Since Barack Obama’s election as president (and even during the campaign) there has been an on again, off again conversation about how his race figures into the various sentiments about him.

But a recent column by Tulane University professor, columnist at The Nation and MSNBC contributor Melissa Harris-Perry, and a subsequent response by a syndicated columnist at Salon.com, blew the issue into the open in a new, and ugly, way. Rather than a debate about potentially race-based antipathy to Obama among the tea party right, the online debate raised the specter of racially tinged opposition to Obama on the left.

In her column Harris-Perry posed the question of whether a different — and more stringent — standard was being applied to Obama by whites who supported his election in 2008 than was applied to the previous Democratic president, Bill Clinton. Saying “liberal electoral racism is the willingness to abandon a black candidate when he is just as competent as his white predecessors,” Harris-Perry noted the steep decline in white support for Obama during his first three years, compared to increased white support for Clinton in 1996, despite the Obama having arguably more policy success — including health care reform.

The response to Perry’s column was fast — and furious.

Columnist David Sirota derided Harris-Perry as a “longtime lockstep Obama defender,” and accused her of contributing to a “broader campaign aimed at shutting down principled progressive dissent about this White House’s record.” Sirota has been a consistent Obama foe, having written in December 2006 about the “ridiculousness and danger that is Obama 2008” amid speculation that the then-Senator might run for president, and he has been a relentless critic of the administration and its supporters.

John Aravosis of Americablog, another prominent liberal blogger who has been at odds with the president asked his readers, “Are you disappointed with Obama simply because you’re a white racist and he’s black? Unlikely. Because if we were all white racists, we wouldn’t have supported Barack Obama in the first place. And we did. Far more than we probably should have.”

Others asked, ‘where’s the evidence of racial animus?’ Among them was Joan Walsh, the former editor-in-chief at Salon.com (who appears frequently on MSNBC as a commentator and who now writes a blog at the online magazine.) In her rebuttal, Walsh refuted Harris-Perry’s thesis that Obama is being treated worse by liberals than Clinton was, saying the difference in the economic conditions during the two administration’s accounts for most of the difference.

But it was a piece by Salon and newspaper columnist Eugene (Gene) Lyons that took the debate, some would say, to a new low.

In his response to Harris-Perry, Lyons opened with “not all fools are Republicans,” and then followed with this:

See, certain academics are prone to an odd fundamentalism of the subject of race. Because President Obama is black, under the stern gaze of professor Harris-Perry, nothing else about him matters. Not killing Osama bin Laden, not 9 percent unemployment, only blackness.

Furthermore, unless you’re black, you can’t possibly understand. Yada, yada, yada. This unfortunate obsession increasingly resembles a photo negative of KKK racial thought. It’s useful for intimidating tenure committees staffed by Ph.D.s trained to find racist symbols in the passing clouds. Otherwise, Harris-Perry’s becoming a left-wing Michele Bachmann, an attractive woman seeking fame and fortune by saying silly things on cable TV.

Lyons’ dismissive response elicited a fierce backlash online, both from those who deemed his diminution of Harris-Perry’s qualifications as sexist, and from those who deemed his comparison of her arguments to the Ku Klux Klan offensive — and racist.

Lyons defended his column in an interview with theGrio, saying he “set out to be provocative,” and to “make people think by shocking them a bit.”

“I think if I had it to over again, I would use another comparison than the KKK,” Lyons said. “That seems to have gotten people to a place where they cant respond to anything else in the piece.”

Calling his use of the KKK “needlessly provocative,” Lyons conceded “I would probably retract that point and find another way to make [my] point.”

As for his point, Lyons, who lives in rural Arkansas, said “I actually was thinking of a little known White Citizens’ Council guy here who was a big [Bill] Clinton hater, named Justice Jim Johnson, who died last year. He wasn’t confrontational or violent, but he saw everything through the prism of race, and that was the comparison I was trying to make. [It was] a limited comparison, not trying to imply that she or her supporters are capable of violence or hate. Just [that Harris-Perry is] someone who sees everything through the prism of race.”

Despite the walk-back, Lyons did not consider his comparisons to be racially inflammatory. On the contrary, he defended his overall point, and said that he didn’t think Harris-Perry “said anything politically useful, and to the extent she said anything, I think her column was politically silly.”

If those comments come across as tone deaf, both in terms of race and gender, the 68-year-old Lyons was nonplussed.

