Why black America distrusts conservatives

Rush Limbaugh proved what many African-Americans fear: Even if right-wingers aren't racist, they'll kick blacks to score political points.

Published October 2, 2003 3:26PM (EDT)

Rush Limbaugh's resignation from ESPN's "NFL Countdown" should bring the immediate controversy over his comments about Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb to a mercifully quick end. However, his remarks have damaged his reputation and once again delivered another body blow to the conservative movement in the area in which it can least afford it: race.

And this time it's not a creation of the liberal media; this was a self-inflicted wound.

If conservatives seriously wonder why it is so difficult for either the movement or its political manifestation -- the Republican Party -- to attract African-Americans, this incident should be Exhibit No. 1.

Sure, there are specific political issues on which many African-Americans disagree with the GOP. But the most important step in building political coalitions is convincing your target group that you are trustworthy when it comes to their central issues -- that they'll have a basic comfort zone in the coalition.

And the crude lesson many African-Americans will likely take from Limbaugh's comments is that even if a conservative isn't personally a racist, he may not be above turning a black person into a political football for ideological or entertainment value.

On Sunday, Donovan McNabb became Limbaugh's football:

"I don't think he's been that good from the get-go. I think what we've had here is a little social concern in the NFL," Limbaugh opined. "I think the media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well. They're interested in black coaches and black quarterbacks doing well. I think there's a little hope invested in McNabb and he got a lot of credit for the performance of his team that he really didn't deserve. The defense carried this team."

Now, on the face of it, this could be seen as a harmless if politically incorrect statement for which Limbaugh should have been given a pass. (Although it's worth noting that Limbaugh wanted to crucify Chicago Cubs manager Dusty Baker, who is black, for his seat-of-the-pants theorizing that blacks and Latinos suffer heat better than whites.) But Limbaugh's statement wasn't just provocative -- it was just plain ignorant on the recent history of the NFL. He was acting as if McNabb was one of two or three black quarterbacks in the game.

Three years ago today, I wrote about the progress of black quarterbacks in the National Review, noting that "In addition to [Tennessee Titan Steve] McNair, the league today features starters Daunte Culpepper (Minnesota), Tony Banks (Baltimore), Akili Smith (Cincinnati), Jeff Blake (New Orleans), Donovan McNabb (Philadelphia), Charlie Batch (Detroit) and Shaun King (Tampa Bay) plus back-ups/part-time starters [Randall] Cunningham (Dallas), [Warren] Moon (Kansas City Chiefs), Kordell Stewart -- and Tee Martin! (Pittsburgh), Ray Lucas (New York Jets). That comes to eleven NFL teams either starting a black quarterback or who have one in a featured role -- a full third of the league."

What was refreshing, I observed, was that the media hadn't erupted in orgiastic frenzy at this development, as opposed to a decade before when sports analysts seemed obsessed by the fact there were only two starting black quarterbacks in the entire league (Cunningham -- then with the Eagles -- and one-time Houston Oiler Warren Moon).

And since that piece was written, the above mentioned have all been treated much the same as other players, regardless of race -- until Limbaugh's unfortunate comments Sunday. McNair, Culpepper and McNabb are still with the same teams (a combined 8-3 record). Some others now start for new teams (Blake, Stewart), others are backups with different clubs. Moon and Cunningham have retired. Quincy Carter leads "America's Team," the Dallas Cowboys. Byron Leftwich is a rookie starting for the Jacksonville Jaguars. Perhaps the most exciting player in the league is the now-injured Michael Vick of the Atlanta Falcons.

The point is that black quarterbacks aren't novel enough for the media to engage in some sort of social cheering to single one out. Thus, Limbaugh's basic argument was ludicrously antiquated.

Besides, hardly anything annoys conservatives more than when liberals introduce race into an issue when it has no place. And that's exactly what Limbaugh did.

Is McNabb "overrated"? Different people can come to different conclusions. But the same thing can be said about Denver Broncos signal-caller Jake Plummer. Initially hyped by San Francisco's Hall of Fame coach-turned-exec Bill Walsh as the second coming of Joe Montana, Plummer showed flashes of brilliance with the Arizona Cardinals. Six years later, his flashes of brilliance were overshadowed by a hail of interceptions and sacks. Yet, as his contract ended with Arizona last year, he signed a fat new one with Denver. The Broncos are 4-0 this year, with Plummer playing atrociously in the first two games and very well in the second two.

Given his statistics over the last several seasons, one could charge that he was "overrated." Similarly, one could argue either way that McNabb is "overrated." But with Plummer, the debate just centers on statistics -- as most good sports arguments should. Yet Rush did what he hates in liberals. Instead of the typical liberal argument -- "The man would get his real due if he were white" -- we got Rush's view, "He's barely criticized because he's black."

And so, Limbaugh's analysis failed factually and ideologically. Unfortunately, in the one area where it succeeded -- injecting controversy on ESPN's pre-game set -- it introduced a particularly corrosive line of thought.

It articulated the double standard that blacks fear underlies much of American society: The successes and failures of white individuals belong to the individual ("Plummer's a bum!" "Plummer's great!"), whereas the success and failure of a black person belongs to the race. One week ago, after a poor start to the season, McNabb was being analyzed on his football skills. Today, he is analyzed on his race.

So Limbaugh managed to do in one moment what the media has actually refrained from doing in recent years. Removing their individuality, he has effectively "adjectivized" McNabb, McNair, et al. After succeeding on their own merits, they are once again black quarterbacks for however long the media chooses to continue with this story.

Rush didn't help by initially dismissing the criticism as more p.c. blather: "All this has become the tempest that it is because I must have been right about something," he said. "If I wasn't right there wouldn't be this cacophony of outrage that has sprung up in the sportswriter community."

Such a self-serving statement suggests that Rush has never heard the adage that a stopped clock is right at least once a day.

Yet, ironically, Rush's fall may provide another lesson. It actually underscores the similarities in the way that blacks and conservatives have, as subcultures, often been misrepresented in the dominant culture: Blacks are stereotypically portrayed as less intelligent, buffoonish and often criminal. Conservatives are stereotypically portrayed as selfish, mean and venal.

The black person and the conservative person feel like outsiders, both distrusting and envying the mainstream.

Each group needs to see its reality reflected in the dominant culture.

Each group creates its own media and ancillary organizations to support and amplify its unique experience and point of view.

Each group cheers when one of its own appears to become accepted by the mainstream and excels. It's never enough to be successful just within the context of one's own community.

Then, as the individual representative appears to fail in the mainstream culture, a sense of shame and disgrace envelops the entire group.

Rush Limbaugh, meet Jayson Blair.

By Robert A. George

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