Football Night In America

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Conor argues that Rush Limbaugh is not a racist, but the greatest race-baiter of our time. His evidence is pretty undeniable. But this last quote really got me thinking:

Oh, and don't forget the NFL. As of this week, it is "an outpost of racism and liberalism." (Strange that a league that is supposedly racist against white owner candidates has so many white owners.)

There's more. But that last quote says a lot to me. It's fairly clear that the NFL is neither an outpost for racism, nor liberalism. In fact, I'm willing to be that no organization does a better job of bringing black people and conservatives together, and indeed converting some black people to conservatives, than the NFL.

There's a measure of truth in Rush's critique, because conservative, in Rush's mind, is nothing without white populism. There's a difference between being, say, pro-life, and thinking, say, that Barack Obama is "the biggest reverse racist in history." I'd bet there are a lot more NFL owners who are the former, than there are the latter--and then some who qualify as both.

But since the 60s, white populism has been an indispensable plank in political conservatism's foundation. White populism is Ronald Reagan fighting  for a tax exemption on behalf Bob Jones University, despite a school-wide ban on interracial dating. White populism is John McCain standing for the Confederate flag in South Carolina while he still could win in 2000. (Props to McCain for reversing field.) White populism is Mike Huckabee, eight years later, insisting, in the same state, that ""if somebody came to Arkansas and told us what to do with our flag, we'd tell them what to do with the pole; that's what we'd do."

White populism isn't simply yelling"You Lie!" at a black biracial president, it's yelling "You Lie!" at Strom Thurmond's 78-year old black biracial daughter. White populism is Trent Lott insisting that his state was proud of supporting segregationists and that had they prevailed electorally, "we wouldn't have all these problems over the years." White populism is The Ron Paul Political Report asserting that New York City should be named "Welfaria" or "Lazyopolis," predicting an oncoming race war, and asserting that, in the wake of the Rodney King riots, order was restored "when it came time for the blacks to pick up their welfare checks three days after rioting began."

 

And white populism greatest modern exegete is Rush Limbaugh::

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.

It's quite wrong to dismiss the Tea Parties as racist cabals. But when protesters are toting signs like this, and the movement's interlocutors are on national TV claiming that the president of the United States, who's mother was white, is "a racist" with a "deep-seated hatred of the white culture," the specter of white populism hovers.

The NFL may be run by conservatives, but they are, in large measure, Don Draper conservatives. They are not benevolent. They are not enlightened. They are not "friends of the Negro." Their motto is Get Money, and if white populism aids that effort, they will ally with it. If it hurts that effort, they will damn it to hell. The same people who sent Warren Moon to the CFL, gave us the Rooney Rule. There is respectable genius in that kind of shape-shifting.

The GOP, on the other hand, is locked in. There are conservative arguments to be made about climate change, health care, tax policy, abortion, affirmative action and so on. A significant slice of GOP voters are there for the principals. But another significant slice are there because of who they think they are not. Likely it's now an marriage of the two. Lee Atwater knew:

You start out in 1954 by saying, "Nigger, nigger, nigger." By 1968 you can't say "nigger"--that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.

And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me--because obviously sitting around saying, "We want to cut this," is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than "Nigger, nigger."

How do you undo an alloy without destroying it? How do you break the GOP down to its root elements, preserving what you believe in, disregarding what you don't, without crippling your party for a generation?

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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