“In this case, everybody who’s angry about [the Salon column] is African-American, and everybody who’s favorable to it is not. I think there’s a perception problem, but both sides have a perception problem. Don’t accuse people of racism and expect them to curl up in a ball or expect them to frantically try to prove their innocence. You’ve got
to be more careful about symbols than I was, but don’t expect me to prove that I’m ‘ipso-facto guilty.”

Lyons said opposition to the president on the left has little to do with race, and everything to do with the economy, including 9.1 percent unemployment, which he called the “elephant in the room,” that he said Harris-Perry overlooked.

“That’s why Obama is in trouble and as long as [the economy is weak,] he’s gonna stay in trouble.”

As for the critique that liberals have been harsher critics of Obama than they were of Clinton, Lyons said, “I would say, one, ‘kvetching’ is what liberals do, and two, I would say that Clinton always used to say, let’s not make the perfect the enemy of the good. I think that’s what most liberals do. I think that’s a legitimate criticism, but I think that’s what liberals do. They did the same to Clinton. That’s one reason democrats are so hopeless. No sooner do they get a person in power and they start tearing him down, because he isn’t perfect; because they can imagine a perfect world. Republicans are just more disciplined.”

Lyons complained that he is often associated with people with whom he disagrees, including Sirota, who also has also used the KKK meme against Obama supporters, in a December 2009 tweet he later deleted.) But Lyons said he “quit reading Sirota” during the health care debate, “because I thought he and a lot of people like him were being ridiculous. Yes I would have preferred if the president had said, ‘Medicare for all.’ However, the votes weren’t there. There was no possibility of getting single payer [health care] through the United States Senate, so what’s the point?”

Walsh: we’ve made progress

Joan Walsh’s column responding to Harris-Perry drew a stern response from the Tulane professor, while many prominent liberals vigorously defended her. Walsh has had her own battles on Twitter with black Obama supporters, and she traces the rift between pro-Obama blacks and white liberals to the Democratic primary, when she says people who defended Hillary Clinton “were routinely tarred as racist.”

“I kind of won back my friends by defending the president [against right wing attacks] and calling out others’ racism,” said Walsh.”But because I disagree slightly on the role of the race [in critiques of the president,] I’m now an enemy too.”

Saying she is often unfairly lumped in with relentless Obama critics like Sirota and fellow Salon columnist Glenn Greenwald, Walsh conceded that many liberals, including her, may have placed too-high expectations on candidate Obama.

“I’ve said that on some level I probably was expecting a ‘savior hero’ rather than a transactional Chicago pol who is going to make me happy one day and unhappy the next,” Walsh said. “What I have a problem with is the extent to which people associate racism with fair criticism of a president who hasn’t done what some of us hoped he would do.”

As for what accounts for the rancor inside the liberal tent, Walsh said it’s partly a result of Obama’s success in 2008.

“I actually think we’ve made progress on the left,” Walsh said. “President Obama brought the left back in [in 2008.] He brought in those [Ralph] Nader voters who abandoned [2000 Democratic presidential candidate] Al Gore. The anger that was outside the Democratic Party was brought inside the Democratic Party and that accounts for some of it.”

Whites, blacks, in ‘different worlds’ online

Whatever the perceptions of white liberals, there’s little doubt black supporters of the president perceive a hostility to him that goes beyond the economy.

But is there empirical evidence that white liberals are abandoning the president, or that they are more critical of him because of his race? According to Gallup, the president’s weekly approval rating at the end of August averaged 83 percent with blacks, 32 percent with whites, 75 percent with Democrats and 68 percent with liberals. Those numbers, and the decline versus the May-30 to June 5 weekly average of 10 percent for whites and Democrats, 11 percent for liberals, but just 6 percent for blacks, indicates the drop-off within the Democratic and liberal groups is coming mostly from whites and/or Hispanics, though there are no specific polls that compare the two. Meanwhile, the decline in approval among black voters has been less steep than the drop-off among the other groups who rate the president most highly, and blacks have consistently maintained approval ratings of the president that are markedly above the national average, while whites overall remain below the national average.

Obama does have prominent black critics, like Tavis Smiley, Cornel West, and members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

But because the major online organizations and publications representing “the left” have few prominent black voices, the expressions of liberal disappointment, even anger, at the president come largely from whites.

