“Racism is man's gravest threat to man - the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason.”
- Abraham J. Heschel
Jewish theologian and philosopher
“Lukewarm acceptance is more bewildering than outright rejection.”
- Martin Luther King, Jr.
American Baptist Minister and Civil-Rights Leader
“In order to get beyond racism, we must first take account of race. There is no other way. And in order to treat some persons equally, we must treat them differently.”
- Harry A. Blackmun
American Supreme Court Justice
A friend of mine recently tried to support his position that the right is not racist; not Tea Partiers, not Conservatives, not Republicans. He posited that not one of them was a racist, and that they could not be. On other occasions he has tried to argue that Liberals and others on the left are racists, and rampant anti-semites as well.
I don't know anyone, from the spectrum of the right to the left, who characterizes themselves as a racist. How others characterize someone may be distinctly different.
In the past week, we have had conservative South Carolina state senator Jake Knotts, on his internet radio talk show "Pub Politics", call the far right Palin-backed GOP gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley, and President Obama, both 'rag heads'. Far from being apologetic, he blamed the reactions on failed humor, indicating he had used the term before this, and presumably unless daunted by the response, he intends to continue using it. (No, repetition does not improve it). Just in case his listening audience failed fully to appreciate his wit, he invoked the 'f'' word for emphasis as a raghead modifier in describing Mrs. Haley. (No, that doesn't improve it any more than repetition). As if that were not enough, despite acknowledging Mrs. Haley's conversion to Christianity, as a Methodist, he expounded that she was not Christian enough to govern the state of South Carolina. Perhaps she needs another dose of conversion to bring her up to full strength.
He then indicated Haley is controlled and directed by a cabal of Sikhs. Is that now the term for a group, a 'cabal of Sikhs', like a 'murder of crows' or a 'gaggle of geese'? Because nothing persuades your audience you are not a bloody-minded, racist bigot quite like a belief in a rousing conspiracy. Yes, those evil 'ragheads' ARE out to get you! They must be, or there is less reason to hold a bad opinion of them as a group instead of viewing them as individuals. You need a pretext to justify hatred and contempt, or whatever your particular expression of racism might be.
Apparently my friend and conservative pundit, blogger, and radio talk show host, Mitch Berg of Shot in the Dark is unaware that his fellow right-wingers had previously used the term well before SC state senator Knotts. For example, prominent right-wing figure Ann Coulter used it this way when she spoke at CPAC, the CONSERVATIVE POLITIAL ACTION CONFERENCE, “I think our motto should be post-9-11, ‘raghead talks tough, raghead faces consequences.’”
Perhaps I simply missed the right's outrage at Ms. Coulter's racist slurs, unlike the outrage expressed from both the political right and left to state Senator Knotts? I cite it here to demonstrate the term is not unique to Knotts on the right, and to demonstrate it has been used before - in Coulter's case, prominently. The use is not isolated.
Naturally, neither Coulter nor Knotts see themselves as racist. They see that use of language to make a point, or to be funny, not as an expression of (gasp) racism. Not them, not ever, it is not possible they could be racist. Racist is what other people are who don't agree with you - never you, yourself. Those people who are offended should stop playing the race card, and quit maligning good funny, articulate people so very unfairly. Shame on them!
Then we have Rush Limbaugh, a Jake Knotts look-alike, another noted figure of right-wing politics. Rush has made entire collections of people's favorite 'tops' lists of racist comments, with statements like this one from his radio program, January 19, 2007:
"Look, let me put it to you this way: the NFL all too often looks like a game between the Bloods and the Crips without any weapons. There, I said it."
Apparently Rush in this quote is equating black Americans not just with criminal activity but with gang violence. The "there, I said it" part of his statement suggests he had been holding back what he really wanted to say, what he had really thought, for some time before giving in to the temptation to speak his mind.
That was from the most recent decade, then we have the earlier racist comment:
"Have you ever noticed how all composite pictures of wanted criminals resemble Jesse Jackson?"
and his even earlier comment from the 1970's, under his radio name, Jeff Christie:
"Take that bone out of your nose and call me back."
Martin Luther King, Jr., eloquently defined racism as making assumptions, particularly negative or derogatory assumptions, on the basis of external appearance, or ethnic or racial background, with his famous words, "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." Perhaps King should have added, "or traditional, ethnic head wear" after 'color of their skins'.
By that definition, Rush is a flaming racist, as illustrated by his scores of racially insensitive and demeaning comments, not just one, as are those who take pleasure in his pronouncements instead of being offended by them.
The racism of "Raghead" was not the only recent instance of racism from the right - where else would you expect it from, besides from former-heart-of-the-civil-war South Carolina, but from an old conservative in Arizona.
Prescott, Arizona city councilman and (what else?) conservative politics local talk show host, Steve Blair was fired from a Fox radio affiliate, over a recent K-5 school mural controversy. Blair made disparaging comments in objecting to a mural portraying students on the outside of Miller School. There is an attempt by members of the community, including parents of students attending the school, some of whom are portrayed in the mural, to recall Blair in the upcoming November elections.
In recent statements, Lou Silverstein, owner of radio station KYCA where Blair had hosted his talk show said, "Maybe it could be a learning experience, Steve Blair is not a racist; he's a good guy. But, sometimes, he just puts his foot in his mouth." Silverstein went on to say that he fired Blair because his comments "could be interpreted as racist." Silverstein himself wasn't apparently bothered by the racist content; he was just worried what other people might think. There is not a lot of quality of character in that action.
You know, like the comments made by another broadcaster on his KYCA station, Rush Limbaugh. I'm sure that Mr. Silverstein doesn't believe that Limbaugh or Jake Knotts or Ann Coulter could be racist either, because they are good conservative men - and woman. I wouldn't use the word lady to describe a woman as crude and offensive as Ann Coulter has chosen to be.
I shudder to contemplate what kind of comments, and from whom, would be recognized and acknowledged by any of these individuals as racism. I'm guessing that wouldn't be something they would see in a fellow-conservative/tea party supporter/Republican.
Let me be clear, I do not believe all conservatives are racist, nor do I believe that anyone of any political position is inherently free from racism just because of their politics. To claim that no conservative involved in politics is racist, either in elective office or political commentary, be it at the local or state level, or on the national stage, is pure bull. It is a statement that deserves to be challenged, and to be challenged hard.
These were not one-time statements; in each case they were part of a pattern of statements. Blair lost his broadcasting job for having drawn too much of the wrong kind of attention, not because he offended his boss. Knotts has lost his access to the little local internet radio show, "Pub Politics" for similar reasons, although his views also are less congruent with the pub's owner in his case. Coulter and Limbaugh continue to have wide public access, through radio and cable programming, and have achieved the kind of supportive following for their racist and other offensive comments that make them proof against being fired. There appears to be no statement so hateful they cannot only survive, but thrive from it.
We must support freedom of speech, even hateful and offensive speech. But we do not in the course of permitting that speech need to reward it, or accept the message, nor should we. It is important to identify it, and to challenge it. Hang it on the wall, for everyone to see, not unlike the inspirational public art on the side of the school in Arizona. Scrutiny, public attention, is what is most effective in ending the underlying sentiments of racism, not just the outward expression of them.