In America in 2003, black people can talk openly about race. They can admit to identifying with black cultural icons. They can admit to having black pride. They can even drop the N-bomb. White corporate America cannot. The result is a racial double standard that threatens our ability to talk openly about the very serious topic of race relations.
Case in point: Conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh recently resigned from his job on the ESPN National Football League pre-game show after making racially charged comments about Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb. "The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well," said Limbaugh. "There is little hope invested in McNabb, and he got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he didn't deserve. The defense carried this team."
If Limbaugh had been blessed with dark skin like me, there is little doubt that he would still be working for ESPN. In fact, he probably would have been given a raise for adding kick to ESPN's floundering pre-game show. But Limbaugh is white. So he was forced out for playing the race card.
Of course, Limbaugh is no stranger to hyperbole. Exaggeration and paranoid finger wagging are the reasons for the better part of his success as a radio personality. And that is why he was hired - to shock people into paying attention.
Still, one has to wonder, what precisely did Limbaugh insinuate that was so wrong? That the NFL has ethnic double standards? Of course it does! This past year the NFL instituted a new policy that will enact sanctions against teams that fail to interview minorities for vacant coaching positions. Critics of the policy raised very legitimate concerns of whether trotting out black coaching candidates for token interviews might do more harm than good. After all, you can force an owner to interview a black coach, but you can't force him to hire one. Would the repeated rejection of certain black candidates actually do harm to their reputations?
These are serious questions, and ones that the NFL never seriously addressed. Instead, they plowed forward with the policy for a very simple reason: We - NFL policymakers, fans and media - want black athletes and coaches to have equal opportunity. At this late date, we realize that black athletes and coaches have traditionally been denied certain opportunities. It was easy for white coaches to succeed when they had other white coaches from whom they could learn and white owners willing to give them a chance. Society did not offer black coaches this same opportunity.