the Romney kid was pretty innocent. She fantasized about the adopted kid growing up to marry Kanye West's daughter.* Sort of silly, but not really a "political" attack as much as a joke about the squareness of the guy who lost the 2012 election. The Coulter/Riley reactions to this seem to have been freeze-dried, ready to make whenever a black MSNBC commentator got into trouble. And they're meant to prove that the left is obsessed with race. Makes sense!

*Correction, Jan. 8, 2014: This post originally misspelled Halley's Comet. It also originally referred to "West's son," incorrectly misgendering North West as a boy. North West is a girl. Obviously, Dave was confused by his memory of the beloved Elijah Wood vehicle North.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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