Melissa Harris-Perry on Race, Media, and the Story Behind This Year's Presidential Race

StoryApril 07, 2016
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Melissa Harris-Perry

the Maya Angelou presidential chair at Wake Forest University, where she directs the Anna Julia Cooper Center on Gender, Race, and Politics in the South. She’s also executive director of the Pro Humanitate Institute at Wake Forest and runs the Wake the Vote initiative.

Last month, professor, author and political commentator Melissa Harris-Perry had a very public breakup with MSNBC after four years of hosting her eponymous weekend show. Reaction extended from the blogosphere to the floor of the House, where Illinois Congressmember Luis Gutiérrez stood next to a sign of the NBC peacock with the hashtag #NBCSoWhite and suggested the network has a racial diversity problem. But even though her show is now off the air, Melissa is still sparking critical conversations. She joins us to talk about this year’s presidential contest, voter ID laws, anti-LGBT legislation and much more.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We end today’s show with professor, author and political commentator Melissa Harris-Perry. For the past four years, she hosted a popular weekend show on MSNBC. But the show ended last month after a dispute between her and the network. After her show ended, Democratic Congressman Luis Gutiérrez of Illinois spoke out about her departure. He gave a speech from the floor of the House while standing next to a sign of the NBC peacock with the hashtag #NBCSoWhite,

REP. LUIS GUTIÉRREZ: What’s going on at NBC? Last week, Wake Forest University professor and MSNBC television host Melissa Harris-Perry was abruptly pulled from the airwaves without even a chance to say goodbye. NBC said they wanted a show that was more about politics. But I have to say that when I watched the show, Melissa Harris-Perry was talking about politics in a unique way, like few others on the airwaves. She brought diverse voices to the table to talk directly and unapologetically about the politics of race in America, a major theme among candidates and a critical conversation to include on the airwaves. I’m sad to see her go, just like Alex Wagner before her, but I am even sadder because I don’t think these are isolated cases.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Democratic Congressman Luis Gutiérrez speaking on the House floor about the important role of Melissa Harris-Perry’s show on MSNBC. Well, her show may be off the air, but she’s still sparking critical conversations.

To talk more about this year’s presidential contest, controversial new voter ID laws, the U.S. media, anti-LGBT legislation and much more, we are joined by Melissa Harris-Perry herself. She is the Maya Angelou presidential chair at Wake Forest University, where she directs the Anna Julia Cooper Center on Gender, Race, and Politics in the South. She’s also executive director of the Pro Humanitate Institute at Wake Forest and runs the Wake the Vote initiative.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

MELISSA HARRIS-PERRY: It’s so nice to be back.

AMY GOODMAN: It is great to have you. So there is Luis Gutiérrez—

MELISSA HARRIS-PERRY: That was amazing.

AMY GOODMAN: —the congressman, with that hashtag, #NBCSoWhite. Why did you leave MSNBC?

MELISSA HARRIS-PERRY: I didn’t mean to leave. I certainly wanted to stay. I refused to go back on air, initially, simply because what had happened was the show was gone, and I felt that they were asking me to come back to anchor my hours, but not to actually host my show.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean?

MELISSA HARRIS-PERRY: So, the show had a certain kind of branding. We did certain kinds of work. We brought particular voices. We had a perspective and a point of view, and we had a lot of editorial control. That had been true for four years. But over the course of really the months that began in 2016, we had moved to kind of—and I want to be clear: I think the word "politics" is the wrong word. It was horse-race election coverage. Right? Which is not the same thing, from my perspective, as "politics." I wasn’t prepared to simply do horse-race election coverage. And so, I had not been invited to host my show nor to even anchor during my hours for weeks. After some other media outlets asked questions about that, I was then invited back, not, again, to host my show, but to anchor 10:00 a.m. to noon, Saturday and Sunday. I felt that doing so would have been to signal to the audience that everything was fine. And everything was not fine. Therefore, it was important to actually not be there, so that it would be a clear and visible signal that everything was not fine.

