The saga of Rush Limbaugh and his failed attempt to acquire a piece of the St. Louis Rams may be the quintessential postmodern American racial incident. When word first leaked of Limbaugh's potential ownership, a couple of sportswriters, joined by a handful of cable news talking heads, repeated what turned out to be totally unsubstantiated quotes by Limbaugh praising slavery and James Earl Ray. (Documented outrageous Limbaugh-isms were available but generally ignored.)
This called for an enraged response from conservatives, who rallied to protest a grave racial injustice on par with the trial of the Scottsboro Boys, or possibly even the campaign against Clarence Thomas. Imagine--Rush Limbaugh, as pure an acolyte of Martin Luther King's ideals as can be found, accused of racism! Limbaugh defended his "belief in a colorblind society where every individual is treated as a precious human being without regard to his race." National Review heatedly editorialized, "Baseless accusations of racism are modern Democrats' McCarthyism"--temporarily forgetting, in the emotion of the moment, the NR editorial line on McCarthy, which lauds the long-deceased demagogue as a cold-war hero.
Now, it is certainly true that liberals have an unattractive tendency to casually impugn their foes as bigots. The Democratic primary's war of attrition between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama devolved into a tedious donnybrook of accusations of sexism and racism. If Clinton had won, her supporters would no doubt have spent the last nine months discovering sexist motives among her critics. Since Obama prevailed, though, liberals have busily studied the opposition for signs of racism. "I think an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man," says Jimmy Carter. Buffoonish GOP Congressman Joe Wilson "clearly did not like being lectured and even rebuked by the brainy black president presiding over the majestic chamber," asserts Maureen Dowd.
Conservatives resent such attacks upon their motives. And justifiably so. Remember when characters like Jerry Falwell and The Wall Street Journal editorial page accused President Clinton of covering up a connection to cocaine smugglers in Arkansas? Conservatives fling deranged accusations at all Democratic presidents, without regard for race, gender, or creed.
An accusation of racism is a tricky thing. No consensus exists as to what actually constitutes racism anyway. Is it a hatred for all minorities? Opposition to formal legal equality? Support for public policies that have disparate racial impacts? Debates over whether so-and-so is racist usually boil down to the accuser and the accused having different definitions of the term.
This is true even of indisputable racists. Last fall, a local Republican group in California sent out a newsletter with a fake Obama dollar bill, labeled "food stamps" and decorated with fried chicken and watermelon. The group's president denied being a racist and, in her defense, pointed out that she had once supported Alan Keyes for president. A few weeks ago, Georgia restaurant owner Patrick Lanzo displayed a roadside sign reading, OBAMAS [sic] PLAN FOR HEALTH CARE: NIGGER RIG IT. Lanzo insisted, according to a news report, that "he's not a racist." More recently, Louisiana justice of the peace Keith Bardwell refused to marry an interracial couple. "I'm not a racist. I just don't believe in mixing the races that way," Bardwell argued, "I have piles and piles of black friends. They come to my home, I marry them, they use my bathroom." You heard the man: These are such close black friends he allows them to use his bathroom.
So whether Limbaugh is "racist" is a near-meaningless question. Suffice it to say that he's intensely race-conscious and constantly plays upon white racial paranoia. In Limbaugh's world, racism is everywhere--it's just directed at white people. Earlier this year in Belleville, Illinois, two kids who happened to be black beat up a kid who happened to be white in what witnesses and police say was a non-racial dispute over seating in a school bus. Apparently, the color-blind analysis of that incident is the following:
Obama's America, white kids getting beat up on school buses now. You put your kids on a school bus, you expect safety but in Obama's America the white kids now get beat up with the black kids cheering, "Yay, right on, right on, right on, right on," and, of course, everybody says the white kid deserved it, he was born a racist, he's white.
Limbaugh has repeatedly cast Obama's agenda in racial terms. ("Obama's entire economic program is reparations.") Before Obama's election, some reporters found an undercurrent of fear among certain white voters that the election of a black president would usher in a wave of revenge against white America for its history of slavery and discrimination. Limbaugh has stoked those fears:
The days of them not having any power are over, and they are angry. And they want to use their power as a means of retribution. That's what Obama's about, gang. He's angry, he's gonna cut this country down to size, he's gonna make it pay for all the multicultural mistakes that it has made, its mistreatment of minorities.
As the blogger Conor Friedersdorf has detailed, Limbaugh hurls charges of racism promiscuously. Obama? "[T]he greatest living example of a reverseracist." Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates? "[A]n angry racist." Sonia Sotomayor? "She's a bigot. She's a racist."
When I attended college just after the height of the political-correctness fad, I was exposed to the exotic but widely accepted theory that racial minorities could not, by definition, be guilty of racism. Limbaugh has formulated a sort of mirror-image philosophy: Conservatives can't be racist. "Racism in this country," he has announced, "is the exclusive province of the left."
The victimology of the leftist is bad enough--he is beset by racism. But the persecution complex of the conservative has managed to top that. The conservative is a double victim--of false accusations of racism and of racism itself. Limbaugh moans, "Frankly, the biggest problem I face in the current climate of political correctness is that I'm color-blind about it." Poor Limbaugh--he tries so hard to avoid race, but it just keeps finding him.
Jonathan Chait is a senior editor of The New Republic.