There Are Still No Racists In America.

Conor Friedersdorf has an interesting column for the Daily Beast pointing out that for all his bluster about "race pimps," Rush Limbaugh makes frequent frivolous accusations of racism against other people. Unfortunately, Friedersdorf, while eschewing the second conservative rule of racism (all racists are liberals), adheres to a milder version of the first (there are no racists in America).

Here he is on Limbaugh:

I share a powerful distaste for characters like Al Sharpton, who deliberately play on the racial anxieties of Americans. As one of the most powerful slurs in American life, "racist" is an accusation that ought to be made rarely, after careful deliberation, with incontrovertible evidence, and never merely to score points at the expense of a political adversary. So I join Mr. Hinderaker and Mr. McCarthy in asserting that Mr. Limbaugh has never been proved a racist, and that race-baiting is an awful feature of American public discourse. It damages reputations and undermines our ability to target actual racism. Those who engage in it deserve our ire.

Of course, Fridersdorf's definition of "actual racism" is one that assumes people are incapable of hiding racist intent. In fact, confronted with a person like Limbaugh who says things like "[t]he government's been taking care of [young blacks] their whole lives," compares black professional athletes to gang members and describes the president's economic agenda as slavery reparations, Friedersdorf says:

That doesn't mean Mr. Limbaugh is a racist. I take him at his word that he isn't. He is merely a racial provocateur whose ire at being called a racist doesn't prevent him from affixing the label to others with stunning frequency.

Friedersdorf's definition of "actual racism" excludes pretty much anyone who isn't wearing a white sheet and brandishing a noose, which in a practical sense, just means that you can be as racist as you want as long as you make a minimal effort to conceal or deny it. Or you could just say you aren't a racist after saying something racist, Friedersdorf will apparently "take you at your word." What's the substantive difference for Limbaugh's targets between Limbaugh employing racism in political argument as a "provocateur" and him somehow not being a racist on the inside? Does that somehow mean that people won't internalize the message he sends when he implies black people are all on welfare?

Even in the midst of criticizing Limbaugh for his behavior, Friedersdorf seems more concerned with limiting the conditions under which people can be accused of racism, not dealing with racism itself. Obviously, frivolous accusations of racism are problematic, both because racial issues elicit such strong reactions and because they
prevent us from dealing honestly with race. But that doesn't mean that the definition of racist behavior should be so distorted as to make confronting racism impossible. That won't diminish race as a factor in American life, but it will help those who try to dismiss the idea that people of color are still affected by racism. Ironically, that's part of what Limbaugh is trying to do, and its why the targets of his accusations are so frequently people of color.

One final thing: What Friedersdorf is doing by describing the term "racist" as "one of the most powerful slurs in American life" is making an implicit comparison to the word "nigger." The only problem is that "nigger" is a figment of the American racial imagination, a term that does not describe any actual human beings, whereas racism is all too real -- if more appropriately applied to behavior rather than individuals as a whole. "Racist" is only a "slur" if it is inaccurate. 

-- A. Serwer

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