RUSH LIMBAUGH’S RACISM
WHEN RUSH LIMBAUGH TRIED to buy a share of the St. Louis Rams in 2009, it sparked a national debate about race that went far beyond the football field. Several NFL players, including Mathias Kiwanuka, Bart Scott, and Donovan McNabb, announced publicly that they would not play for a team owned by Limbaugh.1
But the discussion of Limbaugh’s racism was quickly diverted by two fake quotes that had been attributed to the radio host around the Internet. In one, Limbaugh was falsely accused of saying, “I mean, let’s face it, we didn’t have slavery in this country for over one hundred years because it was a bad thing. Quite the opposite: slavery built the South. I’m not saying we should bring it back; I’m just saying it had its merits. For one thing, the streets were safer after dark.” The other fake quote declared: “You know who deserves a posthumous Medal of Honor? James Earl Ray. We miss you, James. Godspeed.” These quotes were apparently put up on Wikiquote in 2005 and then spread around the Internet by someone using the nickname Cobra.2 The fake quotes about Limbaugh were repeated by Rachel Maddow, Jesse Jackson, James Carville, Tamron Hall, CNN’s Rick Sanchez, MSNBC’s David Shuster, St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bryan Burwell, AlterNet’s Rory O’Connor, The Nation’s Dave Zirin, and many others.3
Rush rightly denounced “these slanderous, made-up, fabricated quotes found in a sewer on the Internet.”4 But Limbaugh wasn’t upset by these fake quotes; he was thrilled to draw attention away from all of his real racist quotes that he can’t deny. And the critics of Limbaugh had no sure way of knowing that the quotes had been faked, since he had never denied them. Limbaugh said, “Whatever happened to journalists calling people and saying, ‘Did you actually say this? I’m doing a story on blah, blah, blah. Did you actually say this?’”5 But when I sent the radio host an email asking if the quotes were real, he never responded to me.6
Bill O’Reilly declared: “The reason that Limbaugh is not going to be able to buy into the NFL is because a bunch of made-up stuff became legend. And he got hammered.… So what we have here are accusations without merit. But in our hypermedia age, that’s enough to paint someone as a racist.”7 However, the fake quotes had nothing to do with Rush being dropped from the bid; to the contrary, the quotes undermined the critics of Limbaugh by discrediting those who used them.
Limbaugh, like anyone else, should be free to buy a football team. But it is the NFL owners who restrict team ownership. It wasn’t liberal bias that caused his friends to drop him from their bid; he claimed the organizer of the bid, Dave Checketts, told him he “cleared [his] involvement with people at the highest levels of the National Football League.”8 As Dave Zirin noted, “This has nothing to do with Limbaugh’s conservative politics. Most NFL owners are to the right of Dick Cheney. Over twenty years, officials on twenty-three of the thirty-two NFL clubs have donated more money to Republicans than Democrats.”9 It was the corporate bias of the NFL, which feared the consequences of having a controversial figure owning a team, that led to him being dumped.
RACE AND THE BLACK QUARTERBACK
The statement that caused the most controversy for Limbaugh’s NFL bid came during his short-lived stint as a commentator on ESPN in 2003 when he said about Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb: “The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback can do well.”10 Plenty of people have criticized prominent athletes or alleged that they’re overrated. But Rush did something very different by claiming that a black athlete was overrated because all of these white sports journalists love black people so much.
The radio host claimed, “All this has become the tempest that it is because I must have been right about something. If I wasn’t right, there wouldn’t be the cacophony of outrage that has sprung up in the sportswriter community.”11 This is a standard technique Limbaugh offers against all criticism. Whenever he says something outrageous, he then claims that there wouldn’t be any outrage if it were untrue.
But it wasn’t true. As Thomas George reported in The New York Times, “Among the black quarterbacks and the three black head coaches on the thirty-two NFL teams, there is a definitive feeling that they are on shorter leashes than their white counterparts.”12 FOX Sports cohost James Brown said: “In my eighteen years covering the NFL, I have not seen any of my media colleagues coddling McNabb or any other black quarterback. Just ask Kordell Stewart. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.”13 A scientific study of more than ten thousand sports articles found “no support to Limbaugh’s position” that black quarterbacks were treated better by the media.14 Yet Limbaugh never apologized and never retracted his claims. He said about McNabb in 2009, “I said exactly what I meant, and if you want me to, I’ll say it again.”15
Rush Limbaugh’s harsh attacks on a black quarterback and accusations of media bias stand in sharp contrast to how he dealt with a white quarterback. Limbaugh came to the defense of white Chicago Bears quarterback Rex Grossman after media commentators criticized his performance in the 2007 Super Bowl: “They’re just all over this guy. They can’t wait for this guy to fail. They are hoping he fails.”16 While he may be an expert at hoping for failure, Limbaugh certainly isn’t one at media analysis: “The media, the sports media, has got social concerns that they are first and foremost interested in, and they’re dumping on this guy, Rex Grossman, for one reason, folks, and that’s because he is a white quarterback.”17 (Obviously, the media hate white quarterbacks, such as Brett Favre, Tom Brady, and Eli Manning.)
Grossman wasn’t criticized because he was white. He was criticized because he wasn’t very good. Grossman was replaced by Kyle Orton, a white quarterback who was less talented but made fewer mistakes, who in turn was replaced in 2009 by Jay Cutler, a white quarterback praised as the savior of the team by all of the media Limbaugh claimed to be prejudiced for blacks and against whites. Grossman had a career passer rating of 70.2.18 McNabb had a career passer rating of 85.9.19 Except for his rookie year, McNabb had nine consecutive years with a passer rating higher than Rex Grossman had ever achieved in any year. McNabb was voted to the Pro Bowl five times, and Grossman zero times. Coaches, players, and fans select the Pro Bowl players, and the media have no role. According to every statistical category, McNabb is a superior quarterback to Grossman.20
After being criticized for his racial remarks about Grossman, the radio host claimed: “Later in the program, I let the audience in on the gag, which was to tweak the media.”21 But that’s not true. He never made any comment during the program indicating that his comments about Grossman were some kind of joke.
LIMBAUGH’S DEFENDERS IN CONGRESS
Representative Steve King (R-IA) diverted a 2009 House committee hearing on severe football head injuries to focus on the person he thought was most victimized by the NFL: Rush Limbaugh. King read Limbaugh’s quote about Donovan McNabb and the media, and declared: “I’ve scoured this quote to try to find something that can be implied as racism on the part of Rush Limbaugh, and I can’t find it. There is an implication of racism on the part of the media.”22 Actually, the racism in Limbaugh’s comment is clear to see: If McNabb is an excellent quarterback, then diminishing his accomplishments and falsely claiming that race was the only reason why he was praised would indeed be racist.
It’s certainly possible to argue that McNabb is overrated—many quarterbacks on successful teams with good defensive squads are overrated—but it was Rush, not the media, who made race the overriding issue. In 2009 Limbaugh said once again that “the MEDIA was obsessed with the color of his skin” and claimed that his assertion was “undeniable.”23 If the media was really obsessed with McNabb’s race, then you’d imagine that Limbaugh would be able to come up with at least one solitary example of someone in the press expressing this racial preference for McNabb because he is a black quarterback. But Limbaugh has never offered any evidence.
Rush Limbaugh wasn’t racist for criticizing a black quarterback. But claiming without any evidence that everyone in the sports media is racially biased in favor of black people certainly falls into the category of what racists think. If someone declared that the only reason a successful black musician got positive reviews was because music critics want black artists to succeed, we would all wonder why such an individual was bringing up race when it should be irrelevant.
