Lazy, Raced Based Criticism of Black Elected Officials

Lazy, Raced Based Criticism of Black Elected Officials


It really shouldn’t surprise any of us that critics of black politicians sometimes dip into the racial slur cesspool for ways of expressing their displeasure. And although folks like me find it lazy and distasteful to resort to race-based criticism, there are always others, in a particular target audience, who will nod or cheer when someone has “the guts” to express out loud what they were thinking already.

This week  Dan Rather and Rush Limbaugh, two high profile white men historically on opposite ends of the political spectrum, made headlines for their racially laced comments regarding black elected officials. Dan Rather’s comments referred to President Obama’s inability to sell his healthcare plan while Rush Limbaugh referred to New York Governor David Paterson’s possibly appointing a replacement for former Representative Eric Massa. Here’s what was actually said:

From Dan Rather’s appearance on the Chris Matthews Show:

Did you hear it? Rather said of President Obama, “a nice person … very articulate” but an ineffective leader who “couldn’t sell watermelons if you gave him the state troopers to flag down the traffic.”

Of course Rather’s comment has been the source of much debate online and in conversation. Many jumped up to defend Rather against those who were offended by his comment. Their argument, the standard “you’re making too much of it, it’s no big deal.” And Rather himself appeared to blame twitter for the broad and swift reaction to his awkward gaff. He took to the Huffington Post to offer the now cliché “I’m sorry if anyone was offended, non-apology apology”.

I was talking about Obama and health care and I used the analogy of selling watermelons by the side of the road. It’s an expression that stretches to my boyhood roots in Southeast Texas, when country highways were lined with stands manned by sellers of all races. Now of course watermelons have become a stereotype for African Americans and so my analogy entered a charged environment. I’m sorry people took offense.

But anyone who knows me personally or knows my professional career would know that race was not on my mind. Reporting on the injustices of race was part of the reason I became a reporter.  Source: Watermelons, Washington, and What We Call News Today, Dan Rather, The Huffington Post

If Dan Rather had referred to the President’s ability to sell possums, or okra, or any other stereotypically southern foodstuffs, I wouldn’t have thought twice about his comment. But even Rather acknowledges the derogatory Jim Crow associations of black people with the colorful fruit, so to link our first black President’s leadership skills with his ability to sell watermelons has offensive connotations. It doesn’t bother me when our current Commander-in-Chief is described as “articulate” since Obama is an articulate and dynamic speaker. His predecessor was not.

And you would think Rather would understand that one can make a racist comment without being characterized as a full blown racist. It’s hard not to believe that at least unconsciously Rather has a thing for associating food with race. Here’s a couple “Ratherisms” from election night 1996:

“They say California’s the big burrito; Texas is a big taco right now. We want to follow that through. Florida is a big tamale.”
–Election Night 1996

“Texas: 32 electoral votes, another of the so-called big enchiladas or if not an enchilada at least a huge taco.”
–Election Night 1996

Make of those what you will.

And as could be expected, Rush Limbaugh’s comments about David Paterson and former Congressional Representative Eric Massa have a nastier edge. Here’s how it went down:

“I am reasonably sure that Paterson will be appointing the replacement, assuming that he, you know, doesn’t resign in the next 60 or 90 days,” a caller said to Limbaugh.

“Let’s assume you’re right,” Limbaugh responded. “So, David Paterson will become the massa…who gets to appoint whoever gets to take Massa’s place. So, for the first time in his life, Paterson’s gonna be a massa. Interesting, interesting.” Source: Rush Limbaugh Hurls Racist ‘Massa’ Comment At David Paterson (AUDIO), Huffington Post

Perhaps Limbaugh would say that his use of “massa” is just a quippy “play on words” nothing more.  Who can say what he was thinking? It doesn’t matter. To link a black Governor, even an embattled one, with slavery is repugnant.

In the end it’s worth noting how digital media was involved in both incidents. Rather now seems to be regretting the transparency the web provides and accountability it demands from public figures. Limbaugh, on the other hand, has learned to take advantage of digital and terrestrial media to spread his vitriol to those most anxious to hear it.

And for the record, it’s not just whites who launch race based attacks on black politicians. One of the most controversial antics last year was the targeting of Ohio State Senator Nina Turner over her support of legislation that called for an overhaul of county government. The black owned ‘Call & Post’ newspaper depicted her this way:

The  cartoon was roundly criticized and the legislation passed.

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Carmen Dixon Rosenzweig is the creator of the blog All About Race, which focuses on authentic and productive conversations about race in America. Carmen is a frequent guest on NPR, a featured columnist for Aol BlackVoices and host of "All About Race on the Radio". A self described "moderate militant", prior to blogging, Carmen spent more than a decade on the front lines of broadcast journalism, corporate public relations and crisis management. As an ABC News producer, Carmen won three Emmy Awards. She is a graduate of Yale University. You can follow Carmen on twitter @allaboutrace.


  1. Hi Carmen, I live in Cleveland, where the Call & Post is published. The caricature of Nina Turner caused a major stir but it also created room for discussion and critique. And people wonder how mass-mediated stereotypes continue to be perpetuated. Thank you, love your voice.