Olbermann: Limbaugh ‘Putting on Sheet’ and ‘Dropping Guise of Non-racism'

Update further down in bold recounting that House Democratic Whip James Clyburn once described health care reform as being part of "rectifying effects of past discrimination," which Chris Matthews referred to as "reparations."

On Tuesday’s Countdown show, MSNBC host Keith Olbermann picked up on an item from the far left Media Matters for America to charge that conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh is "putting on his sheet" and "dropping any remaining pretense that the opposition to health care reform is not flat-out racism." Inspired by a quote in which Limbaugh used the terms "civil rights" and "reparations" while discussing health care reform with a caller, Olbermann began the segment on Limbaugh by recounting what he viewed as "race-baiting" against President Obama. Olbermann:

There is no mystery as to why President Obama has been accused more than any other recent Democratic President of being socialist, fascist, communist, take your pick. The ugliest surviving strain and stain in American politics is still race-baiting. But it`s particularly offensive when it surfaces so very blatantly. Maybe it is better this way, though. Rush Limbaugh has declared that the President`s health care reform package is a civil rights bill and constitutes reparations.

(Video of the segment can be found at Story Balloon.)

After playing two audio clips from Limbaugh’s radio show, he brought aboard Professor Melissa Harris-Lacewell of the Princeton University African-American Studies Department for further discussion, and, at one point, Olbermann wondered if Limbaugh’s activities were reminiscent of Lester Maddox, the segregationist former Governor of Georgia known for barring blacks from his restaurant. Olbermann: "These things and the euphemisms behind it, in particular, are nothing new in American politics or American society, obviously. But is this the same old stuff? Is this Lester Maddox and his restaurant? Or is this new stuff and somehow more or less dangerous?"

Added at 7:08 p.m.: Notably, as previously documented by NewsBuster Mark Finkelstein, in June 2009 House Democratic Whip James Clyburn appeared on MSNBC’s Hardball and suggested that health care reform and other current legislative agenda items are part of reparations for past discrimination in America, while host Matthews voiced agreement that "reparations" are appropriate. Referring to "rectifying some of the current effects of past discrimination," Clyburn contended that "that’s what we’re doing today as we roll out this working draft of our health care bill." After Matthews asserted that "I think reparations make sense," and wondered what is the "appropriate" way to accomplish that, Clyburn continued: "What I would do is exactly what we're attempting to do with this legislation, energy legislation, health legislation. I would look at ways that we can programatically and with new policy, address these inequities and make concerted efforts to do things that would make up for them and eliminate the disparities."

Below is a complete transcript of the segment from the Tuesday, February 23, Countdown show on MSNBC:

KEITH OLBERMANN, IN OPENING TEASER: And taking off his cloak and putting on his sheet. Rush Limbaugh on health care reform:

RUSH LIMBAUGH: This is a civil rights bill, this is reparations, whatever you want to call it.

OLBERMANN: Yeah, health care protests. No undercurrent of racism here, uh-uh!

...

OLBERMANN, DURING COMMERCIAL BREAK AT 8:10 P.M.: And no longer even trying to pretend, Rush Limbaugh claims health care reform is reparations meant for black people.

...

OLBERMANN, BEFORE COMMERCIAL BREAK AT 8:32 P.M.: And Rush Limbaugh drops any remaining pretense that the opposition to health care reform is not flat-out racism.

...

OLBERMANN, BEFORE COMMERCIAL BREAK AT 8:42 P.M.: Of course, the health care reform summit is really about a new civil rights bill to bring reparations to black people, if you listen to Rush Limbaugh. And well you should, considering right there he just dropped any guise of non-racism.

...

OLBERMANN: There is no mystery as to why President Obama has been accused more than any other recent Democratic President of being socialist, fascist, communist, take your pick. The ugliest surviving strain and stain in American politics is still race-baiting. But it`s particularly offensive when it surfaces so very blatantly. Maybe it is better this way, though. Rush Limbaugh has declared that the President`s health care reform package is a civil rights bill and constitutes reparations. Describing the first seven pages of the President`s plan as a "Robin Hood monstrosity," Limbaugh called it unconstitutional, and when discussing the President`s plan with a caller, he added this:

RUSH LIMBAUGH CLIP #1: It means the rich are going to stop getting all the good stuff. We`re going to take from this as income redistribution. This is returning the nation`s wealth to its, quote, unquote, rightful owners. This is a civil rights bill. This is reparations, whatever you want to call it.

LIMBAUGH CLIP #2: This is not about health care, Stacy. It`s about income redistribution and class envy and getting people who can`t read this to think it`s going to be good for them, because rich people are going to get stuck again.

