Rethinking Rush's racial offense

Here's a quick quiz from the annals of American race politics. In 30 seconds or less, please identify the source, date, and context of the following quotation: "He was elevated ... precisely because [he] is black."

Rush Limbaugh, criticizing Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb in Sept. 28 pregame commentary?

Good guess, but you're wrong. The correct answer: the Congressional Black Caucus, condemning Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas in 1991.

After Mr. McNabb's lackluster performance in the Eagles' narrow victory over the Washington Redskins last Sunday, no one - I mean no one - gave him undue credit; the team won in spite of McNabb. And there is simply no evidence that the media have ever exaggerated McNabb's caliber because he is black, as Limbaugh told a national TV audience two Sundays ago.

But was Mr. Limbaugh a bigot, or a racist,for saying so? Are you automatically prejudiced if you suggest that a minority received special treatment or consideration as a result of skin color? I think not. Indeed, the facile use of a term like "racist" prevents us from having an honest discussion about affirmative action and race. And that's where Mr. Thomas comes in.

Remember him? It's easy to forget our nation's only black Supreme Court justice, because he so rarely speaks from the bench. But get used to him - the youngest justice (by nine years) is likely to be on the court for a long time. And how did he get there? Call me a racist if you wish, but I have one simple answer: Because he's black.

There, I said it. But so did the Congressional Black Caucus and nearly every other liberal group in 1991, when the elder George Bush nominated Thomas.

With a straight face, Mr. Bush told the world that Thomas was "the most qualified" for the job. But nobody really believed it then, or now.

True, an American Bar Association (ABA) committee deemed Thomas "qualified" for the Supreme Court after his nomination, but expressly denied him the "well qualified" designation. Two members of the committee even found Thomas "not qualified."

Predictably, the current President Bush has endorsed his father's claim that Thomas was "the most qualified" for the court. And Thomas has some hard-core supporters among movement conservatives like Limbaugh, who appreciate his steadfast opposition to abortion, gun control, and, yes, affirmative action.

But "the most qualified"? Please. Behind closed doors, even Limbaugh would name dozens of equally conservative jurists who were more qualified than his close friend Thomas.

Suppose, then, that Limbaugh had gone on TV and suggested that Thomas - not McNabb - got special consideration because of his minority status. Would liberals have lambasted Limbaugh as a "racist"? Hardly. They'd have congratulated him for finally telling the truth.

Limbaugh was clearly wrong about McNabb, as anyone who has seen the quarterback's career statistics will attest. But who actually analyzed the statistics? Once Limbaugh was tagged as "racist," real analysis - and real debate - came to a halt.

To start the debate anew, we must acknowledge a basic fact: In rare instances, American minorities receive undeserved positions of authority and prominence because of their race. Thomas represents one such instance; McNabb does not. But we'll never have a true dialogue about race in America if we can't discuss the difference.

Jonathan Zimmerman, author of "Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools," teaches history and education at New York University.

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