Representative King claimed, “I don’t think anything Rush Limbaugh said was offensive.”24 Perhaps that’s because King didn’t think Limbaugh had actually made the offensive comments he was quoted as saying. King said about the McNabb comment, “That’s the only quote that seems to survive the scrutiny of chase-checking back original sources in at least nine quotes that were alleged to the radio host. And, by the way, of those, eight are complete fabrications. They’re not based on anything. They’re not a misquote. They’re not a distortion. They’re complete fabrication.”25
I asked Representative King’s communications director what these eight “fabrications” are. I never got a response. That’s probably because there are not eight fabricated quotes. There were two apparently fabricated quotes that Limbaugh has denied making, and King’s claim of eight quotes that are “complete fabrications” is itself a complete fabrication. Yet Limbaugh had no problem promoting King’s statement without bothering to correct or question his error. Rush said: “Steve King, I was stunned when I saw that. It was a fabulous job. I was very moved by it.”26 For Limbaugh, spreading one more fabrication was just another day at work.
The radio host didn’t complain in 2005 when Republican congresspeople spoke out against the possibility that George Soros might help buy the Washington Nationals and threatened to overturn the antitrust exemption for baseball. Soros, unlike Limbaugh, was attacked as a potential sports owner solely for his political views and political activities. (Ironically, Rush even imagined that Soros was secretly made the primary owner in his bid to buy the St. Louis Rams: “I was told who it was, but now I’m wondering if it was Soros and I wasn’t told.”27) Perhaps most important of all, Soros, unlike Limbaugh, had never been accused of racist comments.
LIMBAUGH’S BLACK FRIENDS
After he was accused of racism in denouncing McNabb, Limbaugh was quick to note that he couldn’t be racist because some of his best friends are black: “Charles Barkley is a friend of mine, for crying out loud.”28 In his 1993 book, Limbaugh wrote: “Another person from whom we can all learn, despite his controversial nature, is Phoenix Suns star Charles Barkley.”29 So what did Barkley say about his friend Limbaugh in 2009? “But the Republican Party went right wing whack nut job on America and screwed up the country. I’m so disappointed in this partisan politics. And I want to call out Rush Limbaugh because he talks about how he wants President Obama to fail and things like that.… First of all I just think that’s unpatriotic for somebody who’s successful. We should want him to succeed. I mean, you look at this country now, we’ve got all these foreclosures, we’ve got all these people laid off. We should be behind him 110 percent, hoping he’s successful. And I just thought it was unpatriotic and basically B.S. for Rush Limbaugh and that idiot Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck and all those idiots to not root for this guy.”30
How does Rush Limbaugh generally describe black athletes? He said once, “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.”31 He was oddly fond of describing predominantly black athletes with the Crips and the Bloods analogy, as when he said, “I think it’s time to get rid of this whole National Basketball Association. Call it the TBA, the Thug Basketball Association, and stop calling them teams. Call ’em gangs.… They’re going in to watch the Crips and the Bloods out there wherever the neighborhood is where the arena happens to be, and be who you are.”32 Limbaugh also revealed his deep understanding of gangs and fashion: “You look at NBA players and the uniforms, you don’t have to go back very far. The uniforms have changed totally. They’re now in gang colors.”33 To him, a black athlete is just another gang member.
MISSING THE MARK: FALSE ACCUSATIONS AGAINST LIMBAUGH
Some of the accusations of racism against Limbaugh have backfired. At the 1993 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Bill Clinton declared that Limbaugh had defended Janet Reno against criticism from Representative John Conyers “because she was attacked by a black guy.” Rush responded: “It’s not funny … I’m the absolute furthest thing from a racist.”34 Well, he was half right. Clinton’s remark wasn’t funny or clever, and it brought the radio host enormous sympathy. He recounted how Chris Matthews urged him to hold a press conference and demand an apology.35
In 1993 Washington Post columnist William Raspberry wrote an op-ed criticizing Limbaugh for his “demagoguery … his gay bashing, his racial putdowns.” Raspberry compared him to Mississippi segregationists and declared, “Limbaugh is a bigot.”36 Eleven days later, Raspberry wrote another column retracting his charge: “Rush, I’m sorry.” Raspberry wrote: “When a caller asked me, quite reasonably, to give him an instance or two of a bigoted opinion from Limbaugh, all he got was my embarrassed silence. Sure he’s taken digs at poor people and rioters and feminists and the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People], but why should any of these be immune?”37 Unfortunately, Raspberry wrote a column criticizing Limbaugh without examining his evidence of bigotry, and then compounded his error by writing another column exonerating Rush, again without examining the evidence.
While some of the attacks on Limbaugh’s racism are made with shaky evidence, his defenders are equally guilty of ignoring the evidence when they claim he has never said anything racist. When journalist Carl Rowan accused Limbaugh of making “wicked, often bigoted, jokes,” Howard Kurtz in The Washington Post came to his defense: “Not a single example is offered, most likely because there are none.”38
It’s true that no one should be immune from critique. But when Limbaugh repeatedly attacks people based on race and makes explicitly racial putdowns, it’s hard to find an innocuous explanation for it. What is it about Rush’s racial obsession? Why does he constantly inject race into so many discussions where it is irrelevant? Limbaugh is hypersensitive to every possible instance of reverse racism against whites, real or imagined, and completely incapable of seeing racism against black people.
The radio host frequently makes bizarre racial comments like “Stop blaming me for slavery. I wasn’t alive.”39 No one has ever blamed Rush Limbaugh for slavery. The fact that he imagines it reveals how obsessively he sees race in everything. The evidence of Mr. Limbaugh’s racism is simply too overwhelming to deny. I do not make the accusation of racism against Limbaugh lightly, nor do I make it as part of some ridiculous “all white people are racist” charge. I do not make similar charges of racism against other high-profile conservatives; for instance, I do not have any evidence that Michael Medved, Bill O’Reilly, or Sean Hannity are racists, and without that evidence I do not accuse them of being racists. We should never accept unsupported accusations of racism. But we should likewise never refuse to criticize racism.
It’s not that any singular comment definitively proves that Rush Limbaugh is a racist. Rather, racism is a kind of lifetime achievement award one must give to a man with such a lengthy track record of bizarre and offensive racial comments. As Timothy Egan of The New York Times observed, “Race is an obsession with Limbaugh.”40
Racism does not require some personal animus toward black people. It’s quite possible that Rush is perfectly nice to every African American he meets face-to-face, and feels no hatred toward them. However, that doesn’t stop him from using race to attack those he opposes.
What probably turned Rush into a racist was his hatred of liberalism. He despises all things liberal, and what he regards as liberal institutions, such as schools and the media. Because African Americans vote overwhelmingly for Democrats, he regards them with the same contempt that he applies to all liberals. Limbaugh once said about black voters, “They are 12 percent of the population. Who the hell cares?”41 What he really meant was, African Americans always vote for Democrats, so why should conservatives care about them? The radio host has the same approach to his show: When his audience is almost exclusively white, why should he care about the views of minorities? He has no economic motive for racial sensitivity, and no fear that anything racial he says will alienate his white, conservative listeners.
