This past week, conservative shock jock/Republican dog wagger Rush Limbaugh is finally feeling some heat for making the kind of singularly nasty remarks he's known for, but rarely called on. Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke, who testified before Congress in support of contraception as part of women's health care, became an instant folk heroine after Limbaugh went on a three-day tirade during which he declared the low-key Fluke a "slut" and a "prostitute." A line was crossed amongst women and their supporters, a crime was committed against the history of women's rights during the kickoff of Women's History Month, no less. Limbaugh's show started suffering the only kind of punishment that counts in America, next to jail time: loss of money. Advertisers started bailing, thirty and counting. Limbaugh issued an unprecedented apology, but it was a pretty narrow and grudging apology that didn't staunch the outpouring of antipathy against him. People were simply fed up.
Contrast this to what happened at virtually the same moment when fellow conservative big mouths and KFI-AM mainstays John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou called the recently departed Whitney Houston a "crack ho'." Like Limbaugh, J & K are pretty much paid to say outrageous things and walk the thin line between political commentary and pure vitriol. The Whitney Houston remark didn't go unnoticed -- if nothing else, it instantly recalled Don Imus' description of some black women basketball players as "nappyheaded ho's" back in 2007, a remark that cost the top-rated Imus his job. Not so John and Ken. Yes, they issued a rare apology, like Limbaugh; they got suspended without pay for a week, and they've even met with a local group of swiftly assembled black media activists who have demanded more "diversity" at KFI as a permanent solution to all that ails the place. But the response has been pretty much contained to L.A., with no national outrage about a remark that was both racist and sexist. I know that John and Ken are local, while Limbaugh is syndicated. But the international profile of Whitney Houston, coupled with the fact that her very recent death made the remark that much more insensitive, should have fueled more widespread indignation. It didn't.
One of the obstacles to broader empathy here is race. Even in this free-for-all political atmosphere, hitting women below the belt still carries moral weight and consequence. Not so with black people. The lines of racism have expanded over the years to have become almost nonexistent. In public discourse, there is almost no such thing as racial protocol or racial bad taste; in fact, making a racial faux pas is seen as almost a brave act (Imus was pretty quickly forgiven) because it inherently counters "political correctness" and gives Americans the opportunity to declare that racial insults are really just words that don't mean anything anymore. What this really means is that there's too much at stake for our national image to acknowledge that anybody -- conservative, liberal, centrist, whoever -- is racist anymore. That would take us backward, and nobody really has the time or inclination to go there. Even staunch progressives are hesitant to accuse figures like Limbaugh of racism, partly because it's kind of useless, but also because accusations of racism force discussions that most white people (and lots of black people, too) would simply prefer not to have. It's messy.
But protesting sexism is cleaner. Defending women against frat-boy viciousness put out by the likes of Rush Limbaugh is time-honored, chivalrous for men and empowering for women. Defending black people, even the most upstanding black people, lost that kind of cachet a long time ago. As a nation we don't get fed up about race because there's no payoff, in more ways than one...
Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in Los Angeles, with an eye towards the city's African American community, appear every Thursday on KCET's SoCal Focus blog. Read all her posts here.