Skin Deep

Talk-show hosts who tackle ethnic issues are often accused of racism. Should they be?

With that in mind, Rosen pledges not to shy away from censuring Obama when he thinks it's necessary even if some listeners may interpret his comments as racist. After all, he points out, "I've also criticized some things George Bush has said, and I don't think that makes me anti-Texas. It doesn't make me a Tex-ist."

For his part, Caplis has gotten his head handed to him by people on both sides of the racial divide. He's less doctrinaire about immigration than Boyles or Rosen, and whenever he voices his conviction that "most illegal immigrants should be given a chance to stay here if America can put them to work," he's soon inundated by what he describes as "racist nut" e-mail, the majority of it far less erudite than the stuff from the pro-Obama crowd. "There are a lot of misspelled words, and the grammar isn't very good," he reports. But when he harps on Obama, he's fingered as a minority-hater, not a minority-lover, by a different segment of his audience.

Even so, he refuses to let the prospect of more racism claims alter the way he does business. During a show a few weeks back, he described a specific Obama policy as "spooky" — a problematic turn of phrase given that "spook" is a slur against African-Americans, albeit one that's no longer in common usage. When this is brought to his attention, Caplis concedes that he has a distant memory of "spook" having once had an offensive meaning in certain contexts, but he maintains, credibly, that he didn't mean to and would never deploy it in that way. At the same time, however, he refuses to retire it from his Obama-bashing lexicon.

"It's a word I use pretty regularly when it comes to describing lots of other scary liberals and their wacky ideas," Caplis says. "I've used it to describe John Kerry, Hillary Clinton and Joan Fitz-Gerald locally, and I think it's a very accurate and fitting way to bring home just how frightening some of these liberals are, including, right now at the top of the list, Barack Obama. So I'll use it to describe him that way again" — not out of obstinacy, but because "I don't treat people differently because of their race one way or the other."

To put it another way, Caplis believes that in sticking by "spooky," he's striking a blow for racial equality. It's an interesting theory — but one that probably won't put a stop to those nasty e-mails.

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