LIMBAUGH’S LONG HISTORY OF RACISM
As a young broadcaster in the 1970s, Rush Limbaugh once told a black caller: “Take that bone out of your nose and call me back.”42 But this comment wasn’t some youthful mistake; it reflects a racial obsession that has permeated his career. After he got his syndicated talk show, Limbaugh asked: “Have you ever noticed how all composite pictures of wanted criminals resemble Jesse Jackson?”43 In 2004, when Reverend Jackson joined John Kerry’s campaign, Limbaugh declared, “The Kerry campaign has finally gotten a chocolate chip.”44
He routinely associates African Americans with criminal behavior. In 1992 Limbaugh criticized Spike Lee for suggesting that black students skip school to see the film Malcolm X: “Spike, if you’re going to do that, let’s complete the education experience. You should tell them that they should loot the theater, and then blow it up on their way out.”45 He also accused Spike Lee of using “looter lingo.”46
Rush sees all black people as associated with riots. He once said, “The NAACP should have riot rehearsal. They should get a liquor store and practice robberies.”47 Limbaugh claimed about Obama, “You organized riots and communities and stuff in Chicago.”48 Of course, Obama never “organized riots.” The NAACP has never been involved in any riots (in fact, the organization formed in response to the riots of white mobs).49
The radio host accused Obama of “inciting riots” in a speech because he used the phrase “quiet riot”: “He’s talking about there’s a quiet riot brewing in America today because Bush doesn’t care, because Bush isn’t doing enough. This guy was inciting, he was inciting riots.… And to talk about a quiet riot that is brewing out there it is dangerous, it is reckless.”50 The fact that Limbaugh falsely associates all black people with riots, including the nation’s leading civil rights organization and the president of the United States, says a great deal about his bigotry.
Limbaugh even declared in 2008 that whites are rational to fear black men: “I wonder how white college students at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, are feeling these days. I wonder if they are nervous walking down the street, and they see a couple of black boys dressed in baggy clothes with their hats on backwards swaggering toward them. I wonder how they feel. I wonder if it makes them fear that they’re going to be shot in the face for their ATM cards and their PIN numbers. Obama, do you think there might be reasons here rather than this being inbred?”51
To mock Carol Moseley Braun, the first African American woman elected to the U.S. Senate, Limbaugh played the “Movin’ On Up” theme song from the TV show The Jeffersons.52 He also played an announcer saying, “I don’t know nothin’ about runnin’ for the president” to ridicule her.53
Rush embraces the most primitive racial stereotypes. On his TV show, he promised to display the everyday life of “welfare recipients” and then showed a video of apes in zoos.54 In 1994 he praised a Chicago teacher for making a math question that began: “Rufus is pimping three girls” because the teacher was “understanding the culture these kids come from.”55 In 2006, when the CBS reality TV show Survivor divided contestants into racial groups, Limbaugh declared the contest was “not going to be fair if there’s a lot of water competition” and added, “looking at the Olympics, you’d have to say the white tribe would be the best swimmers.”56
In response to a University of Chicago study finding that “a majority of young blacks feel alienated from today’s government,” Rush said in 2007: “Why would that be? The government’s been taking care of them their whole lives.”57 It’s hard to imagine how anyone would think that the government has “taken care of” all young black people their entire lives.
Attacks on the civil rights movement are a routine part of the radio host’s show. He complained that leaders of civil rights groups “do not have normal jobs” because the leader “raises money and keeps a percentage of it for himself as head of the organization.”58 But Limbaugh promotes nonprofit conservative groups such as the Heritage Foundation, which gets its money in donations in the same way as civil rights groups do. When nonprofit groups address civil rights, Rush says their leaders don’t have “normal jobs”; when a nonprofit group is a charity or engages in conservative advocacy, he praises it. But among all nonprofit advocacy groups, liberal and conservative, he especially singles out the black leaders of civil rights groups.
CONSERVATIVE COLOR BLINDNESS
Sounding like Stephen Colbert parodying conservatives, Rush Limbaugh has claimed that he doesn’t see race: “When I look out at you in this audience, I don’t see a Walmart voter. And I don’t see a black, and I don’t see a woman, and I don’t see a Hispanic.”59 He said on the Today show, “I don’t look at people with the color of their skin. Notice that it’s my critics who are always noticing the color of somebody’s skin or their gender or their sexual orientation. I don’t see—I see people as people, see them as Americans.”60 He has also claimed, “I am truly color blind and I wish everyone else was.”61 For someone who claims not to see race, he certainly talks about it obsessively.
Limbaugh sees race in the strangest of circumstances. When Senator Ted Kennedy died, Rush declared: “I’m gonna take a drink for every black person I see on the parade route. And I was sober at the end of the parade. They forgot to stack the deck with any black people, but there were a lot of union thugs out there.”62 He merged the bizarre idea that no black people mourned the death of Kennedy with the equally bizarre idea that “union thugs” were hired to “stack” the route for Kennedy’s body. Why would Limbaugh turn the death of a notable Democrat into a racial issue? Yet Limbaugh was so proud of his strange comment that he repeated it the next day.63
When John Kerry claimed to be “fascinated by rap and by hip-hop,” Limbaugh accused him of “pathetically pandering” to blacks: “Don’t stand up for white music, associate yourself with rap.”64 But why does Limbaugh think that anyone needs to “stand up for white music”? As the defender of white males, the radio host sees race everywhere: “The dirty little secret is that people that win elections win it with white males.”65 That’s quite a secret to President Barack Obama, who won the 2008 election with 41 percent of the white male vote. Before that, no Democrat since Jimmy Carter had won more than 38 percent of the white male vote, even though Al Gore (2000) and Bill Clinton (1992 and 1996) prevailed in the popular vote.66 Democrats have won four out of the last five presidential elections without even coming close to winning a majority of white male voters. Yet Limbaugh has referred at least five different times in the past few years to this “dirty little secret” that white men determine elections.67 Why would he believe that white males, a group composing only 35.5 percent of voters (fewer than white women), decide every election?68 Why is Limbaugh so obsessed with race that he has these delusional fantasies of white men controlling every election?
Limbaugh sees the white male conservative as the true victimized minority in America today. He has said, “It’s really uncool to be [a] white male today.”69 He’s happy to ignore the fact that white males dominate every important part of America today, from corporations to politics to talk radio; his imagined feelings of oppression as a white male matter more than the facts.
Indeed, Rush has no aversion to using the word “racist” himself; he even complained that “we can’t use the word ‘racist’ when it actually applies.”70 When a black Republican is being criticized by a white liberal, even in the mildest of terms, Limbaugh is quick to call it a “lynching.” When Senator Barbara Boxer observed that then-secretary of state Condoleezza Rice didn’t have any family members serving in Iraq, he declared: “Here you have a rich white chick with a huge, big mouth, trying to lynch this—an African American woman—right before Martin Luther King Day, hitting below the ovaries here.”71 He used that racially charged word to describe himself after his NFL bid failed: “I, too, have had my high-tech lynching.”72 But Limbaugh regularly calls blacks and Latinos racist if they disagree with his conservative views.
LIMBAUGH’S AFRICA OBSESSION
Race dominates policy decisions in Rush’s mind. He denounced Democrats for opposing genocide, accusing them of favoring Africa to gain black votes: “They want to get us out of Iraq, but they can’t wait to get us into Darfur.… What color is the skin of the people in Darfur? It’s black.”73 But his comments made no sense. Democrats have solid control of the black vote, and there’s not the slightest evidence that anyone expressing concern about genocide in Darfur did so because of race. A distinction between Iraq and Darfur is that there was an ongoing genocide in Darfur and not in Iraq. The other difference is that America invaded Iraq and not Darfur, and few if any Democrats endorsed an invasion of Darfur.
Yet Limbaugh complained, “So you go into Darfur and you go into South Africa, you get rid of the white government there. You put sanctions on them. You stand behind Nelson Mandela—who was bankrolled by communists for a time, had the support of certain communist leaders.”74 The United States never went “into” South Africa, and never did anything to “get rid of the white government there.” Mandela is one of the most celebrated men in the world and a Nobel Peace Prize winner for his courageous stand against apartheid, but to Limbaugh he’s just a communist.
Rush Limbaugh has an odd obsession with Africa. In his first book, he claimed, “In schools we’re teaching kids about tribal Africa instead of Aristotle.”75 It’s unlikely that Limbaugh learned much about Aristotle in his schooling, since few students ever do, and the amount of teaching about tribal Africa in American schools is insignificant. But his fear of “tribal Africa” and the idea that anything might be taught about it speaks volumes about his racial attitudes.
