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Rush Limbaugh: Mainstreaming Racial Bigotry

In this unusual political year, there has been an effort by some in high places to make Black History Month a celebration of white contributions to racial progress. But not all white contributions have been toward progress. This is the fourth in a series of biographical sketches that present a different narrative of historic events.

In the past three decades, Rush Limbaugh has become a force in American society and politics. He is a genius of sorts. He has been the single most effective leader in the movement against “political correctness,” a movement that has brought overt bigotry out of the closet and made it acceptable once again.

Limbaugh, along with others, has hard-wired a set of beliefs into the right-wing of American politics. Those beliefs can be summarized in an equation: government = liberals = taxes = welfare = black people.

The results have been profound. Over time, Limbaugh became the arbiter of what were acceptable positions for Republican politicians. Those positions all served to “otherize” anyone who wasn’t white, right-wing, suburban, Christian and not poor. Those who were Limbaugh’s loyal fans were “The American People.”

Another favorite Limbaugh theme, building on the false belief that white people’s hard-earned tax dollars were going to support undeserving black people, was that the only racism in the United States was black racism, and that white people were the real victims. That view is now widely accepted in certain parts of the country.

With the election of President Obama, Limbaugh’s statements on race became more extreme and provocative, much to the pleasure of his large audience. His core theme was that Obama was behaving as a dictator. For example, “We are being told that we have to hope he (President Obama) succeeds, that we have to bend over, grab the ankles, bend over forward, backward, whichever, because his father was black….”

Limbaugh’s penchant to make statements that were demonstrably false grew, a prelude to our current “post-fact” age in which people can dial into any lie that fits their worldview and make it a fact.

Like others on the far right, Limbaugh returned to the theme that slavery wasn’t all that bad: “I mean, let’s face it, we didn’t have slavery in this country for over 100 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.”

Limbaugh, and those like him, Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, have made this kind of thinking acceptable. They have made a real contribution to the precipitous decline in empathy in our country, a decline that drives the process of otherization. Instead of empathy and compassion for others, the watchwords of the day have become disdain and indifference to “the others.”

As Limbaugh said about African Americans, “They’re 12 percent of the population. Who the hell cares?”

And as much else in our current discourse, there is always the underlying theme of violence. Limbaugh has told his vast audience, “You know who deserves a posthumous medal of honor? James Earl Ray. We miss you James. Godspeed.” Just in case anyone has forgotten, James Earl Ray was Martin Luther King’s assassin.

The impact of Limbaugh-ism can be seen on a variety of websites where racist thinking is now mainstream, and in the comments of his many fans, who find ways to capture his views in statements like the following: “It seems the blacks WANT to be slaves again, by the way they act. In a way, they still are slaves, slaves to jesse jackson, AND al sharpton. I back Rush 100%. He speaks the FACTS and BACKS them up. Our media has turned into a bunch of COWARDS….”

Where does this lead? In Rush Limbaugh’s view – and that of his army of true believers – “It isn’t going to be bridged by compromise.”

According to Limbaugh, “The only way this is ever gonna end is when one side gets defeated – politically defeated – and becomes a demonstrable minority.”

At some point we will learn whether Rush Limbaugh was a visionary, whether the vision – his vision and that of his followers – of a totally polarized, racially divided, hierarchical society becomes reality.

Editor’s note on the use of terms. In this series, terms are used in a very specific manner.

“Racism”/”racist” is limited to examples of what has been defined as “scientific racism,” the belief that one race is inherently superior/inferior to others, and, the current use, a power relationship in which one group dominates another, as in “white supremacy.” Racism in this context is typically a system.

“Bigotry” is used to describe group or individual beliefs that stereotype or demean another group. In this sense, bigotry is not limited to the group(s) that wield power over others.

“Racialism” is a term that describes practices intended to pit groups against one another, even in the absence of the individual being a bigot or racist. Racialism is widespread in our political life. For example, in 1964 Barry Goldwater ran ads with a picture of a white worker (“fired”) and a black worker (“hired,”) while in 1980, Jimmy Carter implied that Reagan would re-enslave black people.

As the profiles in this series demonstrate, the boundaries between these terms are fluid, and the outcomes are invariably negative.

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