In the wake of the Sandra Fluke vs. Rush Limbaugh media frenzy, we’ve begun to ask some very interesting questions. On Aljazeera’s Listening Post, for instance, one viewer noted that while pressuring advertisers to disassociate themselves from Limbaugh was a smart move by Fluke’s supporters, we have to ask if activism through advertising is the best strategy. What about corporate protests? Ad power could be used because a company dislikes commentary about corporate greed. Such queries popping up over the Fluke-Limbaugh controversy have brought a question to my mind: What if Sandra Fluke were a woman of color?
If Fluke were a woman of color would she have been asked to speak in the first place?
Certainly women of color have a sizeable stake in the contraception debate. As writers Arons and Panzy noted recently, “women of color experience much higher unintended pregnancy rates than their white counterparts: Black women are three times as likely as white women to experience an unintended pregnancy; Latinas are twice as likely. This new regulation guaranteeing access to no-cost contraception will give women of color a much-needed chance to close these gaps.” Obviously, Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke is better equipped to discuss female contraception than, say, a panel of men who can’t get pregnant. But what if she weren’t white and couldn’t afford post-secondary education?
While we don’t know for certain why her voice was chosen as the alternative to the all-male panel, a report in Time claims she was picked because of the way she spoke at the National Press Club, a professional organization where membership can cost between $200 and $900. Membership is also based on the applicant’s "professional status." My guess is few of the low-income minorities most in need of reproductive healthcare would be found via a search through National Press Club video clips. This is not because they can’t speak as eloquently as Sandra Fluke but because they’ve been denied access to the privilege that comes from being able to afford membership fees and gain experience in the professional realm.
If Fluke were a woman of color, would Rush Limbaugh have reacted in the same way?
It’s likely that Limbaugh would have been even nastier if Fluke weren’t who she is. As Jonathan Zimmerman noted in The Christian Science Monitor recently, Limbaugh's statement banked on a well established double standard: "female promiscuity was always worse than the male kind." So, Limbaugh was on safe ground with his male listeners who find it appalling that any woman would have sex and lots of it.
It's arguable that Limbaugh would be in even friendlier territory by observing that a nonwhite female was choosing to have as much sex as she wanted due to a lower risk of pregnancy. For ages, nonwhite women have been stereotyped as highly sexualized, so it wouldn’t be too challenging for the radio host to convince his audience that Fluke was a slut if she were black. In that case, Limbaugh could have persuaded listeners using the all-too-familiar caricature of the promiscuous Jezebel.
On the other hand, Limbaugh’s been troubled by accusations of racism in the past. His “get the bone out of your nose and call me back” response to a woman who phoned in to his show has drawn some heat. His comment that the “NFL all too often looks like a game between the Bloods and the Crips without any weapons” wasn’t popular with many people either. He even called President Obama "The Magic Negro." Perhaps if Fluke were an African American, attacking her would have been off limits because Limbaugh wouldn’t have wanted to add another quote to the already lengthy list. However, given his track record and continued popularity, it doesn’t seem like he’s too worried about censoring his racist statements.
If Fluke were a woman of color, would the GOP candidates have responded any differently to Limbaugh's remarks?
It's worth noting that none of the GOP contenders defended Fluke or her healthcare rights. They didn't say that women shouldn't be labeled "sluts" for having sex or that women who want insurance coverage for reproductive health care aren't "prostitutes." They didn't point out that married women also use birth control. Instead, here's how they reacted:
All Mitt Romney would say is,"It's not the language I would have used." So, can we assume that if Limbaugh had said Fluke was "regularly sexually active" instead of a "slut" that Romney would have agreed with his analysis? Romney's safe response allowed him to sidestep any support for or opposition to Limbaugh. If Fluke were Native or African American, Romney probably still would have played it safe to avoid reminding voters of his Mormon roots. Romney's been asked to renounce Mormonism by the co-chair of Santorum's campaign on the basis that his religion has a history of racism. So far in this primary race, it seems that his religion is not a subject Romney wants his constituents to worry about or remember.
Rick Santorum's reply to Limbaugh implied that his statements were what we've come to expect because "you know, an entertainer can be absurd." Of course, when it's Bill Maher, Santorum has higher expectations. Again we see a Republican carefully evade criticism of the right's favorite radio host.