LIMBAUGH, THE VICTIM OF RACISM
Rush loves to play the race card by complaining that he is a victim of unfair criticism. “There is nothing worse than being branded a racist,” he has said. Actually, being branded a racist appears to have no discernible effect on Limbaugh’s very fat wallet. To the contrary, it’s one more way that he appeals to his conservative listeners. He claimed, “Prior to doing this show no one hated me. No one thought I was a racist, sexist or homophobic bigot. No one thought I was a hate-monger. I was not raised to be hated. I was raised to be loved.”76 It’s probably true that until the “Maha Rushie” began loudly and publicly speaking about race, he wasn’t called a racist. But that has nothing to do with all of the evidence that he is a racist. He complained in 1992, “All you have to do is criticize black people and they call you a racist.”77 But it was never the criticism of blacks that caused Limbaugh to be called a racist; it was his racist language.
And when racial issues don’t exist, he simply invents them and then blames the mainstream press for his mistakes. In 2006 he declared about the U.S. Senate race in Ohio, “And don’t forget Sherrod Brown is black. There’s a racial component here, too.” The radio host added, “The newspaper that I’m reading all this from is The New York Times, and they, of course, don’t mention that.”78 Unfortunately for Limbaugh, Sherrod Brown is white. Predictably, Limbaugh used his error as proof that he’s always right: “What it said to me was that even the mainstream media knows I get it right all the time, and it is such an odd thing when I am wrong that it is news.”79 Of course, even if Brown had been black, what would have been the “racial component” Limbaugh claimed to see? For a man who claims not to see race, he certainly discusses the racial component a lot. Only he could see a racial issue that didn’t exist, blame the liberal New York Times for ignoring this imaginary “racial component,” and then declare that his dumb mistake proved that he’s “right all the time.”
Rush is actually proud of his racism. It’s his way of signaling to his audience how much he resists liberal orthodoxy. If he is willing to violate the “politically correct” barriers of race, then it proves that he is beholden to nothing about liberalism. As with everything else about Mr. Limbaugh, his racism is really all about his hatred of liberalism, not some deep-seated hatred of black people.
Being accused of racism is a badge of honor for Limbaugh: “I’m called a racist twenty thousand times a day by my opponents—and they’re lying.”80 Of course he would be offended by any suggestion he is racist, because he judges racism purely in terms of his emotional state toward black people: If he doesn’t feel racist, then he can’t be racist, no matter what he says. After all, some of his best employees are black.
Limbaugh is a racist because he hates liberalism. That doesn’t mean that anyone who hates liberalism is a racist. It means that Rush Limbaugh expresses racist ideas because he despises everything associated with liberalism. Since fighting racism is a core principle of liberalism, he is constantly skeptical of it. And he expresses that skepticism using racist language.
Racism only exists in Limbaugh’s eyes with the proviso that whites are just as victimized by it as any other race: “I admit that racism continues to exist in every imaginable direction among all races.”81 Racism appears to be the only thing that he believes is shared equally among all people. Although Limbaugh usually denies that there’s any racism or sexism in America, he makes an exception when contemplating the political benefits for conservatives that might result from it: “Let’s say it is Obama and Hillary.… Let’s put Hillary at the top—That’s a position she’s familiar with. Therefore, you’ve got a woman and a black for the first time ever on the Democrat ticket. Ahem. They don’t have a prayer.”82 If there’s no bigotry in America, exactly why would having a black man and woman on a ticket destroy the Democratic Party’s chances of victory?
UNDERSTANDING LIMBAUGH’S RACISM
Despite this lengthy record of bigotry, Limbaugh’s racism has been a matter of hot debate. Steve Rendall of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), a progressive media criticism group, wrote, “No one who’s listened to Limbaugh can honestly say that he doesn’t say racist, hateful or stupid things.”83 Rendall certainly underestimated the capability of Limbaugh’s fans to deny any racism in anything he’s ever said.
Conservative writer Andrew Klavan claims he has never heard Limbaugh “utter a single racist, hateful or stupid word,” and expresses “the certainty” about his critics that they’ve “never listened to Rush Limbaugh.”84 It takes a lot of chutzpah to declare that those who denounce Limbaugh, and quote the exact words from his mouth, have never listened to him.
Limbaugh has claimed, “You don’t have the number-one most-listened-to radio show in America, the most respected, the most feared, the most loved, the most whatever, if it’s filled with hate and racism and bigotry and all this—it’s just not the case.”85 His assumption is deeply flawed: Just because something is popular doesn’t prove that it’s not hateful or racist. Someone who openly confesses his or her racism might have some difficulty attracting a mass audience, but what Limbaugh offers is bigotry with a laugh, the lighter side of the far right. If Archie Bunker listened to a talk show, The Rush Limbaugh Show would be it. Limbaugh even bears some physical resemblance to Carroll O’Connor, but the true similarity is their anger at liberalism. However, where Archie Bunker was a caricature at times, an object of ridicule, Limbaugh is the full flowering of the character. He is Archie Bunker with a microphone, and with 20 million listeners instead of just his wife.
The Rush Limbaugh Show is a complex phenomenon, combining humor with hard-core conservatism and a side of racism. Not everyone who listens to it approves of all of the radio host’s comments, nor do they necessarily hear the racist comments scattered in his broadcasts. Like Klavan, they pretend never to have heard a racist remark from his mouth; they forget every racist invocation; they imagine that any racist comment is simply a joke and therefore immune from critique. When Tucker Carlson was reminded of Rush’s racist “bone out of your nose” remark, he advised, “Lighten up. It’s not a kook radio show. Look, you know the guy’s telling jokes.… If there’s one issue that divides the parties, it’s humor. You have on the one side this kind of relentless, harsh, grim, dour humorlessness, and on the other side, you know, I don’t know Rush Limbaugh, whatever you think of him, he’s pretty amusing.”86 To Carlson, telling a black person to take that bone out of his nose is just great humor.
The proof of racism, ultimately, is found in the evidence of what Limbaugh has said. His claims to have good intentions, and the desire of his listeners to deny any racism, cannot overcome the facts. Limbaugh’s long history of racism has only intensified with the election of a black president, and those who deny the reality of his racism must ignore a mountain of evidence to claim that he does not see race.
LIMBAUGH’S RACIAL HATRED OF OBAMA
During Obama’s inauguration week, Limbaugh claimed: “Racism in this country is the exclusive problem of the left. We’re witnessing racism all this week that led up to the inauguration. We are being told that we have to hope he succeeds; that we have to bend over, grab the ankles, bend over forward, backward, whichever; because his father was black, because this is the first black president. We’ve got to accept this. The racism that everybody thinks exists on our side of the aisle has been on full display throughout their primary campaign.”87 There was racism during the Democratic primary, but nothing in comparison to the racism displayed by Limbaugh on his program. It’s perfectly normal for all Americans to hope the president succeeds, and it has nothing to do with race. But Limbaugh’s opposition to Obama, his belief that everyone was being told to “grab the ankles” because he’s black, reflected racial paranoia.
