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Bad Calls on the Racial Playing Field
Posted: Saturday, October 11, 2003

by Kimberle Williams Crenshaw,

The mind numbing pathology around race in America was on display again as the reaction to Rush Limbaugh's completely predictable disintegration last week kicked into overdrive. The initial non-reaction to Limbaugh's inflammatory remarks, followed by shallow discussion and ambivalent criticism, bears a close resemblance to the cycle of reaction following the Trent Lott debacle. Indeed, there appears to be a pattern of reaction to such blatant racial performances; one that indicates a much deeper problem than the tendency of "blowhards" or "social neanderthals" to make "insensitive remarks."

The cycle reveals that there is a deep dissonance between conventions built on the fantasy that racism is a thing of the past or the preserve of the crazies, and the reality that racist influences are as enduring as Old Glory and as potentially hip and marketable as ESPN's wunderkind, Mark Shapiro, gambled it could be. The otherworldy alchemy of the official rhetoric of colorblindness, alongside the unapologic pandering to a racist subculture in the American social and political electorate, seems to create an invisible force that initially stills the tongue, and then causes mindless, contradictory and senseless babbling in its wake. What else can explain the odd fumbles, miscues, and offsides reactions following Limbaugh's snap. Let's cut to the tape.

The tape begins not with Limbaugh's prime time remarks, but with the muted reactions of commentators, owners, and the entire football industry to Shapiro's decision to hire him. Limbaugh's string of bigoted diatribes about African Americans leave no doubt about his fundamental hostility towards this group. In fact, Limbaugh had explicitly encouraged his fans to write African Americans out of any meaningful role in political or cultural discourse: "who cares about them, they're only 12% of the population." This was not simply an "unfortunate comment" or being "caught up in the moment." His racism was a credo, an article of faith, an essential element of who Rush Limbaugh was.

Although this attitude alone might make a reasonable person assume that Limbaugh was patently unqualified to assume the mantle of commentator on an all-American pastime, Shapiro anointed him to be the voice of the fan. Obviously, the fan Shapiro coveted was not the Black fan, who, with a few exceptions, would not be fooled into thinking that they were being channeled into the studio by Rush Limbaugh. Shapiro's marketing decision to hire Limbaugh despite his alienating racial histrionics betrays a Limbaugh-esque posture towards Blacks: "who cares about them, they're only 12% of the population."

Some say Shapiro can only be blamed for taking a losing gamble, one based on marketability rather than hostility toward African Americans. This claim fails to capture the extent to which Shapiro's willingness to lie down with a racist to make a dollar reflected his utter disregard for the interests and sensibilities of an entire population. Hiring Limbaugh was, in this sense, a profoundly racist act.

Despite the significance of Shapiro's decision, however, the reactions were surprisingly muted. At most, eyebrows were raised about the hiring of a "conservative" or "controversial" commentator to appear in a role designated as apolitical. The elementary "see no evil, speak no evil" version of racial etiquette that has been assumed in mainstream media nowadays effectively whitewashed Limbaugh. This process of normalizing racism as mere conservatism probably does as much to advance the cause of white supremacy as hooded marches, cross burnings, and other patently racist activities.

Lacking a socially sanctioned way of objecting to Limbaugh's "everyman" status within sports culture, perhaps it is not surprising that Rush's recent comments elicited a "deer in headlights" response from his co-commentators. Limbaugh co-hosts have taken a lot of heat for their silence, but, in fairness, it is difficult sometimes to know where the "pretend is supposed to end." Even as the frozen-in-time reaction to Limbaugh's comments began to thaw, Shapiro himself clearly didn't know when to stop pretending. He persisted in the utter denial that Limbaugh had said anything "racial" or even "political."

But in a caught-on-tape world, that level of denial-like the denial surrounding Trent Lott's faux pas----- could not last long. More troubling than the tendency of media commentators to use the "finger in the wind" test do determine if Limbaugh had crossed any lines is the way in which the same commentators are now describing the boundaries that, according to the wind, Limbaugh did cross.

Here is where the true blind spots on the racial playing field are revealed. Our referees are now declaring that Limbaugh's foul was not intentional, but incidental. He did say something racial, we are told, but it wasn't racially motivated. This peculiar explanation marks our entrance into the Twighlight Zone of colorblind racial discourse. A strange force field seems to suck up all common sense when the conversation moves to race in America. What in the world would one have to think "racially motivated" meant in order to assume that an assertion that a quarterback is overrated because he is Black is not racially motivated? It certainly is motivated by a belief, a zeal, indeed an agenda to put the Black quarterback in his place, a place obviously of lesser value and respect than he currently enjoys. Moreover, this "blacks are getting more than they deserve" mentality is not only shared by Limbaugh in the context of sports and other social goods. It is ubiqitous throughout American history. Indeed, African Americans have spent generations trying to address it.

There are others who suggest that Limbaugh's error was to bring up "the color of a person's skin" in a context where race is (supposed to be) irrelevant. This corollary to the "it wasn't racially motivated" rationale also misjudges the infraction. There are enormous complexities involved in the functioning of race and sports that ought to be considered and discussed. The entire process of becoming a quarterback, just like the process of becoming a head coach, an owner, or assuming any other leadership position, is influenced to varying degrees by race. The issue is not merely that Limbaugh failed to be colorblind, it is that his particular brand of color consciousness flies in the face of what we know about the history of sports and about the real racial obstacles faced by African Americans in their efforts to ascend to leadership positions in just about any institution.

Of course, this is all too much to say in a soundbite, which is why a lot of people who know better are so willing to make a bad call: personal foul-failure to be colorblind. But the fact that there's no easy language to capture the complexities of race in America -- particularly the complexities of "institutional racism," which Eagles owner Jeffery Lurie aptly invoked to contextualize the Limbaugh phenomenon -- does not excuse a lack of real thinking about the matter. Indeed, a lack of real thinking is part of what led to the failure to challenge Limbaugh's hiring in the first place.

Kimberle Williams Crenshaw ( is Professor of Law at UCLA and Columbia Law Schools. She is the Founder and Executive Director of the African American Policy Forum (, and a leading scholar in the Critical Race Theory movement.

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