Melissa Harris-Perry was witty, smart, and incisive in a post election talk that dealt as much with LGBT inequalities as with racial injustice. Her talk at the Princeton Public Library on Wednesday, November 3 packed the community room. It was the culmination of three events there, arranged by Princeton Friends Meeting and co-sponsored by Not in Our Town, in a series that celebrated the life of civil rights pioneer Bayard Rustin
Who gets to be righteously angry about the breach of the social contract of the United States, a contract that makes certain promises to U.S. citizens? Not the Tea Party, suggested Harris-Perry. If there are going to be complaints about the quality of life in our communities, about schools that fail children, about 10 percent unemployment, about the instability of the housing market, about environmental degradation – all those conditions have long been par for the course in minority — black and brown – communities. The majority’s response to vulnerable and marginalized communities has been “act nicer, work harder, and you will get want you want.”
The minority community, in our democracy, gets to sit at the table. For Democrats worried about losing the House of Representatives, this is a solace. Minorities get a say. Unfortunately that isn’t true for all minorities in all situations. As Harris-Perry said, “If you don’t get to renegotiate your contract, you are a subject, not a citizen.”
Presidents need Kings, she said, showing a picture of President Lyndon Baines Johnson with the man who helped him renegotiate the nation’s social contract, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. But advisors like King also need their own advisors. She cited Ella Baker, who insisted that young people must speak for themselves. Fanny Lou Hamer, who educated King about rural poverty and economic justice versus urban segregation. James Bevel, who insisted on consistent pacifism and edged King to speak out against the Vietnam War. And Bayard Rustin, the subject of the talk, who urged King to commit to non-violence in every aspect.
Harris-Perry listed three steps that are necessary for fulfillment of the social contract: recognition, respectability, redistribution. In illustrating the requirement to be respectable, she compared a question from the Tale of Desperaux to one from W. E. B. Du Bois, How does it feel to be a problem? In the children’s book, it was “What does it mean when your name is a slur?”
Among her startling observations and responses to questions was her comment on President Obama’s emphasis on strong black fathers. She noted that, if Obama had had a strong black father, he would never have become president. It was his access to white privilege that came to him through his white grandmother that lined his path to the White House.