October 4, 2003
By John McWhorter
With his comment about Donovan McNabb, a quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles, Rush Limbaugh has become the latest figure banished to the corner for being racist. "The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback can do well," Limbaugh said Sunday on ESPN. By Wednesday he was gone from the network.
But this time Limbaugh, of all people, has injected a bit of honesty into our public discourse about race. He may have been going off half-cocked, as is his wont, but he raises a valid point: America wants to see black people succeed, whether they need help or not, and that yearning — with all its ambiguous and even adverse effects — has become part of the warp and woof of our national consciousness.
It hardly sounds like something to resign over. Part of the controversy over Limbaugh's remarks stems from the forum itself. If Limbaugh had made his comment on his radio program, it would have occasioned little notice among a listener base inclined toward his views. Airing his view on a national sports program brought the issue to a broader audience.
Nor is Limbaugh necessarily right on the facts. The scarcity of black quarterbacks (and coaches) is well known, and it is hardly inconceivable that black quarterbacks might be given somewhat more of a pass than white quarterbacks. But that doesn't mean they are. Limbaugh's assessment of McNabb is not unassailable.
Still, Limbaugh's mention of the possibility that McNabb is overrated because of his skin color is not racist in the least. Limbaugh certainly didn't claim that black people are not good at sports (that'd be a tough one to defend). Nor did he link his unenthusiastic view of McNabb's talents to his being black. He simply stated his view that the broader evaluation of McNabb is filtered through relief and joy that a black person is a quarterback for a professional football team.
The reaction to Limbaugh's comment also shows how American culture has encouraged us to evaluate black people since the rise of the civil rights movement. Taking disadvantage into account in college admissions and hiring decisions is a mark of moral sophistication in a capitalist society riddled with inequity.
It is also true, however, that affirmative action has tended to crudely use skin color alone as a proxy for disadvantage. The debate over the Supreme Court's decision last June on racial preferences at the University of Michigan laid bare the eternal ambiguities and challenges that racial preferences continue to present to our country. Limbaugh was merely participating in this public debate.
In today's America we are often taught that it is a form of enlightenment to cherish black people for any contribution they may make, even to an institution's head count. This is perhaps an inevitable reaction to an unapologetically racist past. But for Rush Limbaugh to point out that our opinion of Donovan McNabb demonstrates that we have yet to understand what it really means to be "getting past race" hardly condemns him as a benighted bigot.
John McWhorter, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, is author, most recently, of "Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care."
©2003 The New York Times
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