The radio host has claimed, “So I think the fact that he’s African American—his father was black—to me, it’s irrelevant.”88 Despite this statement, the race of Barack Obama was a source of endless discussion and scrutiny for him. A month after Obama joined the U.S. Senate, Limbaugh was attacking him on racial grounds, telling one caller: “I kind of like that analogy that he’s the Donovan McNabb of the U.S. Senate … in the sense that he is being propped up … because they want to see him do well.”89
Even before Obama decided to run for president, Limbaugh was attacking him on racial grounds, declaring in 2006, “You are not African American, Mr. Obama. You do not share the heritage of this country that African American implies.”90 In January 2007 he continued the racial attack, calling Obama a “Halfrican.”91 Rush proclaimed that Obama could choose to be white: “So are we to conclude here that he didn’t define himself as black, that the way he looks does? Well, if you didn’t decide it, then how did it happen?… Well, renounce it, then! If it’s not something you want to be, if you didn’t decide it, renounce it, become white!… If you don’t like it, you can switch. Well, that’s the way I see it. He’s got 50-50 in there. Say, ‘No, I’m white.’”92 Rush even suggested that Obama, and all blacks, are not real Americans: “Obama is telling us he is a black American first and an American second.”93
Limbaugh was fond of using racial insults against Obama, calling him “a Chicago street thug,” “a half-minority,” and even “the little black man-child.”94 It is difficult to conceive of any situation where a nonracist would call the most admired black man in America, a forty-seven-year-old man serving in the U.S. Senate, “the little black man-child.” This was Limbaugh’s variation of the ancient insult “boy” (which Limbaugh has also invoked to describe Obama), used by racists to demean black men. Limbaugh grew up in Missouri in the 1950s during the era of Jim Crow, so he must have understood the implications of his “man-child” language. And he often uses racially demeaning language, declaring that “Obama is essentially a primitive indigenous guy.”95 When Limbaugh describes the man who ran the most technologically sophisticated political campaign in history as “primitive,” race is the only possible explanation. And there can be no doubt that Rush would never describe a white person born in America as “indigenous.”
Obama, the Arab
One example of Rush Limbaugh’s racial obsession and his ability to sway public opinion on race came during the 2008 election, when he claimed that Obama was an Arab. On September 22, 2008, he said: “He’s not black. Do you know he has not one shred of African American blood? He doesn’t have any African—that’s why when they asked whether he was authentic, whether he’s down for the struggle. He’s Arab. You know, he’s from Africa. He’s from Arab parts of Africa. He’s not—his father was—he’s not African American. The last thing that he is is African American.”96
Arabs make up less than 1 percent of the Kenyan population, and there’s no evidence at all that Obama’s family had any Arab background. In fact, no one other than Rush and a few crackpots ever made this accusation. But it reveals the power of Limbaugh’s voice, that he can promote a racist lie about Obama and almost without any effort convince a substantial part of the public to believe in it.
The Arab accusation against Obama also reveals Limbaugh’s peculiar ideas about race. Why would anyone care if Obama’s father was an African of Arab background? How would that change Obama’s African heritage or his blackness? But to Limbaugh, claiming that Obama was an Arab was a continuation of the “anti-American” attacks he was making against him. Unlike other conspiracy claims made by Limbaugh, this one wasn’t widely repeated in the right-wing media or in the crazy e-mails about Obama being a Muslim born in Kenya, bigoted and false allegations that have been widely spread in the conservative media and via e-mail rumor mongering. Yet thanks to Limbaugh’s influence it had a remarkable power across the country. John McCain famously informed one woman at a town hall meeting that Obama wasn’t an Arab: “He’s a decent family man.”97 More amazing, an Annenberg Public Policy Center poll of three thousand people after the 2008 elections found that 22 percent believed that Obama is half Arab—a number even higher than the 19 percent who believed Obama is a Muslim.98 The number of Americans who thought Obama is an Arab is surprising, since it was a far less common rumor. In fact, there was only one major media figure who promoted the idea that Obama was an Arab: Rush Limbaugh.99
Rush’s “Arab” smear was just one example of how powerful (and racist) his voice is, especially when it goes unnoticed and unchallenged by the mainstream media. Limbaugh continued to repeat the smear even after Obama became president. Limbaugh said that a photo of Obama wearing traditional Somali clothing “looks like Ayman Zawahiri.”100 Comparing a presidential candidate to Osama bin Laden’s chief associate probably wouldn’t have occurred to Limbaugh if the candidate had been white.
Limbaugh has particularly odd views of Arabs. During the Abu Ghraib scandal, Limbaugh read from an Associated Press article: “‘One detainee wrapped in an Israeli flag, some were shackled hand and foot in fetal position for eighteen to twenty-four hours, forcing them to soil themselves.’”101 He declared, “Ugh! I thought they did that anyway over there. But this is news to me that this is news.”102 Limbaugh defended torture by smearing everyone in the Middle East as people who “soil themselves” and therefore deserve abusive treatment.
The Racial Authenticity of Barack Obama
Although Limbaugh regularly complains about media bias in favor of every Democratic politician, he claims that Obama was the beneficiary of racial bias for blacks: “Normally a mainstream media would have vetted this guy and we would know this. We don’t know what he is. That’s the whole point. People don’t care what he is. They don’t care who he is. They care that he’s black.”103 And he has said, “If Barack Obama were Caucasian, they would have taken this guy out on the basis of pure ignorance long ago.”104
Yet Limbaugh has persisted in claiming that conservatives like him pay no attention to race: “We didn’t ask if he was authentically black.”105 However, he has specifically challenged Obama’s blackness. After Obama became president, Limbaugh called him “the greatest living example of a reverse racist” and accused him of “fooling white people.”106 He also claimed that only Obama’s supporters paid attention to race: “People don’t care what he is. They don’t care who he is. They care that he’s black.”107 That Obama was supported only because he’s black was one of the most racist assertions about the 2008 campaign. Limbaugh claimed, “The only reason Obama’s anywhere is because whites are willing to support him because they feel so guilty over slavery.”108 He also accused Obama of “inciting racism” and “inflaming racial hatred.”109 But it’s Limbaugh, not Obama, who focuses on race. It’s Limbaugh, not Obama, who said Obama “wants to be the black FDR.”110
African Americans are regularly mocked on Limbaugh’s show for saying “ax” instead of “ask.”111 Limbaugh even accused Obama of pronouncing “ask” as “ax” and declared, “Obama can turn on that black dialect when he wants to and turn it off.” He went on to claim that Obama was not “psychologically grounded in reality” and said, “I’ve been ‘axing’ people about this on the break, if I should go further on this. Some people think I should explore it, and I’ll keep ‘axing.’”112 In reality, Obama said “ask,” not “ax,” but Limbaugh’s overactive racial imagination led him to obsessively accuse Obama of sounding too black.
In 2008 Limbaugh said of one of his employees, “Bo Snerdley got a promotion. He’s now officially the Obama criticizer—certified black enough to criticize—limiting the racial aspect.”113 Only in Limbaugh’s twisted world could he assign one of his black employees to be the “official” Obama criticizer because of his race and claim to be “limiting the racial aspect.”
Throughout the campaign, Limbaugh made numerous racist attacks on Obama. He called Obama “stupid” and asserted that Obama “probably didn’t get outta Harvard without affirmative action.”114 The notion that Barack Obama could not have graduated from Harvard Law School without preferential grading is amazing. No one can possibly believe that Obama’s success—including his selection to the Harvard Law Review, election as its president, graduation as magna cum laude in the top 10 percent of his class, passing of the bar, and becoming a top teacher at the University of Chicago Law School—was all somehow granted to him through a conspiracy of Harvard Law professors to raise his grades because he’s black, especially since many law school professors use blind grading.
