Since her MSNBC news show launched in 2012, Dr. Melissa Harris Perry has become one of the most popular names in journalism.
She is one of the few Black women hosting a national series that focuses on politics and topics affecting Black America and the country as a whole. With such a unique perspective on what’s ailing our communities, Melissa shared her perspective on the biggest problems that face us and what can be done do to solve them.
Though she’s best known as a journalist, Melissa is a mother, wife and professor first. She talked to Think Positive about her entrance into the world of media, how she’s balances her personal life and career and what motivates her.
When did you first become passionate about politics?
I have a PhD in Political Science, so I would say, obviously, the way I feel about politics and the media is probably pretty different than how I think about it as an academic, but my interest in the political world is, at a minimum, goes back to my time being in graduate school, and probably really long before that.
My parents were both deeply involved in community-based action when I was a kid. My mom ran nonprofit organizations. My father was a professor. He was a professor of urban planning. So, we were always engaged in local community-based politics. So, I can’t really remember a time when I didn’t think about politics.
It seems minorities have become more politically active and aware since President Barack Obama first came on the scene. Do you think that will continue once his second term is over?
It’s interesting. There’s actually a lot of data in Political Science that shows that when African Americans live in congressional districts that are represented by an African-American Congress person or when they live in cities that have African-American mayors, they tend to be more politically engaged.
Obviously, that relationship works in both directions; because they’re more politically engaged, they end up electing Black mayors, for example, but then the relationship extends beyond that.
So, in a city like Chicago for example, it hasn’t had a substantial African-American mayoral presence since Harold Washington in the 1980s, but it’s still an extremely active political community.
The stories from cities is “yes,” it should continue, but you have to look beyond race and at the overall way that Americans these days are focused on politics.
A lot of people are very disaffected by politics and the sense that the political world doesn’t really meet their needs or isn’t really about them in an important way. On the one hand, there is some evidence that African Americans will stay engaged.
On the other hand, in a much broader sense, Americans right now are feeling much more disengaged with politics.
Americans are disengaged?
Right after the health care decision from the Supreme Court, fewer than one-third of Americans even knew that the health care decision had been made by the Supreme Court. People turn out to vote, but that’s very different than being engaged politically.
Since you do have such a unique perspective, what do you think is the most important issue facing Black America right now?
I would say it’s probably three, and they’re all intertwined together. That’s poverty, crime and violence and the war on drugs. I say the war on drugs, rather than incarceration, because I think when we say incarceration, we think that it’s primarily Black folks trying to keep themselves out of jail, but the fact that is most of the increase in incarceration came from the aggressive policing under the war of drugs.
So, they’re all connected: poverty, the incarceration rate, the war on drugs and the issue of gun violence are all part and parcel of the same set of policies that have had a really negative impact on African American communities.
The aggressive enforcement of nonviolent drug crimes has had a huge effect on the number of African Americans who are in prison and therefore unable to work and therefore unable to go to school and all the other things that lead to poverty.
What would you say is the first step to trying to address and solve these problems?
Certainly one important step is significantly changing how we address drug policy in this country. The aggressive enforcement of nonviolent drug crimes has had a huge effect on the number of African Americans who are in prison and therefore unable to work and therefore unable to go to school and all the other things that lead to poverty.
So, I would actually start with our drug policy and fundamentally changing how we address drug policy, making drugs a public health problem, rather than a crime and incarceration problem.
The second thing I would say we need is more economic development policies in Black communities, to help people buy homes and to start businesses.
The third thing I would say is common sense and federal gun laws that pretty significantly reduce how many guns are in our community.
MSNBC is considered a more liberal news organization and many of the network’s reporters were vocal advocates of Obama. Do you agree that there seems to be less objectivity in news today?
I don’t think there was ever objectivity in news. I think there was always a variety of opinions and ideas and world views and perspectives. Sometimes on the show we do this thing called The Vault and we look back in history old news clips.
As soon as you look at the old news clips, you realize just the language that people used, like when they talk about feminists or gay and lesbian Americans, you can see all their ideology, but the assumption was that it was neutral.
What’s changed is that we no longer assume neutrality. Certainly, that can be great because now it’s upfront, and you don’t think that you’re getting an objective world view if what you’re getting is opinion. There’s no question on my show, I am giving you an analysis, an opinion.
I’m not going out and digging up news stories. I’m less worried about the question of objectivity versus opinion. I’m more worried about the lack of resources for investigative reporting.
The kind of work that I do, or Rachel, or most of us do on television is we take the news stories that exist and we dig into them or we provide analysis, but we don’t have anyone on our staff who is an investigative reporter, who go out on the field, who talk to the people, who dig through the archives and that kind of work was always done by local newspapers, and with those newspapers dying, to me, that’s the thing that I’m much more worried about.
