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The Other Race Card
Posted: Saturday, October 11, 2003

Rush Limbaugh and the Politics of White Resentment


So now we know how Rush Limbaugh lost all that weight. It wasn't will power, it wasn't exercise, and it wasn't the Atkins Diet. Instead, it appears to have been a legal opiate called OxyContin: legal, at least, for those persons who have a prescription for it, which Rush doesn't. Limbaugh, according to the former housekeeper who scored drugs for him since 1998, is addicted to painkillers.

Rush's dope habit, however, is not the subject of this column, except insofar as it might explain in part his tendency to say some really stupid shit. People who are high, after all, are known to have clouded judgment, which is probably why Limbaugh hasn't denied the allegations of pill-popping, since pill-popping might end up being the last best defense he has against the charge that he's an ignorant, pompous blowfish.

Limbaugh's most recent outrage--claiming that NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb is overrated but avoids serious criticism because he's black and thus the media goes easy on him--is frankly mild compared to many things he's said over the years. Even in the realm of comments considered racist, as this one has been by many, the quip ranks pretty low on the bigot-meter.

After all, early on in Rush's radio career he told a black caller to "take that bone out of your nose and call me back," and since then has said that all composite sketches of criminals look like Jesse Jackson. Additionally, he once dismissed the notion that black opinions matter by ranting that "they're only 12 percent of the population. Who the hell cares?"

The comment about McNabb--a three-time Pro Bowler--which Rush made in his capacity as a recently-added ESPN Sunday football commentator is, to hear Rush tell it, no big deal. And the reaction to his remarks, again to hear him tell it, only indicates how far "political correctness" has gone. In fact, in Rush's mind, not only was the remark not racist, but he is now the victim of a liberal-left cabal intent on stifling any conservative commentary in the public arena: a strange claim to make when you're a multimillionaire who has gotten rich off of very un-stifled conservative commentary.

To be fair, Rush is right about one thing. His comment was not, in and of itself racist. He did not, after all, allege that McNabb's talent (or presumed lack thereof) was due to his being black, and therefore somehow incapable of commanding an NFL offense.

But at the same time, this is not where a proper analysis of his remarks (or racism for that matter) should end. For the simple fact is that racially-charged comments, which this surely was, take place against a backdrop of larger social commentary.

Statements of this nature exist not in a vacuum, as if mere isolated flotsam and jetsam on the national airwaves, but rather within a broader context, where their interpretation and symbolic value become greater than the sum of their linguistic parts.

In the case of a comment such as Limbaugh's, one must consider the effect, not simply the intent behind the words. It is this consideration that can legitimately cause Limbaugh's remarks to be viewed as racist or at least an example of white racial resentment, which in turn can feed the problem of racism, whether or not this was the goal of the speaker.

That Rush would likely never understand this is not surprising. Indeed, his understanding of racism, like that of most white Americans it seems, is so limited that it only allows the label to be used to describe the most vicious and deliberately bigoted of statements or actions. In other words, Rush, like most whites, views racism as requiring the evil intent of an individual racist, and thereby considers the event through the eyes of the perpetrator rather than the victim. If he didn't mean any harm, then there was no foul.

But just as football players can be penalized for holding whether or not they meant to do it, so too can someone be guilty of fomenting racism, with or without the conscious desire to contribute to such a thing.

Fact is, what Rush did on ESPN was to play the conservative and white version of the so-called race card. The one that goes like this: "Black people get treated with kid gloves, get coddled, get preferential treatment, get held to a lower standard, get away with sub-par performance in ways that no white person could."

It's a card that Rush and others like him have played for years in their diatribes against affirmative action. It's a card that Rush himself played a few months ago when he and other prominent conservatives insisted that New York Times plagiarist Jayson Blair got away with his dishonesty for so long merely because he was black, and because the Times had an overzealous commitment to "diversity" at the expense of quality. In fact, there is virtually no difference between Rush's treatment of Blair and McNabb: both black, both supposedly getting by on their skin color alone and being coddled by the typically-liberal media, desperate to find ability among black folks who aren't really that good.

Putting aside whether or not Rush is right about McNabb's abilities--and this is something about which honest football fans can disagree, I suppose--the remark can only be viewed as a continuation of the "undeserving black guy gets ahead" theme so common among an increasingly resentful white public.

And keep in mind this is a public that has already been fed lies about affirmative action for so long that today many seem to think that whenever they fail to get a job, it must have been because of some preference given to a person of color; or that if their kid didn't get into the college of their choice, it had to be because of quotas.

