Q&A with Melissa Harris-Lacewell - Page 2
Written by Joe Longo
Tuesday, 14 July 2009 19:54
|Q&A with Melissa Harris-Lacewell|
NF: Is it too harsh of an accusation to say that Nagin co-opted that groundswell and used it?
MHL: I don't think that's too harsh at all. I think it's an absolutely accurate representation. As the Senators like to say, we can't know what's in a man's heart. I don't know whether the devastation that was Katrina changed Ray Nagin's perception about the position of blacks in New Orleans.
NF: What it did do was it changed his base. The 86% of white folk he could count on in '02 were looking somewhere else.
MHL: That would be the most ungracious reading, that it was simply politics, which I think is possible. It's also possible that he was deeply affected by what he saw and that it changed his understanding of what his role was as mayor. What I think would be a mistake, as deeply critical as I am of Ray Nagin, is to say that he did nothing right and accomplished nothing.
NF: Which has been the tack people have taken.
MHL: I actually think that's too far. But I don't think it's too far too say that he absolutely took advantage of the changing racial dynamic and of course the flood of money and national interest towards New Orleans.
NF: An interest that probably won't be replicated in 2010.
MHL: I do hope that we develop national interest in the campaign. I hope that people will not believe that these four years were the end, and that they'll recognize that there's still another chance, and that people across the country will get interested in the campaign.
NF: What are your intentions for the 2010 race in terms of your on-the-ground level of engagement. I know you've been pivotal in fundraising efforts, but what do you intend to do in the city itself?
MHL: I will do whatever is asked of me, but I'll also try to be very careful about my position as a Yankee and an outsider and a carpetbagger and all of those kinds of things. I'm trying to be completely honest about my position relative to the campaign, which is: I fell in love with New Orleans first, I fell in love with James Perry later, and now I’m in love with James' love for New Orleans. I think he is the best candidate regardless. I am convinced by who he is both personally and in terms of his policy advocacy. That said, I have to be really careful about the fact that even as a researcher, even as someone who in certain ways has professionally profited from the suffering of the people of New Orleans, out of respect for the people of New Orleans, part of my job will be to shut up and to listen.
NF: How is the fundraising going?
MHL: I think it's going well. The biggest challenge that James Perry faces is convincing people that he is going to be Mayor of New Orleans. I think the money will come as people begin to feel that. I watched Barack Obama from 1997 forward, so I'm not even a little bit anxious about it. I have no anxiety.
NF: Because there's a blueprint?
MHL: Not only is there a blueprint, but I see James win people over every time he talks to them. The effort is about being out there and meeting everybody. I really have no worries that the money will come. Also, I already know the stories that will be written about this race, about how somebody with nothing in terms of personal wealth is going to beat a bunch of people with all the money in the world to throw at the problem. What I think is that in the city of New Orleans in 2010, post-Katrina, post a second term of Ray Nagin, you cannot buy this election.
NF: You're obviously somebody who uses new media, social media, to do what it is you do. Is that something that you naturally gravitated toward, or is it something that like a lot of academics you were reluctant to embrace?
MHL: I love it. I was thinking about it this morning as I was Tweeting Sotomayor's confirmation hearings. I was like, for a little black girl who grew up talking to the movie screen, live Tweeting is the same thing. Just yelling at the TV screen, but for thousands of people. So, yeah, I really love new media. I appreciate social networks and their power, but I also find them very exhausting. Because I don't live in the hometown I grew up in and worked in during my 20s, because I'm a mobile person, social networking via new media has been very powerful. The other reason that I find new media powerful is it doesn't require or rely on traditional organizations to bless you. In certain ways that's more democratic and more merit-based. You don't become a heavily-followed Twitterer, for example, because you're important. There are, certainly, those kinds of people, but you can become heavily followed just by being a good Twitterer, by saying interesting things about interesting topics on a regular basis. I find the democracy and the flatness and the meritocracy of it all good.
NF: Do you sense a wide generational gap among public intellectuals? Do you find the previous generation is having a hard time adapting?
MHL: It's probably true that an older generation thinks about social networking in a different way. If you take, say, Cornel West...
NF: Does Cornel West Twitter?
MHL: Cornel West doesn't even answer his email, but he is an amazing social networker. He remembers everyone he meets. He looks people very carefully in the eye. And he smokes a hell of a lot of cigars all over the country with people. And that's how he builds it, and he's incredibly effective at it. I don't want to smoke nobody's cigar, and I really am very bad with names. But I am comfortable with a level of personal transparency that I do think an older generation, particularly of African-Americans, is not comfortable with. I talk about my daughter. I talk about going to see Jazzy Jeff with James.
NF: Does that come naturally or do you feel that's part of making a connection with people?
MHL: That's very natural for me, and it's also part of my intellectual commitment. A lot of my research is on psychology, and particularly on shame, and I'm a very strong advocate that we have a variety of political problems in this country that are the result of shame, both on the part of citizens and on the part of leaders, and that personal transparency is the single best antidote to shame. So it's both a political commitment and a personal preference on my part to be very transparent. But I think it's something that many are not comfortable with.
NF: You used to do a blog for The Root called "Down From the Tower." Do you envision at some point in your life receding from public life and going sort of back up the tower?
MHL: I have to say, I envision it all the time. There is not one thing in the world that I agree with Sarah Palin on, relative to politics, but I felt something for her in her insane departure from the governor's office. Whatever else she is, she is the mother of young children, as am I. I have a 7 1/2 year old daughter, and I pretty regularly recognize that there is a one-to-one trade off in the hour that I spend with my daughter versus the hour that I spend writing an op-ed. It's one thing to be doing the part of my job that pays me, my professional life as a professor. I don't have any guilt about that because I've got to feed my family. But I don't really make any money for the public part. I don't get paid to be on television. I don't get paid to write blogs. So that part definitely feels like a one-to-one tradeoff between the life that I'm trying to build, particularly with my daughter and my family, and the public stuff.
But it's just so good right now. I mean, you study African-American politics, you invest in a Ph.D, then your State Senator becomes President, and he nominates a Latina to the Supreme Court and then a black woman from Xavier to be Surgeon General. It's like every time I wanted to slow down...
NF: You don't want to get off the wave now?
MHL: No, it's too good right now. And my daughter, she's just become a little political wonk with me, and I hope she'll forgive me someday.
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