The Racial Tipping Point?

This past Friday Rush Limbaugh took marked exception – yes, even for him – to Oprah Winfrey’s comments made during an interview with BBC Arts Editor Will Gompertz discussing a new film she stars in: The Butler. Oprah was responding to a line of questioning that was seeking to understand from her perspective whether and to what extent the race issues addressed in the movie were historic versus contemporary (that’s a bit of context that most of the popular media has left out of this story from what I’ve read).

Within this context, and in response to Gompertz’s question regarding whether or not President Obama has faced race-related challenges, Winfrey made the assertion that the president is disrespected in “many cases” because of his race. She said that, “just the level of disrespect, when the senator <sic> yelled out, ‘You’re a liar!’ Remember that? Yeah, I think that there’s a level of disrespect for the office that occurs, and that occurs in some cases and maybe even many cases because he’s African-American … there’s no question about that. And it’s the kind of thing that nobody ever says but everybody’s thinking it.”

Well, love him or hate him, Mr. Limbaugh has never been in the camp of not saying what he’s thinking. And so he did, rhetorically asking of Oprah on his radio show, “then how the hell did you become who you are?” and, “why hasn’t anybody in your audience, Oprah, ever said, ‘You lie!’? Because you have. It wasn’t a senator, Oprah. It was a congressman by the name of Joe Wilson, and he was right. Obama was lying.”

Limbaugh admitted that he had to be “really careful” because Oprah is seen as a “goddess to a lot of people,” but went on to add that, “these people are not nearly as smart as they think they are, and they don’t know nearly what they think they know,” he continued. “They are embarrassingly ignorant. It wasn’t a senator. It was a congressman. And it’s not because he was black. It’s because he was lying, Oprah! He’s lying now!”

As often happens, Rush Limbaugh seized upon a particular aspect of a news story that he could effectively carve out of and away from a much more complex issue – and in so doing make it appear that his ability to attack that aspect is the same as attacking the broader issue. Of course it is not, but then I think his remarks regarding Oprah’s audience could just as easily be applied to his own.

The underlying point that I think Limbaugh could have made – maybe really wanted to make – is becoming an increasingly relevant and legitimate question: are we nearing, or have we reached, the tipping point where our collective sensibilities to racism are doing more to hinder the advancement of civil rights than help? Let me put it another, more direct way. Is the fear of being called a racist – and everything that entails – becoming an albatross around the neck of society to the point where there is today more concern about being called a racist than being racist?

I imagine Ms. Winfrey would respond that as long as racism exists – which most certainly it still does – the risk of her offending those who are not racist is far outweighed by the need to continue communicating its prevalence. I have no way of knowing whether or not that would be her perspective, but I would find it hard to argue with. I’m not sure Mr. Limbaugh looks at the world that way because if he did, I think he might not have taken such vociferous exception to Oprah’s comments. He might instead have asked the questions that I have above.

What do you think?



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