MSNBC is tone-deaf for “silencing” Melissa Harris-Perry

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Yesterday, many of us received another Black History Month surprise when we learned that Melissa Harris-Perry walked away from her eponymous show on MSNBC and has no plans to return for the foreseeable future.

According to the New York Times, several weeks of election coverage pre-emptions prompted Harris-Perry to express her disappointment at what she calls a loss of editorial control of her show. In a note to her staff, Harris-Perry shared that network executives asked her to return on air “simply to save face because there is a growing chorus of questions from our viewers about my notable absence from MSNBC coverage.” In the email, this is what she wrote:

Here is the reality: our show was taken — without comment or discussion or notice — in the midst of an election season. After four years of building an audience, developing a brand, and developing trust with our viewers, we were effectively and utterly silenced. Now MSNBC would like me to appear for four inconsequential hours to read news that they deem relevant without returning to our team any of the editorial control and authority that makes MHP Show distinctive.

The purpose of this decision seems to be provide cover for MSNBC, not to provide voice for MHP Show. I will not be used as a tool for their purposes. 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. I have wept more tears than I can count and I find this deeply painful, but I don’t want back on air at any cost. I am only willing to return when that return happens under certain conditions.

Officials at MSNBC claim that other regularly scheduled programming was pre-empted for election coverage as well. However, any passive viewer of the network knows that while MSNBC goes wall-to-wall with the elections, they usually run their breaking political coverage through the scheduled hosts. While normal programming is often pre-empted during a national election season, it would be unheard of for the network to have Rachel Maddow, Joe Scarborough, Mika Brzezinski, Chris Matthews, Lawrence O’Donnell or Chris Hayes go MIA.

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This is because network executives trust them to continue guiding us through conversations about the election cycle and our tenuous political atmosphere. For Harris-Perry, regardless of her Ph.D. in political science and extensive teaching experience at some of the nation’s top universities, she has, in her own words “been deemed less worthy to weigh in than relative novices and certified liars.”

Let’s be clear, Harris-Perry is uniquely qualified to speak on issues related to electoral politics. As a former student of Dr. Harris-Perry, I have been exposed to her incomparable energy, wit, and compassion for American politics and history. Fortunately for her viewers, The Melissa Harris-Perry Show transferred her pedagogical style to a much larger audience who craved an authentic black female voice. For four years, The Melissa Harris-Perry Show has provided viewers with nuanced critique of issues related to race, gender, politics, democracy and culture. Her show provides a voice for the voiceless and has featured more guests of color than any other television news program.

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However, despite her outstanding credentials, intellectual heft, and success at diversifying MSNBC’s viewer base in the face of their failing ratings, she’s been relegated to the margins and silenced from engaging pertinent topics about the current political climate.

What makes her absence so glaring is that Harris-Perry is the only African-American woman on cable news to host an editorialized news program. Blacks make up a disproportionate amount of MSNBC’s viewers, yet the network seems to have an issue with black people who hold strong perspectives leading their coverage. Joy Reid’s The Reid Report was cancelled a year ago – almost to the day. Reid, perhaps the network’s most political savvy talent, has been given the title of “national correspondent,” but she’s been reduced to playing a second-fiddle guest or substitute host for the network’s white talent. Rev. Al Sharpton’s Politics Nation, once a daily weekday evening show, has been banished to the less visible weekends while other black fixtures on the network’s air like Touré and Karen Finney have also been removed.

The timing of Harris-Perry’s benching by the network is particularly odd, given the influence black women have in this political and general news cycle. At a time when the killing of unarmed black men by law enforcement officials spurred the growth of Black Lives Matter campaigns and other national black protests, it’s never been more important to have a black woman front and center in the visual medium. The fact that MSNBC has silenced an African-American woman’s voice during a time when political candidates are fighting tooth-and-nail in South Carolina — and beyond — for the black vote is further evidence that the network is completely antiquated, tone deaf and dismissive of us.

Perhaps her sidelining is because the struggling network is trying to rebrand itself as a more centrist news source, but Maddow, Matthews and O’Donnell are nothing if not die-hard liberals. Or maybe it’s because President Obama is serving his last year in office that the network believes that blacks are also going out of style.

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The truth is, our influence is growing, and we as black women want and need to see ourselves reflected. Our issues will persist long after this administration has ended. Just as Black Lives Matter, our representation in today’s political discourse does too.

While the network probably never intended to lose Harris-Perry, as black women, we can understand her frustration of being over-qualified and under-utilized. MSNBC’s idea of diversity is simply counting the black faces they flash on air, but Perry is not willing to be another coin in their collection of tokens. It’s our time to lead the discussions about our country and our futures, and we should settle for nothing less.

Brandi Thompson Summers, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of African American Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University.  Her research interests include race, aesthetics, and visual culture with an emphasis on the contemporary racialization of bodies and urban spaces. You can reach her on Twitter at @sleepyscricket