Because Santorum previously caught heat for alluding to the author of The Bell Curve -- a text which claims black people are genetically inferior to white people -- in the current contraception debate, he would have been smart to avoid criticizing Limbaugh if Fluke's skin were another color.
Another candidate who wouldn't gain from denouncing Limbaugh is Newt Gingrich. While Speaker of the House, he made Limbaugh an honorary member of Congress. Going against his old pal no matter who was attacked wouldn't lend Gingrich the air of consistency constituents like to see in a presidential candidate. So, in response to questions about Limbaugh's comments, Gingrich relied on what's become his favorite tactic: changing the subject by berating the "elite media." Like his response to questions about his desire for an "open marriage" during the debates, he indicated that the media should have better topics to report on like "the trillion dollar deficit" and "rising gas prices."
I wonder if Gingrich would have left the change-the-subject technique behind if Fluke weren't a white woman. Instead, he may have shrugged his shoulders and said Fluke's desire for handouts is what typically comes of having a Foodstamp President.
Ron Paul's perspective was that Limbaugh used "very crude language," and he noted that "it's in [Limbaugh's] best interest" to lambast Fluke in such volatile terms because that's why he remains a popular radio personality. On the other hand, Paul thought that's why Limbaugh apologized, not out of sincere regret but because "it was the bottom line he was concerned about."
Like Romney, Paul's response focused on Limbaugh's language rather than the subject of his statements. If Fluke's race were different, Paul might have been less eager to disparage Limbaugh's apology since he's been haunted by the opinions forwarded in newsletters he published in the 1990s, which reveal opinions of African Americans that are not too far off from Gringrich's.
With our current economic climate in mind, the GOP candidates could have noted how advantageous it is for businesses to insure women in need of birth control pills. Unfortunately, they all missed an opportunity to defend Fluke and showcase their financial savvy.
If Fluke were a woman of color, would the backlash against Limbaugh’s statements have been as severe?
Most reasonable people would have seen Limbaugh’s attacks as ridiculous, idiotic, and insulting to all women and wouldn’t be afraid to say so. But Fluke’s supporters did more than just speak out about language that, from this radio personality, isn’t all that surprising. They were able to pressure institutions like AOL and Allstate to pull advertising from a popular show – a show they’d been happy to use to promote their ads despite previous inflammatory statements from its host.
Where were all the angry voices when Shirley Sherrod was wrongly accused of racism and Rush Limbaugh celebrated the late Andrew Breitbart's misleading video? Sherrod was not subjected to name-calling. Instead, she was forced to resign from the USDA and was condemned by the NAACP. It didn't take long to discover that the accusations of racism were a lie, but Sherrod was not reinstated nor did Limbaugh offer an apology, though she eventually got one from President Obama.
In a recent op-ed, Fluke described some of her supporters as "young women of all income levels, races, classes, and ethnicities who need access to contraception to control their reproduction, pursue their education and career goals, and prevent unintended pregnancy. And they will not be silenced." While Fluke's message is inspirational and her continued activism on the issue of access to contraception is commendable, Americans have yet to face a hard truth. There are those in the U.S. who are silenced because of their ethnicity, race, and socioeconomic status and are offered a limited level of support even though their plight is often more severe.
A study published in Contraception in September 2011 found that women who experienced racial discrimination were less likely to use effective means of contraception; however, once financial and structural barriers were removed, their use of contraception that assured better protection from pregnancy increased. In light of this study, it seems that those who face the most discrimination are at a higher risk of losing access to quality reproductive healthcare; therefore, they have a need of increased defense. If Fluke had been a woman likely to experience racial discrimination, would she have recieved the same support? I hope so.
When an all-male panel gathered to discuss the Blunt Amendment, the controversy was over the fact that men were asked to speak on behalf of women. What seems to be at the heart of the question I began with is that those who have the most to lose from our politicians’ poor judgments often are not the representatives heard by our Congress. To truly care for our nation’s people, shouldn’t our government begin by hearing from those who are most in need of help?
Who do you think should have access?
Kossler, Karla et al. (2011). "Percieved Racial, Socioeconomic, and Gender Discrimination and its Impact on Contraceptive Choice." Contraception. 84. 273-279.