The Worst Racial Demagogues of the Decade

Conservatives insist they're on the left. But has any liberal behaved worse than Newt Gingrich or Rush Limbaugh in the last 10 years?



In Stephen Colbert's ongoing spoof of conservative punditry, he often insists that he cannot see color. As if to prove that he's a spot on satirist, Rush Limbaugh has titled a Monday web item about the Trayvon Martin case, "The Left's Obsession with Race," wherein he explains to his audience:

This is one of those things I can't relate to. I don't look at people and see a race or a sexual orientation or whatever... I don't see black-versus-white or anything. The left is the ones who do this.

A lot of conservatives honestly believe this -- that the left is obsessed with race, while the right is assiduously colorblind, and wouldn't think about the subject, let alone discuss it in public, if its adherents were in charge. It's time that someone explain to them why the rest of America isn't buying it.

The right's race problem is a lot bigger than its most popular talk radio host, but he's a good place to begin. Remember when he briefly got a gig as an NFL commentator? If you watch Monday Night Football or Sports Center, you don't see much critical race theory creeping into the analysis. But bring in Rush Limbaugh and suddenly a conversation about Donovan McNabb's performance turned into what, if it were submitted as a term paper in a black studies class, might be titled, "How Racial Expectations Affect The Post-Civil Rights-Era Treatment of Black Quarterbacks In Mass Media." Whatever you think about Limbaugh's comments, he is the one who deliberately and needlessly brought McNabb's race into the conversation. He's also the man who won the 2009 award for accusing more people than anyone else of racism. And the man who responded to an obscure news item about a white kid getting beat up by a black kid on a school bus by saying that sort of black-on-white violence is perfectly kosher in Barack Obama's America. And who can forget his mocking mimicry of the way that Chinese people speak? If a black talk show host treated whites like Limbaugh treats minorities, conservatives would go ballistic.

But as I said, it isn't just about talk radio. It's also about politicians like Newt Gingrich. In his latest foray into racial commentary, he took President Obama to task for his comments about the Trayvon Martin case.

Here's what Obama said:

I've got to be careful about my statements to make sure we're not impairing any investigation... But obviously this is a tragedy. I can only imagine what these parents are going through. And when I think about this boy, I think about my own kids. I think that every parent in America should be able to understand why it is absolutely imperative that we investigate every aspect of this, and that everybody pulls together, federal, state and local to figure out exactly how this tragedy happened...

My main message is to the parents of Trayvon Martin. If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon. I think they are right to expect that all of us as Americans are going to take this with the seriousness it deserves.

To me, that's as pitch perfect as an off-the-cuff statement gets.

Here's how Gingrich reacted to it:

What the president said in a sense is disgraceful. It is not a question of who that young man looked like. Any young American of any ethnic background should be safe. Period. And trying to turn it into a racial issue is fundamentally wrong. I find it appalling.

See what he did there? In the course of criticizing Obama for engaging in supposed racial demagoguery, Gingrich implies that the president cares less when white kids are shot by strangers, despite the fact that reading his statement that way is the sort of mistake only an overly literal idiot (or poorly programmed computer) would actually make. Gingrich is no idiot. And he is far too undisciplined to be a computer. Given his insistence that invoking identity is needlessly divisive, he's certainly a hypocrite. This is a guy who says the best way to understand Obama is through the prism of his alleged Kenyan anti-colonialism; a guy who says that American Muslims shouldn't be able to build mosques in Manhattan until Saudi Arabia permits churches on its territory; someone who thinks the widespread conservative belief that Obama is a Muslim is both something Obama ought to be embarrassed about (apparently he thinks there's something wrong with being a Muslim) and that the rumor is Obama's fault!

It would be one thing if Limbaugh and Gingrich were jeered by fellow conservatives for their long-running forays into racial demagoguery. Instead the prevailing attitude is something like "turnabout is fair play." Ask a conservative why they don't call these guys out. The answer is often, "but Al Sharpton is worse." Even if that were true, the fact that somewhere a liberal is behaving badly hardly justifies the behavior of their conservative analogues; but the uncomfortable truth conservatives refuse to face is that Sharpton's low point happened two decades ago. Look at the past decade. Limbaugh and Gingrich are the bigger racial demagogues today.

Writing at Forbes, Josh Barro explains what's wrong with the insistence of some conservatives that Obama's comments in the Martin case were objectionable:

The claim running through these objections is that black Americans cannot have any special concerns in need of airing. Many of the issues raised in the Trayvon Martin case--was Trayvon Martin singled out for suspicion because he was black? Did race influence the Sanford police's handling of the case? What is the burden of profiling on young black men?--are therefore off limits.

Barro goes on to say something the right must confront if its ever going to change its reputation on racial matters:

Conservatives, almost universally, feel like they get a bad rap on race. They catch heat when they point out improvements over the last several decades in race relations and in the material well being of minorities in America, even though those phenomena are real. They catch heat when they contend that government programs intended to help the poor have led to problems with dependency in minority communities, even though those critiques are sometimes correct. They catch heat when they criticize Affirmative Action, even when in some cases (as at the University of California) Affirmative Action was clearly dis-serving minority communities.

Why do conservatives catch such heat? It's probably because there is still so much racism on the Right to go alongside valid arguments on issues relating to race and ethnicity. Conservatives so often get unfairly pounded on race because, so often, conservatives get fairly pounded on race. And this is the Right's own fault, because conservatives are not serious about draining the swamp... There has been a clear strategic calculation here among Republican elites. Better to leverage or at least accept the racism of much of the Republican base than try to clean it up.

His post, complete with examples and lots more analysis, is worth reading in full. And the conclusion is spot on:

My challenge to conservatives who feel they get a bum rap on race is this. Stand up for yourself and your colleagues when you feel that a criticism is unfair. At the same time, criticize other conservatives who say racist things, cynically tolerate racism in the Republican base, or deny the mere existence of racial issues in America today. The conservative movement desperately needs self-policing on racial issues, if it ever hopes to have credibility on them.

Quite right. It is in fact the case that conservatives are sometimes attacked unfairly on racial matters, and that some conservatives are attacked because they're obvious racial demagogues. The best "strategy" for grappling with this situation is to just call 'em how you see 'em.