In 2010, Limbaugh made up another smear about Barack Obama: “I think this is the first time in his life that there’s not a professor around to turn his C into an A, or to write the law review article for him he can’t write. He is totally exposed. There is nobody to make it better. I think he’s been covered for, all his life.”115
I asked some Harvard law professors about this charge. Laurence Tribe responded to me, “The allegation’s absurd. Obama earned every one of his enormously high grades. ‘Affirmative action’ had nothing to do with his success there. He was the most impressive student and research assistant I have taught in my forty years at Harvard.” Charles Fried, a Harvard Law professor who served as solicitor general during the Reagan administration, wrote to me, “It’s paranoid nonsense. Grading is anonymous by a randomly generated exam number and it takes a vote of the faculty to change a grade.”116
Limbaugh claimed there was a similar conspiracy at Columbia University to raise Obama’s grades: “I think Obama’s the kind of guy that had people turning C’s into A’s for him if he needed to for whatever reason.”117 He never had any evidence for his position. But to a racist like Rush who never finished college, such nonsense becomes believable if it’s a black person who is succeeding: “It is striking how unqualified Obama is, and how this whole thing came about within the Democrat [sic] Party. I think it really goes back to the fact that nobody had the guts to stand up and say no to the black guy.” Limbaugh went on to say: “I think this is a classic illustration here where affirmative action has reared its ugly head against them. It’s the reverse of it. They’ve, they’ve ended up nominating and placing at the top of their ticket somebody who’s not qualified, who has not earned it.” He added: “It’s perfect affirmative action. And because of all this guilt and the historic nature of things, nobody had the guts to say, well, wait a minute, do we really want to do this?”118 Rush never questioned the credentials of George W. Bush, a man who was far less qualified for the presidency than Obama and who achieved his success almost entirely due to his family name. Yet Obama’s success was deemed by Limbaugh undeserved and unearned because of his race.
Limbaugh’s Magic Negro
Limbaugh repeatedly played a parody song called “Barack the Magic Negro” (to the tune of “Puff the Magic Dragon”), featuring Limbaugh’s parody song maker Paul Shanklin badly imitating Al Sharpton, singing about Obama as a “magic Negro” (a term used by a Los Angeles Times op-ed writer) and declaring, “He’s black, but not authentically.”119
The song uses these words:
Barack the Magic Negro lives in D.C.
The LA Times, they called him that
’cause he’s not authentic like me.120
The term “magic Negro” was used by a left-wing columnist in the Los Angeles Times as a way to talk in complex ways about race and how whites love to have a “magic Negro” in movies who quietly saves them. For Limbaugh, it was an excuse to use an archaic, derogatory term toward a black politician and get away with it. It was the equivalent of whites who think they are entitled to call blacks “niggers” because some black rapper used the word. After being criticized for the song, he decided to expand it with Sharpton singing about “da hood” and calling Obama “ar-ti-coo-late.”121
Obama said about the song, “I have not heard it, but I’ve heard of it. I confess I don’t listen to Rush on a daily basis. On the other hand, I’m not one of these people who takes myself so seriously I get offended by every comment made about me. What Rush does is entertainment.”122 But as a black politician, Obama can’t make accusations of racism without alienating white voters and members of the press.
The song “Barack the Magic Negro” was played over and over on Limbaugh’s show during the 2008 election, but it received critical scrutiny from Republicans only after Chip Saltsman, a candidate for the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee, sent members a CD including the “Barack the Magic Negro” song. It finally sparked outrage from some Republicans. RNC chair Mike Duncan declared, “I am shocked and appalled that anyone would think this is appropriate as it clearly does not move us in the right direction.”123
LIMBAUGH’S RACIAL RHETORIC
Limbaugh takes advantage of any opportunity to use racist and sexist insults. In 2008, when Hillary Clinton innocuously said Obama “hasn’t done the spadework necessary to be president,” Limbaugh seized upon the moment to repeatedly call Obama a “spade” and Clinton a “hoe”: “Obama is holding his own against both of them, doing more than his share of the ‘spadework,’ maybe even gaining ground at the moment, using not only the spade, ladies and gentlemen. But when he finishes with the spade in the garden of corruption planted by the Clintons, he turns to the hoe. So the spadework and his expertise, using a hoe.”124 In 2009 he noted that food safety advocates were “going to go after Oreos” but would wait until Obama was out of office, which was Limbaugh’s way of calling Obama an “oreo” (black on the outside, white on the inside).125
When a racist caller declared that Obama was fighting “against white America,” Rush agreed with him wholeheartedly—“You’re right down the line”—and supported the idea that “Obama hates white people.”126 Limbaugh routinely viewed President Obama’s actions through the prism of race. When Somali pirates who kidnapped an American were shot, he declared, “President Obama turns on Somali counterparts.”127 Limbaugh made a point of emphasizing the race of the Somalis who were killed, to draw a comparison between the blackness of the pirates and the blackness of Obama.
Even Obama’s policies were guided purely by race in Limbaugh’s eyes. He repeatedly attacked Obama’s economic policies as “reparations” for slavery. Limbaugh said, “Obama’s entire economic program is reparations!”128 Playing excerpts from a fourteen-year-old speech by Obama, he claimed, “Obama believes that white Americans should be made to pay extra taxes for the wrongs done to blacks throughout the history of this country. Only through ‘collective salvation’ can all of us be saved. He’s talking reparations here.”129 No, he wasn’t. Obama mentioned nothing about reparations in this 1995 speech. Not a word about extra taxes for whites. Obama talked about “responsibility” and the fact that his “individual salvation is not going to come about without a collective salvation for the country.” Collective salvation referred to equal rights, not reparations.
Limbaugh applied the racially charged term “reparations” to every Obama policy: “The objective is to take the nation’s wealth and return to it to the nation’s quote, rightful owners. Think reparations. Think forced reparations here if you want to understand what actually is going on.”130 Why does Limbaugh constantly bring up “reparations” for slavery when discussing Obama’s economic policies? Has he ever used the word to discuss the economic plans of a white politician? The idea that reparations for slavery fueled Obama’s “entire” economic plan, and the assumption that only black people would benefit from it, has no basis in reality. That Limbaugh said this, however, confirms how he sees the world through race-colored glasses. Comedy Central star Stephen Colbert noted about Limbaugh’s comments, “Those guys aren’t racist. They’re just saying that a program that helps the poor is actually a secret plot by African Americans to steal white people’s money.”131
Rush claimed Obama was pushing racial conflict in order to promote liberalism: “The left, from Barack Obama on down, are committed to a divided country. They are committed to people in this country at war with each other over race, over gender, over sexual orientation, over whatever they can promote. The more chaos, the better, because the more chaos, the less gets done—and the ever greater cry, the ever greater apparent need for more government to solve these insoluble problems.”132
Rush often falsely accuses others of something he’s done, as when he said, “The anti-Jew rhetoric in this country today comes from the American left and from the circle of people that are close to Barack Obama.”133 But Rush cited no evidence of any such “anti-Jew” rhetoric. He condemned Obama because, he claimed, “I’ve never had a friend like Khalidi who hates Jews.”134 Columbia University professor Rashid Khalidi is a distinguished professor, and there is no proof that he is anti-Semitic. By contrast, Limbaugh not only has anti-Semitic friends, he actually endorsed Pat Buchanan for president at the very moment when conservative icon William F. Buckley Jr. concluded that Buchanan was an anti-Semite.135
Limbaugh has personally promoted anti-Semitic stereotypes: “For some people, ‘banker’ is code word for ‘Jewish,’ and guess who Obama’s assaulting? He’s assaulting bankers. He’s assaulting money people, and a lot of those people on Wall Street are Jewish. So I wonder if there’s starting to be some buyer’s remorse there.”136 Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, declared: “Rush Limbaugh reached a new low with his borderline anti-Semitic comments about Jews as bankers, their supposed influence on Wall Street, and how they vote.”137
This enraged Limbaugh, who demanded an apology from Foxman and said, “I was referring to the Jew haters, the bigots.”138 He was indeed referring to the view of the bigots—immediately before agreeing with them. Rush was so eager to attack Obama as anti-Semitic for criticizing bankers that he failed to notice that he himself was embracing the stereotype of Jews as “money people.”
