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Jonathan Chait defends essay on Obama, race on 'MHP'

Journalist Jonathan Chait had a spirited conversation with host Melissa Harris-Perry, a critic of his New York Magazine essay about race in the Obama era.

New York Magazine columnist Jonathan Chait responded on Sunday's Melissa Harris-Perry to criticisms of his new essay about race in the Obama era --including several from the host herself.

Chait's essay, "The Color of his Presidency," makes the argument that race not only "has been the real story of the Obama presidency all along," but that it "has now become the primal grievance in our politics, the source of a narrative of persecution each side uses to make sense of the world." Chait insists in the essay that both liberals and conservatives use justifiable paranoia about race for their own political purposes. In a portion excerpted Sunday by host Melissa Harris-Perry, he elaborates:

And even when the red and blue tribes are not waging their endless war of mutual victimization, the subject of race courses through everything else: debt, health care, unemployment. Whereas the great themes of the Bush years revolved around foreign policy and a cultural divide over what or who constituted “real” America, the Obama years have been defined by a bitter disagreement over the size of government, which quickly reduces to an argument over whether the recipients of big-government largesse deserve it. There is no separating this discussion from one’s sympathies or prejudices toward, and identification with, black America.

Critics like Slate's Jamelle Bouie posited that Chait's essay omitted the realities of racism and discrimination throughout America, treating race "as an intellectual exercise—a low-stakes cocktail party argument between white liberals and white conservatives over their respective racial innocence." More negative reviews came from Salon, where writers offered that it was "poorly argued" and that it embodies "everything that’s wrong with view from nowhere-styled journalism."

Host Melissa Harris-Perry detailed some criticisms of her own prior to introducing Chait on Sunday's show. The host, a political science professor, said:

"To describe American racial politics as an 'endless war of mutual victimization' suggests that there are no actual victims of continuing racial policies, only that there are discursive points to be scored by equally matched sides." 

Chait, who attracted attention recently for an online debate about race and poverty with The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates, began Sunday's conversation with a sarcastic remark. 

"Thanks for introducing your audience with such an open mind," he said. "I've never really seen a television show with a host who berates and rebuts the person they're having on the show for several minutes before they're invited on."

Harris-Perry insisted that the criticisms weren't meant as a "personal berating" and quickly refocused the discussion on the arguments in the essay. Chait insisted that he wasn't writing a social history of the Obama years, but about how politics changed in those years. "I do not say, anywhere in this article, that race did not matter prior to the Obama years because I don't believe that, and I didn't argue that," he said. "What these findings have shown is that race has become more important to how everyone thinks about American politics during the Obama years for the obvious reason that now, we have a black president."

Chait added that race has likely been more "salient" to black Americans all along, but that during the Obama years, white Americans have become more conscious of it. Harris-Perry claimed Chait was acknowledging that the piece was largely about white racial attitudes, and that as such, it is inaccurate to frame his argument as wholly "American." But he insisted that the primary divide that he focuses upon is a left-right divide, and how that frames how they think. 

Chait insisted, as he did in his response to critics like Bouie, that there were important questions about race that were not the subject of his story. Harris-Perry countered by asking if Chait would have done anything differently after hearing those with dissenting opinions, including Coates, offer their perspective on race.

"Well, I think what is really unfortunate is the timing of those two things," Chait responded, referring to his essay and his debate with Coates. "Unfortunately, this debate came out online first and it really primed the way a lot of people, including you, came to think of my piece." 

In a panel following the Chait interview, UConn historian Jelani Cobb was blunt in his critique.

"I wondered if Jonathan Chait had written half of that article with his left hand and the other half with his right hand, just to prove how even-handed he could be on this subject," said Cobb, who added that he felt the New York writer had used false equivalence and "a kind of arrogance implied within this," ignoring people's real, lived-in experiences with race. 

University of Pennsylvania professor Salamishah Tillet also took issue with the essay's suggestion that, as she put it, "to be called racist is as problematic or as devaluing as wielding racism itself."

Find the Chait interview above, and the panel discussions below.