OLBERMANN: Civil rights bill, reparations, people who can`t read this, no one could hardly be more overt. And he has used reparations in conjunction with the President`s agenda previously, notably in May of last year, saying that Obama`s objective was more unemployment, more food stamps, more unemployment benefits, so as to expand the welfare state. The quote then was, "think reparations. Think forced reparations here, if you want to understand what actually is going on," unquote. Let`s turn to associate professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University, contributor to the Nation, Melissa Harris-Lacewell. It’s good to see you.

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL, PRINCETON UNIVERSITY: Good to see you. I`m glad that I can be black on set for you tonight, for proof.

(BOTH LAUGH)

OLBERMANN: That`s the silliest damn thing I`ve ever said. But thanks for being a good sport about that. The word, though, here, "reparations" is a particularly loaded one, in describing, it`s a loaded one under any circumstances prior to 2008-

HARRIS-LACEWELL: Sure.

OLBERMANN: -in describing the actions or the plans of an African-American President, though, it sort of triples in importance, doesn`t it?

HARRIS-LACEWELL: Right. I think there`s a couple things about that Limbaugh statement that is stunning. First of all, since when has civil rights become a slur? Right, the idea of it`s a civil rights bill and therefore something we should oppose.

One of the most stunning things about American public opinion over the course of the past 50 years is that we went from a time when people would openly express racist sentiment to a point where even if they harbored racist sentiment in their heart, everyone had a sort of consensus around the righteousness of civil rights. And so, for it to be deployed this way, that it’s a slur, is really a desire to move back to a very sort of old and ugly time in our politics.

I think the other thing is, when he talks about redistribution, let`s be honest, we saw a massive redistribution of income and wealth, and it was under George W. Bush. And it was a redistribution from poor working class and middle class people to the uber wealthy. So if there is a redistribution here going on, it is only a correcting of what we saw over the last decade.

OLBERMANN: But that word "reparations," that doesn`t mean correcting. That doesn`t mean, in that context, that means you white people out here are having your money stolen from you for things that happened in 1865. That`s the translation, correct?

HARRIS-LACEWELL: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, look, as someone who teaches race, I tend to not like to use the word "racist" unless I really mean it. It`s not a useful word to just deploy in public conversation. It ends up shutting down folks who want to have real conversation. But that was a racist comment. It was a comment meant specifically for one person, and that is to stoke racial anxiety among those who have an economic interest in the health care bill. In other words, poor, working class and middle class white Americans have an economic interest in this health care bill passing. And so, in order to deter them or confuse them, he uses the word reparations in order to suggest that there is a racial anxiety, and in order to produce a racist outcome. I have no idea of whether or not Limbaugh is racist. I do know that that statement and the goals behind it were racist.

OLBERMANN: These things and the euphemisms behind it, in particular, are nothing new in American politics or American society, obviously. But is the same old stuff? Is this Lester Maddox and his restaurant? Or is this new stuff and somehow more or less dangerous?

HARRIS-LACEWELL: Well, it`s a little bit of both. Part of how racism is showing up in this particular cycle of the American narrative is different. I mean, there`s this sort of, you know, Obama health care, where they have Obama represented as a witch doctor. That`s a new kind of racism. That`s a racism that is indicating sort of President Obama as his African heritage, not just his black American heritage. But other parts of it feel very old, very sort of Confederate versions of racism. But I think the real point is that what race has always done in America is to divide Americans so that they can`t understand what their common interests here are. The point isn`t, you know, that we need white Americans to love black folks. It would be nice, but that`s not really the point. The point is that we need white Americans to love themselves enough to recognize their own economic interests here.

OLBERMANN: Is there any measure, is there any predictability about the effectiveness of something like this, when Limbaugh does it?

HARRIS-LACEWELL: You know, there`s a part of me that says we ought to just stop talking about Limbaugh. You know, that there`s a way that he`s sort of, you know, that little bouncing version of him that you had for a while, that is just sort of, you know, who he is, and that in a certain way, even giving credibility to his comments by talking to them just provides him more space than he deserves. On the other hand, we know that people really do have anxieties in the context of an economic decline. And so this kind of ethnic balkanization is very normal in the context of economic decline. And so he has the ability to really get in there and divide people on their interests.

OLBERMANN: Yeah, and it makes it somewhat mainstream, at least. That`s where the decision has to come down, I think. I don`t know if we`re right or not. Melissa Harris-Lacewell of Princeton, always a pleasure. Thanks for coming in.

HARRIS-LACEWELL: Thank you.