As the defender of white men, Limbaugh sees their oppression everywhere: “How do you get promoted in a Barack Obama administration? By hating white people—or even saying you do, or that they’re not good or put ’em down, whatever. Make white people the new oppressed minority, and they’re going right along about it ’cause they’re shutting up. They’re moving to the back of the bus. They’re saying, ‘I can’t use that drinking fountain? Okay! I can’t use that restroom? Okay!’ That’s the modern-day Republican Party, the equivalent of the Old South: the new oppressed minority.”139 Only a racist or a lunatic believes that white people in America are the “new oppressed minority” equivalent to the era of segregated restrooms during Jim Crow.
COLIN POWELL AND RACE
When Republican Colin Powell endorsed Barack Obama for president, Rush claimed it was all about race. Powell said: “I think what Rush does as an entertainer diminishes the party and intrudes or inserts into our public life a kind of nastiness that we would be better to do without.”140 Rush responded: “I just think he’s just mad at me because I’m the one person in the country that had the guts to explain his endorsement of Obama. It was purely and solely based on race. There can be no other explanation for it.”141
He also declared, “Secretary Powell says his endorsement is not about race. OK, fine. I am now researching his past endorsements to see if I can find all the inexperienced, very liberal, white candidates he has endorsed. I’ll let you know what I come up with.”142 Of course, Powell did endorse an inexperienced white candidate whom he had some disagreements with, a man named George W. Bush. But Limbaugh could see only race.
Powell retorted on CNN, “And when you have non-elected officials such as we have in our party who immediately shout racism or somebody who is quite prominent in the media says the only basis upon which I could possibly have supported Obama was because he was black and I was black even though I laid out my judgment on the candidates, then we still have a problem.”143
When Powell was a loyal Republican, Limbaugh had nothing but praise for him. In 1997 he said about Powell, “Look at him. He is dignity. He is honor. He’s a four-star general. He is a man who is perceived to be the epitome of honor and integrity, and he’s a leader.”144 How did Powell go from being the “epitome of honor and integrity” to being a racist? The answer is purely political: Powell endorsed a Democrat, and therefore Limbaugh used the accusation of racism he makes against every nonwhite liberal.
THE ANGRY BLACK MAN
One of most common racial stereotypes in America is that of the angry black man. Even Barack Obama, one of the most even-tempered politicians in recent memory, who has the nickname “No Drama Obama,” fell into this racial stereotype in Limbaugh’s eyes: “This is an angry man.”145 He called Obama “an angry black guy,”146 and added, “Let’s face it, President Obama is black, and I think he’s got a chip on his shoulder,”147 and, “I think Obama is angry, he’s not this cool, calm, collected guy. He’s very cold, he’s very angry, he’s angry at the British over the colonization of Africa, he’s angry at Churchill, he’s angry at this country for its discrimination and slavery past and so forth, and he doesn’t think that the proper price has been paid for it.”148 The idea that Obama is boiling with anger at Winston Churchill and the British over colonizing Africa generations ago is bizarre. What made this accusation so strange was Obama’s unusually calm persona. Unlike Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, John McCain, and many other politicians who have a legendary angry temper behind closed doors, every insider account of Obama’s candidacy noted how calm he always was.149 As Michael Eric Dyson noted, “To call Barack Obama an angry black man is as ridiculous as calling Rush Limbaugh a first-class intellectual.”150 Yet Limbaugh projected that it was Obama who was angrily obsessed with race: “Almost all of his beliefs are founded in race and anger and racial division.”151
When Obama criticized police for arresting Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. in his home, Limbaugh said, “Here you have a black president trying to destroy a white policeman.”152 Invoking another disturbing racial stereotype about black men, Limbaugh said about Obama: “He’s like a lot of other dictators. He’s got the private sector, and he thinks it’s always going to be there to be raped.”153 Limbaugh’s vision of Obama as a “dictator” who has “raped” the private sector evokes not only the paranoid imagination of the far right, but also the ancient racist smear that black men are out to rape white women, the property of their men.
LIMBAUGH’S LATINO PROBLEM
Rush’s racism goes beyond black people: It is also directed at Latinos. In 2008 the Obama campaign ran Spanish-language commercials declaring that “John McCain and his Republican friends have two faces” based on quotes from “El Rushbo” about Mexicans. Obama was widely attacked for running a false ad because Limbaugh and McCain had a long-running hatred. But Rush was particularly offended by the accusations that he was anti-Mexican and accused Obama of “prejudice” and using “the tactics of the old segregationists.”154 Limbaugh asserted that his words were taken out of context. That may have been true for a “Shut up, or get out!” quote from 2006, where he was pointing out the restrictions of Mexican immigration law (albeit while arguing for similar restrictions in American law).155 But it was the other quote, about “stupid and unskilled Mexicans,” that drew Limbaugh’s ire and his assertion that it was “a 1993 humorous monologue poking fun at the arguments against the North American Free Trade Agreement.”156 According to the radio host, “A caller called here and was giving me grief for not wanting to do what it took to protect American jobs, and so I said to him, ‘If you are unskilled and uneducated, your job is going south. Skilled workers, educated people are going to do fine ‘cause those are the kinds of jobs NAFTA is going to create. If we are going to start rewarding no skills and stupid people, I’m serious, let the unskilled jobs that take absolutely no knowledge whatsoever to do—let stupid and unskilled Mexicans do that work.’”157
Limbaugh argued, “My point, which is obvious, was that the people who were criticizing NAFTA were demeaning workers, particularly low-skilled workers. I was criticizing the mind-set of the protectionists who opposed the treaty.”158 But not very many humorous monologues include the reassurance, “I’m serious.” And he himself declared ABC News reporter Jake Tapper “dead right” in his summary of Limbaugh’s argument: “His larger point was that NAFTA would mean that unskilled stupid Mexicans would be doing the jobs of unskilled stupid Americans.”159 If Tapper was “dead right,” then Limbaugh wasn’t mocking those who demeaned unskilled workers, he was agreeing with them. Rush’s implication was that Mexico was filled with these stupid, unskilled workers, and therefore NAFTA would pose no threat to all the skilled, intelligent workers in America. He may not have been calling every single Mexican “stupid and unskilled,” but he certainly was indicating that a lot of them were.
In other comments, Limbaugh has expressed contempt for Mexicans and Latinos. Early in his radio career, he explained why a Mexican won the New York marathon: “An immigration agent chased him for the last 10 miles.”160 Rush referred to a former boyfriend of Madonna as “some gang-member type guy” because he was Latino, even though he had no connections to gangs.161 In 2004 Limbaugh declared, “there’s some little strife going on in Venezuela with that wacko, César Chávez, down there. Hugo. Hugo, César—whatever. A Chávez is a Chávez. We’ve always had problems with them.”162
In 2005 Limbaugh compared Mexican illegal immigrants to an “invasive species.”163 In 2006 he described them as “a renegade, potential criminal element that was poor and unwilling to work.”164 He admitted in 2008 that when Bill Clinton introduced him to Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa at a high-priced New York restaurant, he thought at first he was “maybe a shoeshine guy.”165 It’s difficult to believe that if Limbaugh had been introduced by a former president to a white man in a suit at a place that serves $295 steaks, he would have thought he was a shoeshine guy.
However, when a Republican Latino is involved, Limbaugh is quick to play the race card. He declared in 2007: “So you have the first Hispanic American attorney general—a minority—under fire by white liberal racists in the Senate. I guarantee you that—and he’s not the first, by the way. We’ll never forget what happened to Miguel Estrada. And that was just—wife ended up committing suicide over what they did to him. It was horrible.”166 Bush’s attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, was criticized for his incompetence, not his race. Estrada (whose appointment as an appellate judge was never approved by the Democrats) was a victim of politics, not racism—unless Limbaugh believes that opposing any minority’s appointment is racist. And Estrada’s wife apparently died of an accidental overdose, but Limbaugh’s sudden sensitivity to suicide victims is remarkable considering his jokes about Vince Foster’s death.