AMY GOODMAN: You mean your show at that time was now called Place for Politics, like the rest of MSNBC is branded? It wasn’t Nerdland or MHP anymore?


NERMEEN SHAIKH: So who were the—just give us a sense of the kinds of voices that you had on your program.

MELISSA HARRIS-PERRY: I mean, you know, for us, we were—we were a roundtable, basically, of, at any moment—sometimes it might be a one-on-one, but it was often three to four people at the table. We worked really hard to make sure that we had diverse voices, so that both meant racially diverse, it also meant diverse in perspective, it also meant diverse across genders, it also meant diverse across perspectives. And, you know, so, for us, that meant, at any given moment, you might have, you know, a cis heterosexual white man like Dave Zirin, who nonetheless is one of our favorite black feminists, but is a cis heterosexual white man, doing—kind of performing a black feminist analysis of sports, at the same time we might have, you know, Kenji Yoshino, who is a queer Asian constitutional scholar, who would be there to talk to us about the Supreme Court. So he’s doing kind of very clear, straightforward, straight-ahead analysis of the Supreme Court, but also doing it in a body that might be unusual.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, you brought up sports, so tell us what happened Super Bowl time—not that sports were your big thing, but this Super Bowl, 50th anniversary, was certainly huge with what Beyoncé did.

MELISSA HARRIS-PERRY: Yeah. Well, so, Beyoncé dropped "Formation" the night before the Super Bowl. For us, that was kind of right in the wheelhouse of all the things we cared about. "Formation" took up the issue of Hurricane Katrina. And, of course, as you know, I lived in post-Katrina New Orleans. My husband is an advocate and civil rights attorney who did a lot of post-Katrina work in New Orleans. And, of course, our show had been thinking about New Orleans for a long time—and, frankly, thinking about Beyoncé for a long time. So we immediately knew that we wanted to address this video, address the popular culture questions, address the racial questions, address the Black Lives Matter imagery that emerged as a result. And we were told not to do so.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean? Who told you not to do so?

MELISSA HARRIS-PERRY: The sort of senior—what’s the word? He wasn’t—he’s not a producer on our show, but he was—he’s the person, Chris Peña, who was sort of over what happened on the weekends. And he simply came in and said, "No, you can’t do it." And so there was a back-and-forth struggle for a few hours.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, in terms of ratings, dealing with Super Bowl and dealing with Beyoncé, I can’t imagine you couldn’t—that there would have been a bigger audience for anything else. But also, I mean, the Black Panther imagery, the—

MELISSA HARRIS-PERRY: I don’t think it’s about ratings, though. This was never said to me in any way as being primarily a ratings question. It’s really a direction question. It was a—and I want to be really clear about something: I think, in an organization built on hierarchy, that those at the top have every right to change direction. And so, one of the things that I think has gotten lost is, as though I have an argument with the directional change. Now, I do, in the sense that that isn’t the direction I wanted to go in, but that isn’t really where the—sort of where the fight broke out. I’m the leader of an organization; I’ve changed direction in my organization.

The issue was that there was a directional change that was not being communicated either to me as an employee or, even more importantly, to my audience. And so, what happened was, we were simply disappeared, with no communication to the audience, and then I was going to sort of reappear as though everything was fine. That, for me, was what was unacceptable. So, the email communication that was leaked was about me explaining to my team why I was making their life harder by not coming back to host. And clearly, the portions of it that ended up in The New York Times were the most inflammatory or potentially inflammatory portions relative to race, which is the point at which I made a decision to leak the entire letter, so that people could read the entire email and make a decision on their own about what they thought I was saying, one way or another. But the issue wasn’t that MSNBC made a decision to go a new direction. That’s their right. It’s their channel. It was that they weren’t communicating it.

AMY GOODMAN: But you are a politics professor. You deal with—this is, I mean—

MELISSA HARRIS-PERRY: I have a Ph.D. in it, that’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: And here we are in one of the most contested elections we have ever known.


