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.