Ignore the evidence of course, since it gives the lie to such silliness. Ignore the fact that the very same blacks who presumably take white jobs are two to three times more likely to be unemployed, even when their credentials are equal to their white counterparts.

Ignore the fact that whites are more likely than members of any other racial group to get into their first-choice college, while blacks are the least likely to do so.

Ignore the study published in the Journal of Economic Literature--actually an analysis of over 200 other studies--which found that persons who have benefited from affirmative action perform equal to or better than their white contemporaries, indicating that not only are they not being held to a lower standard, but are meeting whatever standard exists for everyone else.

Even within the ranks of football, ignore the recent study indicating that black coaches are fired more quickly than their white counterparts, even when their records are just as good or better.

Ignore the fact that another black quarterback, Tennessee's Steve McNair, has long been under-appreciated by the national media, stretching back to his days in college at Alcorn State, where he was a Heisman Trophy candidate.

Why, one might ask, would the same media that falls all over itself to kiss the ass of Donovan McNabb just because he's black, constantly minimize McNair's talents on the field, rarely praising him beyond noting that he's "gutsy and plays with pain?"

Only this year, after four straight seasons of high passer ratings and 60 percent-plus completion rates is McNair starting to get some credit for the Titans strong play. But given Rush's worldview, this hardly makes sense. After all, if the media is itching to praise a black quarterback, why would they seemingly have been allergic to such praise in the case of McNair?

Speaking of McNair, imagine what white conservatives would say if he, or any other black football player or commentator were to suggest that the reason the media hasn't given him much credit for his QB skills was because he was black? In other words, what if McNair were to claim that racism against blacks was the reason he failed to get the credit he deserved? Odds are good that Rush and his loyal listeners would hit the roof, blow a gasket, and then have to pop twenty or thirty pills to ease the pain.

Such a claim by McNair would be viewed as stoking racial resentment on the part of blacks. It would be viewed as playing the race card in an arena where it didn't belong. It would be viewed, in short, as racist by many on the right, or at least an example of poisoning the well of race relations.

Well the same logic applies here. When the national dialogue on race includes an unhealthy dose of diversity-bashing from the right, replete with claims of blacks receiving unearned preferences, to then claim that this kind of favoritism explains McNabb's treatment by the press can only further that narrative. In doing so, it can only poison the well of race relations and engender white backlash against the mildest of civil rights efforts. And it can do all of this, irrespective of the self-proclaimed benign intentions of the speaker in question.

Of course the impact of Rush's remarks on McNabb will likely be negligible. After all, an athlete like Donovan McNabb isn't likely to care too much about an analysis of his skills coming from someone whose main form of exercise is washing down the equivalent of synthetic heroin with water. But the impact it can have on the black community generally--especially young black kids--is anything but insignificant.

For blacks to once again hear a white person insist they really aren't that good and that anything they achieve is only because of race, is for them to have planted in their minds the seeds of self-doubt that can cripple achievement. It is also to subject them to yet more proof that no matter what they do, many whites will never think they are truly competent.

Rush of course offers up one last defense, but if anything it actually makes the point of his critics. On his radio show, Rush recently noted that he has also criticized white quarterbacks Vinnie Testaverde and Kurt Warner as being overrated by a doting media, and thus, his criticism of McNabb cannot be seen as either unique, or racist.

Yet when casting doubts upon the skills of these white players, and when questioning the media's generally fawning attitude towards them, Rush naturally never suggested that their treatment might be due to the media's desire to have a "great white hope," at quarterback; or because, being white, Warner or Testaverde fit some racialized notion of "all-American boys."

Such comments could be made, one supposes, though with not any greater legitimacy than the ones Rush actually offered. That his criticism of white quarterbacks came without the racial angle attached leads one to wonder: if not race, then what else could possibly explain the media's love affair with Warner and Testaverde? And if there is an answer other than race available in these cases, then why wouldn't this also be true for Donovan McNabb?

Of course there are other answers, but for a flamethrower who has made his living pushing buttons, those answers don't matter. Rush's job, as it were, for fifteen years has been to serve as the voice of pissed off white men and the white women who love them: pissed off at blacks for everything under the sun; pissed off at immigrants for not learning English fast enough; pissed off at liberals for taxes; pissed off at Bill Clinton for blow jobs. Just plain pissed off.

Now we learn that if someone had simply asked this pissed off superstar to piss in a cup, his star would have darkened long ago. But like I said, this article isn't about the fact that Rush is a drug addict. Did I mention that, by the way?

Tim Wise is an antiracist educator, essayist and activist. He can be reached at

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