On Racism and Race-Baiting

In a column at The Daily Beast, I argue that although Rush Limbaugh constantly complains about race-baiters like Al Sharpton, the talk radio host is himself constantly accusing his political adversaries of racism.

Before I cite numerous examples, I say this:

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.

Adam Sewer is upset by my position — characterizing it, he draws the conclusion that I subscribe to “a milder version” of the proposition that “there are no racists in America.”

This is inaccurate. I think that there are plenty of racists in America.

Mr. Serwer goes on to write:

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?

A couple points in response:

1) Racism isn’t the only race-related sin in America that harms its targets — one can be a racial provocateur or play on the racism of others and hurt society in profound ways, without ever hating people of a different race, or thinking that they are inferior. Mr. Serwer and I seem to agree that Mr. Limbaugh hurts minorities with some of the comments that he makes. For example, when Mr. Limbaugh claimed that in Barack Obama’s America, white kids are getting beat up on school buses, he stirred up racial anxieties in a way that victimizes credulous white people and black people. Describing his comments as racial provocations rather than racism doesn’t imply that it isn’t wrong, or that no one is hurt by it.

2) Mr. Serwer is right to conclude that my standard for labeling someone a racist isn’t perfect, insofar as some actual racists won’t be branded for lack of proof. Similarly, the presumption of innocence in criminal law, and the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard for proving guilt, results in some criminals going free for lack of sufficient evidence, despite their guilt. This is galling, sure, but it’s also the most just approach.

Finally, Mr. Serwer writes:

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.

That implicit comparison hadn’t actually occurred to me — I think there are important differences between the words, the most important of which is I think “racist” is a word that discredits the person being labeled, whereas at this point the n-word is a slur that discredits the person doing the labeling. I agree, however, that racist is only a slur of it is inaccurate. My column on Mr. Limbaugh’s use of the term should be evidence enough that it is frequently bandied about inaccurately by people who want to trade on the power it confers. I regard that as an important trend to oppose, whether the perpetrator is Rush Limbaugh or Al Sharpton.

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14 Responses to “On Racism and Race-Baiting”

  1. eldepeche Says:

    I don’t understand why your definition of racist is about the person rather than the behavior; this makes no sense. You may not be able to read my mind to tell if I really love eggs, but if I eat them every day, you have a pretty good estimation of my position on eggs.

    Saying that an NFL game looks like a battle between the Bloods and the Crips is racist. Comparing black men playing a sport to a gang war is racist. Saying that a black president is inverting the social order and that black kids will be free to beat up white kids since we have a black president is racist. The person saying these things may have plenty of black friends, but his words sure do display a certain attitude toward black people in general.

  2. Sara Libby Says:

    I have to side with Adam on this one. I have a very hard time seeing how one could actually “play on the racism of others … without ever hating people of a different race.” Why would anyone who wasn’t racist stoke those sentiments if they didn’t at least passively agree with them?

  3. libtree09 Says:

    Conor,

    If a Black owner of a business, say a cafe will not serve you because you’re a honky (also a nonexistent people) and tells you to leave. Who is the racist?

    If a crowd at a soccer game throw bananas on the field and make monkey noises when a black player has the ball is it not possible that the crowd might be racist? Not by your reasoning, it is not even a slur or insult because it is oblivious the man is not a monkey and may like bananas.

    This is the problem today, people know racism is distasteful so they redefine it or reverse it but mostly they live in ignorance of it’s true meaning.

    A very conservative person I know who tells me she loves to visit Harlam and loves Blacks also goes out of her way not to rent to them in her many apartment buildings. It is not personal but practical. They’re lazy and have no respect for property and have too many people over to party and you never know who is going to live there. Likewise Latinos have too many relatives and kids running around and are dirty. Asians cook stinky food and cause too many complaints.
    Nothing personal it’s business…

    Lately she has taken to meeting about reverse racism and the connection between Blacks and Muslims. “And you know what there were blacks at the meeting.”

    In the film of the school bus incident where a bully was beating up a smaller kid, a fairly common occurrence when I was in school, Rush saw a black kid beating up a white kid and saw the future of America.

    What Rush didn’t see was a segregated bus full of kids sitting next to each other or that it was black kids who broke up the fight. To see it as a black kid as a threat to America is exactly what motivated the southern idea of keeping them in line with beatings and lynchings, the fear that they would rise up and sully and dirty our women and children.

    That is racism and race baiting and the essence of the southern strategy all in one big stupid statement.