The most prominent liberal magazines and blogs have mastheads that are almost entirely white. Harris-Perry is the lone black columnist listed on The Nation’s website, as is Ta-Nehisi Coates at The Atlantic. Sites like The Daily Kos, ThinkProgress, Firedoglake and Salon have only a small number of black writers and diarists. According to estimates, about 3 percent of diarists at the Daily Kos, one of the most popular and long-lived liberal group blogs (which recently had its own controversy over the “purging” of a small number of black diarists, who publisher Markos Moulitsas said were accusing other members of the online community of racism for criticizing the president) are black.

One African-American blogger who attended the most recent Netroots Nation, told TheGrio organizers of the annual blog event went out of their way in 2010 to recruit black bloggers for panels, but that the attendees of the event were overwhelmingly white.

North Carolina State University history professor Blair Kelley traced the quick dismissal by some white liberal writers of Harris-Perry’s thesis, and the sometimes frosty relations between black Obama supporters and his white liberal critics, to this lack of proximity.

“It’s about our invisibility,” Kelley said of blacks in the liberal movement. “And I think it has historic roots. Ralph Ellison got it right [in his book, ‘The Invisible Man.’ ] Sometimes whites don’t see us. They don’t think about life from our perspective. Things that happen to us regularly, the small slights that we experience on a day to day basis, are sometimes shocking to them.”

Kelley said white liberal intellectuals and members of the media “live in a world where they don’t have to know much about us; they don’t have to deal with questions of race. President Obama has changed their focus. But now that they are paying attention to a new generation of black Americans, they’re sometimes surprised about who we are.”

Walsh, for her part, acknowledged that she doesn’t feel the impact of race on perceptions of the president as “viscerally” as black Americans do, because she doesn’t experience it firsthand.

“I’ve said that in print,” she said. “I think the climate of intimidation and violence that
this president has inspired in his enemies is so frightening for all of us but particularly for black voters to see this wonderful man, who is not doing anything terribly radical (much to my dismay,) who really is a centrist, who is reaching out to Republicans; and he’s got people throwing rocks at congressional offices and carrying guns to his speeches. The racism we’ve documented, but there’s also been a climate of violence. That is the climate that does make particularly African-Americans protective of our president. I try to get it. But on the other hand, our country really is going to hell.”

Ugliness on the left, too

If there is ugliness on the right when it comes to Barack Obama, there is sometimes ugliness on the left, too.

Imani Gandy, who blogs at the liberal site Balloon Juice and at her own blog, AngryBlackLady.com (Gandy also is a contributor to TheGrio,) was among a group of black Twitter users who have tangled with Walsh. She said she gets a harsh reaction in her liberal online community when she tries to start conversations about race.

“When I write anything about race, I get savaged,” Gandy said. “I get called a ‘race baiter.’”

“The left has no interest in trying to have this grand conversation on race,” Gandy continued. “They say it’s about empathy, but there’s no empathy at all. It’s [white liberals saying] ‘I want to be able to be talk and I want you black people to listen.’”

Gandy cites a diarist on FireDogLake, an anti-Obama, left-leaning blog run by online advertising maven Jane Hamsher, where a diarist named Steve Hynd used the term “house (n-words)” to describe Democratic Party loyalists.

Eventually, a moderator corrected the post, but only to replace the middle part of the n-word with asterisks.

Another African-American blogger, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said they have experienced casual racism in anti-Obama liberal forums firsthand.

The blogger said they were forced to leave a progressive list serv because of racist comments, and a routine failure of other members of the invitation-only forum to correct them.

In one incident, Obama was referred to as “Step’n fetch it,” the black blogger said. And when one member of the list serv objected, they were inundated with attacks, while the “step’in fetch it” poster was defended.

Those individual incidents may not add up to a trend, but anecdotal evidence of a rift between blacks and white liberals is easily found online, and especially on Twitter, which has become a popular outlet for political discourse, including among blacks, who use the social networking tool disproportionately.

Blacks have remained the strongest and most consistent Obama supporters, and many resent the fact that it is Obama’s mostly white, liberal critics, whose voices are amplified, both online, and by the media.

“No one said blacks were exclusively the base,” Gandy said. “But when you go on TV
and talk about ‘the base’ being disappointed, you’re not talking about us.”

As the 2012 election nears, it remains to be seen if these two parts of the president’s base can find common ground and work together.

They’ll have to, if Obama is to have a chance at re-election.