Monday, October 19, 2009

Racial Headlines: Rush Limbaugh, Marc Hill and Injustices of the Peace

I spent the last four days in sunny Southern California, and most of that time found me losing my mind about the zaniness of America's current racial landscape.

I went out West to take part in a fantastic conference, "Reading Scriptures, Reading America: Interruptions, Orientations, and Mimicry among U.S. Communities of Color," sponsored by Claremont Graduate University's Institute for Signifying Scriptures. I presented research from the book I'm currently writing (an examination of African-American Hebrew Israelites) as part of one of the conference panels organized by Velma Love (Florida A&M University), sharing the stage with Renee K. Harrison (Payne Theological Seminary).

Since it had been a long time since my last stint out West, I ended up squeezing in several different things: meetings with potential agents in Los Angeles (about some screenplays I've written), spending time with a couple academic friends and their newborn at UCI, and very briefly crashing the Ford Foundation Fellows conference in Irvine, California. (The Ford conference was as inspiring as ever!)

During much of my trip, I was also following three breaking news stories, excluding that boy-in-a-balloon "hoax" that CNN spent most of the weekend unpacking.

There was the story about that Louisiana justice of the peace who was unwilling to marry an inter-racial couple, Rush Limbaugh's response to his recent NFL snub, and Rupert Murdoch personally announcing FOX News contributor Marc Lamont Hill's firing at a stockholder meeting. All three stories are still playing themselves out, but I just wanted to make a few early comments.

1. Keith Bardwell, a justice of the peace in Tangipahoa Parish in southeastern Louisiana, refused to marry the mixed couple out of concern for their offspring--at least, that's the argument he made on CBS's The Early Show today. "I've had countless numbers of people that was born in that situation," Bardwell said. "And they claim that the blacks or the whites didn't accept the children. And I didn't want to put the children in that position." What a fascinating twist. Traditionally, such racially informed objections to miscegenation would have been framed in terms of eugenics (the degeneration of racial purity/prowess) or adamant white supremacy (the divinely pre-ordained discreteness of our racial order), but concern for the social plight of the children themselves wouldn't necessarily have been the trump card for an official in Bardwell's position. Of course, what is most interesting about Bardwell's stance is that he denies being racist at all--and claims not to even understand why his recusal has caused such controversy. He doesn't believe that what he did was unconstitutional, and he doesn't think that it should be considered racist. My recent book, Racial Paranoia, anticipates Bardwell's move and helps to explain the unprecedented logic of racialism in contemporary America.

2. Bardwell doesn't accept the charge of racism and neither does Rush Limbaugh. The latter penned a very careful response to his recent disavowal by those would-be St. Louis Rams owners in the Wall Street Journal while I was out in Cali. Limbaugh claimed that many of his accusers (including Jessie Jackson and Al Sharpton) are actually the racists, citing Jackson's infamous "hymie-town" reference and Sharpton's role in the Tawana Brawley case. He also blamed Sharpton for fomenting the racial rage that erupted in two NYC riots during the 1990s. Sharpton is contemplating a lawsuit (for defamation) unless he gets an apology from Limbaugh, which I can safely predict will probably not be forthcoming. I did read my Brainstorm colleague's short post on the Limbaugh story last week. Mark Bauerlein's piece nicely frames the controversies, and he later asked readers if they could actually "cite Limbaugh's racist statements." Is Limbaugh a racist? That's become the operative question. I have listened to Limbaugh. His commitments to racial provocation are, in my opinion, self-evident. His investment in racial insensitivity (like his playful celebration of that "Obama, The Magic Negro" song) is also legion. Does that mean he's a racist? Part of the point of my recent book is to argue that claims/counter-claims about racism aren't productive. His advocates claim "no." His detractors say "yes." If someone can definitely prove that Limbaugh is a racist, does that mean that he doesn't have the right to own an NFL team? It is his $400 billion dollar media contract. He can spend that money on whatever he wants. But NFL players also have the right to voice their objections. Hopefully, the two sides can listen to one another instead of starting a shouting match that ends with both camps sulking in their respective, non-communicative corners. Also, I can understand why Limbaugh would try to defend himself against accusations of racism. But I don't buy the claim (given Limbaugh's consistency on questions of race) that the accusations themselves are on-their-face absurd. They can be wrong without being unreasonable.

3. And what can be said about Murdoch's ousting of Marc Hill? Hill was the object of an on-line campaign after a recent blog-post from David Horowitz that voiced outrage at the fact that Hill was given the privilege of serving as a pundit on Bill O'Reilly's nightly show. Hill was accused of supporting cop-killers (for comments about Assata Shakur and Mumia Abu Jamal) and of anti-Semitism (for an old article Hill wrote about Khalid Muhammad). I had assumed that Hill's job was safe. Fox News gets tons of pressure to oust other controversial figures on their programs, and they never buckle. If Glenn Beck and Ann Coulter are welcome on Fox, how could they ever justify firing Hill? Well, I was wrong. Moreover, there is a general logic to such witch-hunting that has become a pathetically hegemonic mode of political activism. It is justified by rhetoric of holding people "accountable." But what kind of politic really manifests itself in such victories? Is getting Beck or Hill or Coulter or anyone else off FOX News truly a gesture of political significance? How about thwarting Limbaugh's attempt to spend his millions? Or do such moves exemplify a trivialization of politics that is part of the problem?