    Should he be allowed to own a NFL team, sure, people like him owned them before, just back then they were more honest about their convictions.

    It is refreshing to know that one might say you are a jackass quite freely because I know an ass can’t type.

  4. Brian In NYC Says:

    Connor your attempting to split hairs here. By your argument inciting to riot doesn’t carry the same weight as the “poor slob” who actually picks up the brick and throws it through you window. Your argument is morally unsound, if not right bankrupt and smacks more of your desire to let your titular leader off the hook than it has to do with bring clarity to issue that can often be muddy. I guess in your world the only person who is a racist is the guy pouring gasoline over the cross or tossing the noose of the tree limb, lucky for me I don’t live in your world.

  5. Conor Friedersdorf Says:

    Brian,

    Believe me, Rush Limbaugh isn’t my titular leader — I’ve written forcefully and often against his brand of commentary.

    Sara, you write, “I have a very hard time seeing how one could actually ‘play on the racism of others … without ever hating people of a different race.’ Why would anyone who wasn’t racist stoke those sentiments if they didn’t at least passively agree with them?” I think the answer, in Mr. Limbaugh’s case, is 1) ratings; 2) a desire to pander to his audience; 3) a victim mentality about being called a racist that has led to an unhealthy desire to bait others about race.

    Again, I don’t know what is in Limbaugh’s heart. But his actions are generally best explained by a desire to say whatever it is that raises his ratings, whatever the consequences.

  6. Brian In NYC Says:

    “I think the answer, in Mr. Limbaugh’s case, is 1) ratings; 2) a desire to pander to his audience; 3)”

    That would make him both a whore and a racist.

  7. davidlosangeles Says:

    Mr. Friedersdorf,

    Racism is, in the final analysis, not about what people think or feel, it is not bad ideas in the heads of human beings. Rather it is an objective social relation between two groups of people, in the United States these two groups are called whites and blacks (contrary to popular opinion this has only the most passing relationship to the actual color anyone’s skin). For the last 300 years or so the white group enjoyed economic and social privileges which they could pass on to their descendants. The black group on the other hand suffered economic and social deprivation and exploitation which benefited the white group. There were formal, legal aspects to this relation but there were also informal and unspoken aspects as well. This social relation has changed and evolved over the years and has been weakening since the end of the Civil War. The election of a black man the presidency was a huge blow to racism but it is far from dead.

    Racist ideology is merely a reflection of a racist society, people seeking to justify their position in the racial hierarchy. This was historically and until quite recently called “White Supremacy”. All though the gauche still use this phrase, it still captures the essential element of racism.

    Racist attitudes are those that re-enforce existing racial relations. When Al Sharpton talks trash about white people, he may well be being rude and counter-productive but he is not be being a racist because white have not economically exploited and socially oppressed by black people. It is also rarely been a put into action to oppress white people and when it has, there has been swift government reaction to punish the perpetrators. When Rush talks trash about black people, he is indeed re-enforcing and defending White Supremacy, i.e. he is being a racist. Racist talk by white people has historically lead to many acts of racist violence, violence that the government has historically done nothing about.

    So it is completely ahistorical to try to portray the speech of Mr. Limbaugh with that
    of Mr. Sharpton.

  8. Zaid Jilani Says:

    I think you’re definitely a lot closer to the truth than Adam. The problem is a lot of progressives think they’re winning some grand battle by portraying folks like Beck or Limbaugh as racists, but in the end, they’re just entertainers. These serious-minded crusades against them will always have them coming out on top — because their ratings go through the roof as a result.

  9. Jessica Faye Carter Says:

    The suggestion that Limbaugh, et al are just entertainers is fatuous and doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of the issue.

    This is hacking at branches; you have yet to approach the root of the problem.

    • Zaid Jilani Says:

      No one’s going to say they don’t often engage in racism or ugliness, but they’re at their core entertainers and laugh at the rest of us elevating them to seriousness.

  10. gracenearing Says:

    Again, I don’t know what is in Limbaugh’s heart. But his actions are generally best explained by a desire to say whatever it is that raises his ratings, whatever the consequences.

    So, at best, Limbaugh is not a racist but simply and very effectively plays one (for lots and lots of money) on the radio while cleverly disguised in the persona of himself.

  11. Bob Andelman - Mr. Media Radio Interviews – Air America radio’s Lionel discusses Limbaugh, Beck and Franken - True/Slant Says:

    […] On Racism and Race-Baiting (trueslant.com) […]

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