In the past few days, there has been a lot of discussion about the role race plays in the rising tide of birther/tenther/teabagger opposition to President Obama, mostly because of the column I wrote the other day here at TAP about the topic. (Ha! Not really – it had to do more with Jimmy Carter and Maureen Dowd.) But since I wrote that column, I’ve gotten a bunch of emails from conservatives, saying in one form or another, “Opposing President Obama does not make me a racist!”
Of course it doesn’t. But I want to focus on one particular aspect of this controversy for a moment, the people with the great big megaphones. I had one correspondent claim to me that he listens to Rush Limbaugh every day, and Limbaugh has never said anything racist. I realized that what he meant was that Limbaugh had, in his time listening, never actually burst out, “Obama is a ni**er!!!” My correspondent also assured me that Limbaugh is close friends with Clarence Thomas, certifying to the lack of prejudice in his heart.
But here’s the thing. I have no way of knowing what’s in Rush Limbaugh’s heart (though I have my suspicions). I don’t know if he is a racist, but what I do know is this: He is, most assuredly, a race-baiter. He regularly attempts to encourage his listeners to nurture whatever racism they may have, and to feel animosity toward those who are not white. When he trumpets a random incident on a school bus in which a white kid got beat up by saying, “In Obama's America, the white kids now get beat up with the black kids cheering,” he’s trying to get white people to feel angry at, and afraid of, black people. When he calls Sonia Sotomayor a racist and spends hours talking about the one case in which Sotomayor ruled against a white guy, he may or may not be revealing his own anti-Latino feelings, but he is definitely trying to get his white audience to hate Sotomayor because of her race. The same is true of Glenn Beck; whatever happens to lie in Beck’s heart, when he says that Barack Obama harbors “a deep-seated hatred for white people,” he’s telling his white audience that they should hate and fear Obama because of his race. The other part of the message is that white people are aggrieved and oppressed, and should be as resentful as possible at those uppity minorities who are the cause of all their troubles.
This is an old Republican tradition, of course. You could argue that most of their electoral success over the last 40 years was built on race-baiting, from Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” to Ronald Reagan's campaigning against “welfare queens,” to Newt Gingrich railing against “midnight basketball.” Were they racists? We don’t know, and we really shouldn’t much care. But what we do know is that like Limbaugh and Beck, they were race-baiters.
I’m sure that today’s race-baiters would prefer that the emotions they’re working so hard to stir up stay just below the surface; when people start showing up at rallies with signs saying things like, “The zoo has an African lion; the White House has a lyin’ African,” it kind of gives away the game. But let’s stop worrying about whether one or another political or media figure is a racist. If you want to call them out for something, call them out for the race-baiting.
And if you haven’t yet, you should check out the extremely awesome Jay Smooth on the what you said/what you are distinction. It’ll be the most worthwhile 3 minutes of your day: