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An ‘uppity’ outrage

Posted: December 1, 2011 10:56 a.m.
Updated: December 2, 2011 5:00 a.m.

I don't know whose idea it was to send First Lady Michelle Obama to a NASCAR race. But the reaction offers a timely lesson in political correctness, a regime that used to be known simply as good manners.

Thanks to conservative radio star Rush Limbaugh, the NASCAR affair has spawned a blamestorm in the blogosphere over whether anyone, especially liberals, should be offended by a word with a wicked racial history: "uppity."

The controversy began when the first lady and Jill Biden, wife of the vice president, were booed and jeered -- loudly enough for television microphones to pick up -- at last Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup finale at the Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida.

Many, including me, were predictably outraged, especially since the women were there with a group of children to promote Joining Forces, an initiative to support military families.

Yet I was not shocked. A peculiar mob psychology at sporting events makes the jeering of politicians "as American as apple pie," as ABC News reporter Jake Tapper observed in a later report. He included video clips of President Barack Obama, President George W. Bush and Sarah Palin, each getting booed.

And, as much as NASCAR officials have tried mightily to expand their famously Southern, white, male and politically conservative fan base, it still sits a long way from Obama Country. In 2004, for example, an impressive list of the sport's top drivers publicly endorsed President George W. Bush, who received an enthusiastic reception that year at a race in Daytona.

Those demographics only pepped up radio foghorn Rush Limbaugh, whose fan base is about as conservative, white and male as NASCAR's, to throw more salt in the wounds. He vigorously defended the booing fans on his radio show the next day for expressing their resentment at "paying millions of dollars" for the First Family's vacations.

Somehow, I don't think the White House travel budget was on their minds.

Far be it from Rush to miss a chance to take a cheap shot at this first lady. Last February, he went personal in attacking her campaign against childhood obesity with the observation, "It doesn't look like Michelle Obama follows her own nutritionary, dietary advice." Ha! Look who's talking.

But this time it was reports of the first lady traveling occasionally on a separate plane from her husband that lit Limbaugh's fuse. "NASCAR people understand that's a little bit of a waste," he said. "They understand it is a little bit of uppity-ism."

There's the word. Dictionaries define the word as "arrogant," "presumptuous" and "putting on airs of superiority." But it also has strong connotations in this country's cultural history as a description for blacks who, in the view of white society, don't know their place.

The word has popped up before in the Obamas' lives. During the presidential campaign in September 2008 Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, a Georgia Republican, touched off a firestorm by saying the Obamas looked to him as though "they're a member of an elitist class ... that thinks that they're uppity." Westmoreland later defended himself in a revealing public statement. He had "never heard that term used in a racially derogatory sense," he said, in the mill village where he grew up. For a Georgia native of his years, a lot of folks found that hard to believe.

After all, his fellow Georgian Clarence Thomas fully understood the power of that word in 1991 when he denounced attacks from liberal critics during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings. "It is the high-tech lynching for uppity blacks," he said, "and it is the message that unless you kowtow to an old order this is what will happen to you."

Indeed, as Republican pollster Frank Luntz wrote in his instructive book, "Words That Work," it is not what you say that counts, it's what others hear. In the old order of America's racial culture, "uppity" would be heard as describing someone who did not know their place. Today, Limbaugh and Westmoreland want you to hear a reverse-snob's variation: Somebody who thinks they're better than you.

Either way, it is a slur. It resonates with conservative resentments. Its racial connotations only give it, in some ears, a little extra zing.

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