12/02/2013 01:07 pm ET | Updated Feb 01, 2014

Rush Limbaugh and the Long, Sordid History of Pitting Whites Against Blacks in America

Put down your cup of coffee, I've got something that's really going to shock you. This week Rush Limbaugh race-baited. He sought to inflame white fear and hatred of non-whites. Unbelievable, I know. But it's true. Unfortunately for Rush, the story he presented to his listeners turned out not to be (he fell for a satirical, Onion-style piece posted on a blog, and had to admit on the air that he'd been duped). This kind of race-baiting -- whether relying on blatant falsehoods, deceptively presented facts or gross misinterpretations of reality -- is something Limbaugh has done countless times throughout his career. More broadly, it is a tactic that the white economic elite, starting with the colonial-era slaveocracy, has employed going back to the time before we had even become a country.

But before we get to that history, it's worth going over exactly what happened this week to our erstwhile defender of white people, Mr. Limbaugh. Here's the falsehood he peddled to his listeners on Tuesday:

There's a professor... a liberal professor named Noel Ignatiev, and he is actually teaching -- and I am not making this up -- he is actually teaching and telling white male students to commit suicide to benefit society.

In mid-stream Limbaugh was informed by one of his staffers that the story of this lecture was actually a hoax. But, if the comment boards on the right-wing websites that also picked up the same tale are any indication, right-wingers had no problem believing it was true. And think about the absurd sense of victimhood a white person would have to feel to (a) believe this actually happened, and (b) be concerned that such a sentiment could have any effect on his or her actual life.

This stuff plays into exactly the kind of white identity politics right-wingers like Limbaugh feed into. The right-wing base's political strategy now consists in large part of stoking white fear that the all-powerful minorities (ha!) and their liberal, white, race-traitor allies are going to somehow oppress white people. The practitioners of white identity politics have become experts at playing the victim.

Fear-mongering of course is not limited to the right or to race-baiters, it is as old as the Republic, as Richard Hofstadter explained in his still essential classic essay, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics." Limbaugh, however, has made ginning up race-based anxiety among whites a real specialty of his.

In one of the most egregious examples in his career, on June 4, 2009, Limbaugh offered the following assessment of what Barack Obama and his administration stood for.

The days of them not having any power are over, and they are angry. And they want to use their power as a means of retribution. That's what Obama's about, gang. He's angry, he's gonna cut this country down to size, he's gonna make it pay for all the multicultural mistakes that it has made, its mistreatment of minorities.

Limbaugh is addressing his "gang" and making it very clear about what Obama and "they" are going to do. They are going to take revenge on America. On you. How far is this, really, from calling for actual violence, from calling for a race war?

In doing so, Limbaugh is continuing a long-standing tradition of the elite seeking to divide the common folk of different races. What's so tragic is that it didn't have to be that way. Historian Philip D. Morgan described a time, very early in our country's history, when the "plain white folk" got on quite well with black slaves in the South. Morgan explained that during the first decades of British settlement, blacks and poor whites -- in particular the white indentured servant class -- "associated closely and openly." They lived in proximity to one another, in some cases even sharing living quarters. They ate similar foods and wore similar clothes. Morgan even cites numerous instances of interracial criminal cooperation (something easier to document and quantify than the non-criminal, everyday kind).

Clearly, from the perspective of the Southern planter class, this would not do. The poor whites and blacks could not be permitted to form some kind of class-based alliance that might threaten the power and wealth of the white, slave-owning elite. During the 18th century, the planters made sure to drive a wedge between these two groups, according to Professor Morgan. The key was to make sure that the poor whites identified with their race rather than their class, so that they would see the rich whites -- rather than blacks -- as their natural allies. Slavery shifted at this time from a purely patriarchal system based on raw power to a paternalistic one, one where slaveowners took care of their "children." Why would adults need to be taken care of as if they were children, one might ask? Because they were black, and thus unable to take care of themselves, the white elite declared.

Race-based paternalism set poor whites above blacks based on race. It brought the decline and relatively swift end to white servitude by the early-mid 18th century. Raising poor whites up a notch, throwing them a few crumbs, and indoctrinating them with the racist ideology of black inferiority/white supremacy enabled the planter class to execute the divide and rule strategy to perfection. How else could a relatively tiny minority -- not much more than the top, ahem, 1 percent -- maintain its rule over so many?

Over time, more and more whites became slaveowners, and gained a greater stake in the system. But even the poorest whites -- because of the sense of "dignity" that white supremacy gave them -- became invested in this system. And of course the easiest way to remind common white folk that their interests lay with the white elite was to stoke fears of slave rebellion, the "retribution" (to use Limbaugh's word) blacks would take for the years of oppression whites had visited upon them.

So that's the deeper history, the real context of what Rush is tapping into when he gins up race-based fears among his white audience members. As they've done since slave times, the rich, white elite pits the economically vulnerable whites against blacks (Limbaugh talked about "minorities" above, although other times he got more specific in pitting whites against blacks) to distract them from the fact that the elites are screwing all of them over. And too many fall for this ruse, this talk of of race war designed to distract from the real war in America -- the class warfare being waged from the top.

What the right-wing elites really fear is a multiethnic coalition of all Americans built around the notion of the common good, the idea that a society should operate for the benefit of the great majority of people, not the thin sliver at the top. As I've written, Barack Obama has specifically focused on strengthening the sense of national community -- of shared Americanness -- across racial and cultural lines that is a necessary foundation to the development of such a coalition.

Obama is certainly not the only one doing so. Encouraging that coalition, working to create that kind of cross-ethnic American civic nation, must stand at the core of what all of us progressives are doing.