I worked very hard and at various points along the way I’ve always had somebody who really stuck their neck out for me
The Internet has changed the media industry. News is circulated almost instantaneously these days. Is the pressure and competition to air stories quickly, an issue at all?
Absolutely. Particularly, because I’m coming from the academy where it can take me three or four years to write a book on a topic, if there’s something I really care about, what I want to do is read a few books on it, conduct some independent research; I want to talk to some people.
I want to go to conferences. I want to write it; I want to revise it. When television would come up with an idea, and within a few hours or a few days, we have got to have it on air.
A lot of times I’m hoping that we’re getting it right, and we’re doing everything we can to check available sources to get it right, but the fact is that the crunch of the news cycle is so extreme, particularly in television and certainly with the Internet as well, just that sense of needing content, content, content, again it’s the thing that is missing from the end of newspapers where you would have an investigative journalist who would go out and spend three months pulling a story together.
What other projects are you working on?
I would say the main academic project that I’m working on right now is the Anna Julia Cooper Project on Gender, Race and Politics in the South at Tulane. We have a ton of programming. That’s my baby. I’m working on a new book project called Race Pop which is a little different from the first two I’ve written.
The first two were more academic books. This one is a little bit more for the general audience, but that book is moving very slowly. Those two are my big projects right now. The Cooper project is great. It’s actually working out terrifically. We’re real excited about what we’re up to.
How do you do it all? How do you balance work and personal life?
I don’t think I balance it very well. I certainly do a lot. I certainly do probably more than I should. On any given day, I am completely exhausted by the end of the day.
I think I probably do way too much and I ought to probably step back, but to the extent that I balance, how I do it, I have a ton of help. I have a lot of folks on my side, whether it’s the actual staff of the show. I call in on Wednesdays and Thursdays, but they’re there day for full days on Wednesdays and Thursdays when I’m just calling in.
I have an incredible staff member at Tulane. When I’m gone on Fridays, she’s here and helping to run the place. My husband is driving the daughter to school. We have a babysitter in New York. When I’m on set on Saturday and Sunday mornings, the two of them are hanging out. My mom lives in town. My husband’s parents live in town. We call on them all the time. Even though it’s too much, I still don’t ever try to do it all alone.
When I’m on set on Saturday and Sunday mornings, the two of them are hanging out. My mom lives in town. My husband’s parents live in town. We call on them all the time. Even though it’s too much, I still don’t ever try to do it all alone.
Are you a spiritual person? Do you have a religious affiliation?
I probably have too many religious affiliations. I grew up in a Unitarian Universalist household. I attend Unitarian Universalist services some times. I went to seminary and was working on my [degree] before I moved to New Orleans. I haven’t finished it; I’ve been working on it for years. My husband’s Catholic, and we attend mass every Saturday as a family.
Once the show started, I’m on TV on Sunday morning which is when most Protestant services happen. The nice thing about Catholics is that you can go to church Saturday night. My father is actually in seminary right now; even though he’s 72-years-old. He went back to school.
So, I definitely have a strong religious life.
What’s the secret to your success?
I don’t think there is a secret. I work really hard, but a lot of people work really hard. What I don’t’ want to do is say, “I have all my success and I deserve all of it it because I work really hard.”
Instead what I say is, “I worked very hard and at various points along the way I’ve always had somebody who really stuck their neck out for me.” So, I can think of my high school advisor who encouraged me to go ahead and apply to college early, even though a lot of different people were telling me that I shouldn’t.
She said, “No, I think you can,” and applying to college early was a really important decision that I made in my life. So, I only went to high school for three years and then I went off to college and that was really important to keeping me on track.
When I went to college, at one point I got really sick when I was pledging [Melissa is a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc]. I got bronchitis and walking pneumonia and I had to drop all my classes, and I was a scholarship student, and I didn’t have any money to pay for summer school which I needed to do to get back on track, so I could get out in four years.
Maya Angelou, who was teaching at Lake Forest at the time, gave me a job in her office for the summer, so I could earn enough money to pay for my summer school so I could stay on track. That was really key in getting me graduated on time.
When I got to graduate school, and I was working on my PhD, my doctoral advisor, John Brown, over and over again made sure that I was presenting at conferences and he was writing incredible letters of recommendation for me.
Even if I think about the television show, Rachel [Maddow] allowing me to sit in for her and be a guest host for her back in 2010, undoubtedly, is a big part in how I ended up on the show.
I have worked hard and try to be prepare for opportunities, but the fact is I have been incredibly blessed and lucky to have so many people who have really just stood in the gap for me, stuck their necks out when it was necessary, helped me find the resources I needed and just made a lot of it possible.
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