An interview with Melissa Harris-Perry

April 10, 2017

Before her presentation, we had an opportunity to interview Melissa Harris-Perry where she talked about the role women's magazines play in shaping political discussions, and the lasting influence of a liberal arts education, among other things. - Video by Marcus DeMaio

In the endless post-election coverage of Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump in November, one frequently cited fact was that the majority of white female voters—53 percent, specifically—did not cast their ballots for the Democratic candidate. This was not a huge shock to experts, since historical data shows that the majority of female voters support Republicans over Democrats in presidential elections. But the media covered the statistic as if it were a surprise, said political commentator Melissa Harris-Perry during a talk in Johnson Chapel on March 27.

The untold story of the 2016 election is actually the lower-than-2012 voter participation of women of color, she said. The fact that roughly 75 percent of African American women backed Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 led Clinton to believe that she, too, would receive the same or similar support, according to Harris-Perry. It didn’t happen.

Melissa Harris-Perry “The rates at which African American women were voting [in 2008 and 2012] are matched only by the rates at which people vote in countries where it is mandatory—where it is literally illegal not to vote,” she said. “The Clinton camp was relying on black women voters turning out as though it were illegal not to vote for Hillary.”  

But the media has obscured that reality, Harris-Perry argued. “They say things like, ‘the gender gap is as white as ever.’ And, ‘women vote for Democrats.’”

But women as a group don’t vote for Democrats. “Black women,” she said, “vote for Democrats.”

That impact and treatment of women of color in U.S. society was a major theme of Harris-Perry’s talk, titled “Race, Gender and the Politics of Knowledge from Campus to Community to Congress,” which drew nearly more than 150 members of the local and College community. Throughout the discussion she offered her unvarnished, humorous, and sometimes scathing opinions on the intersection of today’s knowledge economy and on race and gender more generally.

The former host of her eponymous MSNBC television show from 2012 to 2016, Harris-Perry is the Maya Angelou Presidential Chair, executive director of the Pro Humanitate Institute and founding director of the Anna Julia Cooper Center, all at Wake Forest University. She is also an author and an editor-at-large for Elle.com.

Melissa Harris-Perry

Prior to the talk, Harris-Perry participated in a small-group Q&A session with students, sat down for a video interview, and shared a dinner with President Biddy Martin.

The evening talk was alternatingly humorous, infuriated, and grave. Harris-Perry tackled multiple difficult, controversial topics: state-sanctioned violence, economic and educational inequality for women of color, society’s disregard for violence against girls. She filled her presentation with statistics, personal anecdotes, and droll asides.

Before taking questions from the audience, she showed photos of famous female activists of color, including abolitionist Sojourner Truth, civil rights lawyer and author Pauli Murray and attorney and academic Anita Hill, among others—while asking a stark rhetorical question: What if people had taken these women seriously?

She then shifted her focus to the present. “What if we took [what] black women know, what brown women know, what [Asian Pacific Islander] women know, what queer women know, what we know about race and gender seriously?”

She offered no answer. Instead, she closed with a simple statement: “Justice requires that we shift what we know and how we know.”