AMY GOODMAN: Your thoughts, what you can’t say now on MSNBC?

MELISSA HARRIS-PERRY: Well, I guess what I’d say is, for me, what’s—I have—you know, it was interesting to listen to Congressman Gutiérrez stand there and say that he saw politics in our show. I certainly felt that we were completely capable of covering an election. We had covered elections previously. We’ve been on air for four years. Obviously, we covered the 2012 election.

AMY GOODMAN: You were in Iowa when your show was in Iowa, but you weren’t on your show?

MELISSA HARRIS-PERRY: I did not—I did not—well, I was on my show as a guest, but I was not allowed to host my own show. Ari Melber hosted my show; I was a guest on it. That was part of how we knew things were going wrong. I was not allowed to host my own show, nor was I invited to be any part of coverage in New Hampshire. I was not invited to host my show from South Carolina, despite the fact that I live in North Carolina and was in South Carolina. I have no idea why. No one communicated any of those things to me.

AMY GOODMAN: You wrote in your letter, "I will not be used as a tool for their purposes." This is a letter that you wrote to your staff. You went on, "I am not a token, mammy, or little brown bobble head. I am not owned by Lack, Griffin, or MSNBC. I love our show. I want it back."

MELISSA HARRIS-PERRY: That’s true. I did. I loved our show. It’s been gone for a little over a month, and I am surprised even about how much I miss it. The people I worked with, turns out, were—I said I didn’t know how few friends I had, until suddenly the folks who I talked to every day for four years were gone. They were the people I talked to about politics all the time, and I miss them profoundly.

That said, in the end, when I was invited to come—again, to come back to host those hours or to anchor those hours, but not to host the show, I definitely felt that I was being used in order to signal that everything was fine. And again, everything was not fine. When I talk about mammy, the symbol of mammy is one kind of historically where the African-American woman cares more about the family of the employer than about her own family. And what I want to be really clear about was that I care more about the MHP show family, about our audience, about our team, than I do about Andy Lack or Phil Griffin’s family, their profits, their ratings—which seem to be just fine. Again, this wasn’t an argument about whether or not they were making the right decisions for their bottom line.

But again, my primary job is as a college professor. My primary intellectual, personal and political commitments are actually not about how many TV minutes or hours I get. I felt like I needed to have been communicated with clearly, so that I could make a decision about what direction I was going in. The decision to not have a conversation with me about any of that, the decision to leak not only this information but other information later when the conversation started, the attempt to silence me once we had the struggle—and particularly in the context of MSNBC having rehired Brian Williams and having made public comments where they said things like, you know, "We’re in an NBC family where second chances are always possible, where redemption is an important part of who we are"—it is, frankly, painful that after four years of working extremely hard for these people, after giving up a lot of family time and personal time and professional time, to be discarded in that way. And so, for me, although I don’t know what the reasons are, I am pleased that, ultimately, I cared more about my family than about theirs.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, very quickly, before we conclude, can you talk about your experience in the context of the concept "crooked room" that you talk about in your book, Sister Citizen?

MELISSA HARRIS-PERRY: You know, I probably can’t, only because I don’t know that we can analyze ourselves in that way. Sister Citizen is about the stereotypes that African-American women are bound by, so the ways that we think—that we know who black women are, based on some very old stereotypes of mammy, of Jezebel, of the angry black woman. And so, I sometimes feel like I see them happening, particularly in the context of media and social media. But the truth is, we’re not very honest about who we are as ourselves. None of us can see ourselves very well. It’s kind of like we can’t hear the sound of our own voice because of how it reverberates. So, I will leave it to others to write the thought pieces about that.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to ask you to stay with us, and we’ll do a post-show with you—


AMY GOODMAN: —post it online at

We’re on our 100-city tour, tomorrow Columbus, Ohio at the Ohio State University; then on Saturday in Missouri, in St. Louis and Columbia and Kansas City; on Sunday in Santa Barbara and in Los Angeles; on Monday in San Francisco. Check our website at Hundred city, folks, we’re going on the road.

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