"Are you a racist?" asks my son.
"Well," my son says thoughtfully, "I have a friend who was listening to a talk show on the radio and he heard someone say you are a racist."
"Well, I'm not."
"But, if you're not," persists the little guy, "why would they call you one on the radio?"
Its like this, kid: Last week, I took WBAL-AM to task for its decision to pick up the Rush Limbaugh syndicated talk show beginning in January. The station claims it made a business decision. Rush Limbaugh's program airs on nearly 600 stations across the country and he reaches over 20 million listeners. He's got a book on the national best-seller list and a hot new television program.
"One of the many goals of WBAL Radio 11 is to be No. 1 in circulation. We want to be Baltimore's most-listened to radio station," wrote Edward C. Kiernan, the station's vice president and general manager, in response to my column. "We believe the addition of Rush Limbaugh will accomplish that goal."
But Mr. Limbaugh espouses an attitude that many here -- blacks and whites -- find deeply offensive. It is not his conservatism. It is the intolerance, if not open contempt, he shows for the process of integration and inclusion.
Mr. Limbaugh refers to civil rights leaders as "chronic whiners" who are training their followers to be "professional victims" looking for a hand-out. He dismisses people's attempts to learn to respect one another as no more than a fad of "political correctness."
While it is true that Mr. Limbaugh raises important questions about the so-called "liberal doctrine" (and no ideas should be beyond debate), his polemics do not encourage intelligent discussion.
Supporters of Mr. Limbaugh contend that he is primarily an entertainer. But blacks, women, Hispanics, Asians, and virtually every other group excluded from the mainstream of this society are not amused. Mr. Limbaugh is a comparatively young man, and apparently he led a sheltered life growing up out there in the Midwest. So he may not be aware that a certain segment of vTC society has always complained that civil rights leaders were chronic whiners, con artists and professional panhandlers who would rather persuade society to give them "for free" what others must work for. Blacks, women, and other excluded groups have fought too long, and too hard, against this attitude to find humor in Mr. Limbaugh's antics.
I might note that one of the ethnic groups -- blacks -- represents about 25 percent of the Greater Baltimore community and 14 percent of WBAL-AM's listening audience.
I wrote that if WBAL-AM were conscious of the concerns of many people in the community it serves -- or if it cared -- it would not have chosen to air this particular conservative -- no matter how popular he may be, no matter what profits his show would bring to the station's owners.
Because I wrote these things, dear lad, someone on the air labeled me a "racist" and a "liberal," which are two of the worst tags you can put on a person these days. (To be called a "liberal" suggests a muddy sentimentality, a mutton-headed idealism, a mulish determination not to face the facts. I am no more a liberal than I am a racist. At least, I am not that kind of liberal.)
"Yeah, dad, but . . ."
Last fall, son, I attended a conference of the handful of black columnists currently writing for daily newspapers in this country. Some are men. Some are women. We cover a wide range of age and experience, and we represent the entire spectrum of political views.
But we found that we had one thing in common: Each of us provokes intense anger, and savage verbal abuse, whenever we raise race as an issue in American life. This is true, even when we mince words -- for instance, when I accuse Mr. Limbaugh of "racial insensitivity" and WBAL-AM of similar "insensitivity" for airing him.
It is a fact of life in these United States, son, that those who combat "racial insensitivity" will find the charge thrown back at them.
"So, why even bother?"
Because, son, we have to. It is a responsibility that we all share, whether we want to or not. And the abuse is simply the price we pay, the toll, for working toward change.