SOTOMAYOR, THE SUPREME COURT “RACIST”
Rush Limbaugh declared about Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor immediately after her nomination in 2009, “She’s a bigot. She’s a racist.”167 He reiterated his point repeatedly: “She is a racist, and she would bring racism and bigotry to the court.”168 Sotomayor is not the first Supreme Court justice denounced as a racist by Limbaugh. He called Sandra Day O’Connor a “racist” for upholding affirmative action programs.169 Rush asserted that Obama “chose her because she is a reflection, she reflects his racial attitudes.”170
But it’s Limbaugh who had the odd racial attitudes about the Sotomayor nomination. When Obama urged the approval of Sotomayor to the Supreme Court so she could “start providing justice,” Limbaugh called this “street talk. This is the talk of somebody angry.”171 Since when is speaking of “justice” considered “street talk” and “angry”? After all, the Founding Fathers made the title of the position Supreme Court justice, and the Founding Fathers were not usually accused of “street talk.” If this had been a white president appointing a white nominee, would anyone equate “justice” with “street talk”?
Limbaugh claimed, “She ruled on the basis of just a racist belief that minorities should always be found in favor of simply because they’re minorities, pure and simple, regardless the merits of any particular case.”172 In reality, Sotomayor often ruled against minorities making discrimination claims.
But as Limbaugh put it, “A racist is a racist!” and he claimed he was correct because “nobody has said, ‘No, she’s not a racist.’”173 This only proves how little attention Limbaugh pays to anyone but himself. His claim was dismissed as ridiculous, and not one Republican official was willing to follow Limbaugh in his bizarre assertions.
Limbaugh even compared Sotomayor to David Duke, the famous Ku Klux Klan leader and Republican political candidate.174 And Limbaugh cited Sotomayor’s Wikipedia page as evidence of her racial obsession: “Her Wikipedia entry mentions ‘Latino’ 30 times, ‘Hispanic’ 17 times, ‘Puerto Rican’ 24 times. She’s fixated on being Latino or Hispanic, she’s fixated on it.”175 Perhaps Limbaugh was unaware that people do not write their own Wikipedia pages. He certainly is unaware that talking about race and racism in America is not the same as a fixation.
Limbaugh claimed about Sotomayor, “She was taught that white males destroyed this country, this continent. That’s what she was taught. That’s what all people are taught today, multicultural curriculum.”176 This makes no sense. Sotomayor was then fifty-five, only a few years younger than Limbaugh himself. She went to Catholic school in the 1960s, and then to Princeton in the early 1970s, when it admitted few women or Latinos. Limbaugh has probably never stepped foot on Princeton’s campus, let alone studied the history of its curriculum. And his accusation, while laughable historically, is equally nonsensical when it comes to today’s schools. There’s probably not one school in America where children are taught that “white males destroyed this country, this continent.” What does that even mean?
After a caller who was a classmate of Sotomayor’s confirmed that they read the classics in high school, Limbaugh complained about his own education: “I’m seventeen and eighteen and we were reading Beowulf. I hated it. But we had to read this stuff. The idea that a New York high school was not teaching that stuff, and a little high school in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, had it on its curriculum is just a little hard to believe. But we have the answer now, Anastasia has confirmed they didn’t teach Marx and Hegel.”177 It’s unclear what Beowulf has to do with Marx, or why Limbaugh imagines (incorrectly) that students across the country are being assigned Hegelian philosophical tracts.
Limbaugh claimed about Sotomayor, “She has been overturned 80 percent by the Supreme Court.”178 In reality, three of her opinions (60 percent) were overruled by the Supreme Court, and this is nothing unusual. In 2005–2006, the Supreme Court overturned 73.6 percent of the cases it ruled on, and it’s not surprising that an activist conservative court overruling liberal precedents would overturn a liberal judge who is following those precedents.179 Yet Limbaugh declared, “The only people overturned more than Sotomayor is the Ninth Circus [sic] Court of Appeals in San Francisco.”180 There’s not the slightest evidence that Sotomayor is the second-most overturned judge in the country. Even if this false statement were true, it wouldn’t mean anything. The current activist conservative Supreme Court is most likely to reverse liberal judges when it overturns precedent. But when a judge who is reversed less frequently than the average is condemned as the second-worst in the country, it shows Limbaugh’s indifference to the facts.
Not content with distorting Judge Sotomayor’s record, Limbaugh even condemned her because “there’s not a whole lot of humility here.”181 Humility is not usually a qualification for the Supreme Court. And Rush Limbaugh criticizing someone for a lack of humility is like Charles Manson calling somebody crazy.
In his introduction to Mark Levin’s book Men in Black, “El Rushbo” wrote: “Increasingly, liberals are also denying the president his judicial appointment power by blocking his well-qualified appointments purely for political reasons.”182 Yet he did not hesitate to oppose an Obama Supreme Court nominee for political reasons, even though she had better qualifications than any of Bush’s Supreme Court nominees. Instead, Limbaugh said about Sotomayor, “She is an affirmative action case extraordinaire.”183
When Rush condemned Sonia Sotomayor as a “racist,” he declared, “None of us get a do-over.”184 Limbaugh doesn’t deserve a “do-over” for his past racist comments. He also deserves no apologists because he refuses to retract any of his bigoted statements.
DEFENDING THE CAUCASIANS
Limbaugh believes whites are a dispossessed minority fighting against oppression. Responding to a caller in 2009 who wondered “when will Caucasians become the minority,” he didn’t challenge her racism but instead shared her concerns about the declining power of the white race: “The problem is that you’ve got people running the show now from Obama all the way down through his administration through the House of Representatives who, regardless of their race, are racists.” In that same show, Limbaugh asserted that blacks are already controlling America: “When I say does it really matter when Caucasians become a minority, what I mean by this is we already have a governing majority. He’s gonna treat them that way. It’s reverse racism.”185 The facts are contrary to Limbaugh’s belief that we have a nonwhite, reverse-racist governing majority in America. In Congress, 95 out of 100 senators are white, and 362 out of 435 representatives (83.2 percent) are white.186 Only the worst of the white supremacists imagine that America is controlled by nonwhites. Sadly, Limbaugh seems to be one of them.
When the leading conservative commentator in the country makes openly racist (and obviously false) attacks on a black candidate, without any protests or serious media coverage, it shows how far America still has to go in achieving racial equality. Yet Limbaugh imagined himself as the opponent of viewing everything through a racial prism: “I have had it with race baiters. In twenty-one years I have had my fill of it, and I rarely have my fill of anything, but I have had my fill of this, this race crap.”187
After seeing a video of two black kids on a school bus beating up a white student in a case that police said had nothing to do with race, Limbaugh said: “It’s Obama’s America, is it not? Obama’s America—white kids getting beat up on school buses now. I mean, 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.”188 Limbaugh mockingly proposed segregated buses to protect blacks from racist white kids. As Stephen Colbert observed, “Sadly, anytime a racist criticizes the president, someone cries ‘racist.’”189
Suddenly the country’s whitest talk show host proclaimed himself the arbiter of blackness: “Obama is not black to me.” Yet the very same day, he wondered: “Can this nation really have an African American president?… Or does having an African American president paralyze the process by which people with that kind of power in our representative republic are kept, quote, unquote, honest?”190
Only Limbaugh could question whether America would be destroyed by having a black president. And while he denounced Obama’s race, he complained: “Every bit of criticism of Obama is now labeled racism.”191 In Rush’s eyes, his regular invocation of racist views is entirely rational, and any criticism of it is race baiting. By crying racism against his critics, he was desperately trying to hide his own troubling racial views. Limbaugh is increasingly willing to spout openly racist views due to his hatred for an African American president.
Copyright © 2011 by John K. Wilson