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Is Everyone a Racist?

October 12, 2009

When recently asked by the Today Show if he was moved in any way to see an African-American elected president, Rush Limbaugh replied as follows:

Yeah, but I got over it pretty quick. He’s president of the United States. Skin color doesn’t matter to me; his policies are what matter. The idea that we’ve had a very historical thing was wonderful when it happened, absolutely. But I’ll be honest with you, I predicted that it would exacerbate racial tensions, and it has. Any criticism of president Obama is going to be said to be oriented in racism.

Exacerbate racial tensions? Surely, that is what both sides would have us believe. A few weeks ago, Jimmy Carter spoke for many on the Left when he described Tea Party protestors and other anti-Obama demonstrators as racists. So Limbaugh is, in a sense, correct: Carter and other prominent voices on the Left do tend to play the race card on critics of our first black president. But, then again, Limbaugh also plays the race card. What Limbaugh really means by “exacerbate racial tensions” is “introduce race into otherwise colorblind debates.” The Left has, in other words, used race as a wedge; people on the Left are racists.

The sweeping condemnations of a Carter or Limbaugh explain very little, beyond the polarization of our politics. A few basic facts would go a long way. Either the country has forgotten altogether the racial prejudices that defined the first two hundred years of existence, or it hasn’t. Supposing it is true – as Glenn Beck asserted in his interview with Katie Couric – that only a minority of Tea Party protesters were motivated by race, it would seem to follow that Jimmy Carter and the Left are imposing race on what ought to be a color blind debate over health care. On the other hand, if racial prejudice does indeed motivate Obama’s opposition, Carter is correct and race matters.

I, for one, am agnostic on the matter of Tea Party racism. What we need is more evidence and fewer op-eds. With that said, the oft-repeated right-wing claim that America is now color blind seems off base. Did the legacy of over two hundred years of slavery and segregation simply vanish in a matter of decades?

Supposing racial prejudices have dwindled, the question nevertheless remains as to whether or not whether color blind policies are “fair” to a people who have been systematically oppressed for hundreds of years. This is the other hoop to jump through in the debate. If racism refers not merely to slavery or segregation, but to racial inequality more generally construed, then we are very much a racist society. It is one thing not to refuse someone housing or employment on the basis of skin color, and another to redress the wrongs produced by centuries of doing just that. Is affirmative action necessary?

I won’t attempt to decide these questions here. The point is that we need to clearly define our terms and get our facts straight before it will be possible to move forward in genuine debate – assuming that’s what we want. Rather than strive for basic clarity, we have covered everyone in rhetorical mud. These days, everyone is a racist.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. DG permalink*
    October 13, 2009 9:47 am

    Racism is not simply applied to varying issues, but imbedded within the systems of our society, making race something that will and should be discussed when debating issues such as healthcare. But then who are we asking, two older white guys?

    As long as we point fingers and call people “racists” rather than looking at why people are reacting a certain way things will never become more clear (as you’ve stated well in your post).

    • DG permalink*
      October 13, 2009 9:50 am

      I guess that was racist and ageist to call them “two older white guys,” but it’s always helpful to consider the source…

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