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.
So, is it racist to mandate that black coaches at least get interviewed? Of course. It seeks to assuage the problem of racism in the past by practicing reverse-racial preferences now. These sorts of preferences define all the members of a fixed group by skin color. By extension, the policy implicitly accepts the notion of creditor and debtor race. Nowhere does the U.S. Constitution make allowances for such classifications. Still we support the policy. We want it to succeed.
Many of us feel the same way toward black quarterbacks. Radio talk show host Russ Parr recently told me he roots for Michael Vick, not because he has any roots in Atlanta, but "because Vick is black." What Parr knows, and what anyone who gives the matter any thought realizes, is that until recently, few black athletes were given an opportunity to play quarterback. Many suffered because coaches and owners assumed that they lacked teamwork skills and were not intelligent enough for the position.
For decades white owners and coaches were incapable of thinking outside of their own limited cultural experience. This even holds true with regard to raw athletic ability. Black quarterbacks that did not fit the mold of a traditional pocket passer were squeezed into other positions. (A decade ago, Michael Vick would have likely been forced to play cornerback, receiver or running back. In all likelihood his career would have been cut short by injury. This is what black athletes endured until very recently.)
We - the media, owners and members of society - want that to change. We get particularly excited when we think a black athlete is opening new doors. Donovan McNabb is the perfect example. Other quarterbacks have better numbers, but McNabb comes up big in big games. For his career he has a nearly 2-to-1 ratio of touchdowns to interceptions. He has been to three straight Pro Bowls and two consecutive NFC championship games. Plainly, he's a good quarterback. And he's black. For these two reasons we want him to succeed.
Black people have no problem admitting this. Callers during my recent appearance on the Russ Parr radio show talked openly about how they want blacks to succeed in areas where they were traditionally denied equal opportunity. Get it? They want Donovan McNabb to succeed because he's black. Most of society feels the same way. But if a white guy brings up this racial double standard he will be labeled a "racist" and fired.
It seems ironic - and more to the point, harmful - that we have become so conscious of past racism, that we can no longer talk openly about it, or even raise the issue to consciousness for genuine examination. That helps no one.