Our 'Don Imus' Moment
Thank you, Don Imus. Thank you for giving us one more shot at getting serious with each other about race in America.
Now that the spectacular fall of the once-invincible shock-radio icon is complete, Americaand that includes the American churchneeds to sit down for a national rap session on the meaning of it all.
In the classic 1993 film Groundhog Day, Bill Murray plays an egocentric TV weatherman who keeps reliving the same, sorry day over and over again until he finally gets over himself and gets it right. I sometimes feel we're trapped in an unrelenting Groundhog Day of cynical behavior when it comes to race relations in this country. We go from one racial flare-up to another, replete with national outrage, around-the-clock media coverage, high-profile public apologies, the threat of boycotts, and Internet message boards teeming with fiery opinions. But at the end of the day, it's back to February 2.
We've now heard Don Imus's racially charged quip about the Rutgers women's basketball team ad nauseam. "That's some nappy-headed hos," he scoffed on his morning show. His producer, Bernard McGuirk, deepened the racial acrimony when he added that Rutgers' Scarlet Knights playing Tennessee's Lady Vols was like watching "the Jigaboos versus the Wannabes." By the time CBS and MSNBC meted out their initial two-week suspension to Imus nearly a week later, one had the sense that his fate was sealed. The eruption of coverage by cable news, YouTube, and activist bloggers, not to mention the old-school tactics of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, was simply too much.
After the smoke clears
In some ways, the most disturbing thing about the Imus fiasco was not his offhanded use of racist and sexist language to describe a group of high-achieving young women. Imus was renowned for slinging casual insults at African Americans, women, Latinos, Jews, Dick Cheney. Everyone was fair game on his watch.
Truth be told, Imus was just one of many talk-radio hosts who push the envelope with racialized, politically incorrect bluster. Sometimes it seems as if talk radio is the last bastion of cranky, narrow-minded white men. Whether it's wrapped in the cloak of right-wing indignation or passionate sports talk, most local radio markets feature one or two outrageous personas that specialize in culturally insensitive shtick. And, to be fair, many black radio programs feature their own brand of racially polarizing chatter. Racist impudence flows from all directions. One wonders if they're all operating with a bit more caution in this post-Imus era.
Beyond the racism and sexism, for me the truly disturbing thing about the Imus affair is that, after numerous national conversations about Rodney King, O. J. Simpson, gangsta rap, Michael Richards, Barack Obama, and any number of Chris Rock comedy bits, we're still stuck in the same gear when it comes to addressing race relations. A race bomb goes off, and we're all appropriately shocked. But after the smoke clears, we're still very much a divided nation. Just check the blogs and message boards after the latest racial incident. Black commentators breathlessly declare: "See, I told you so! Racism is alive and well." Followed by the typical white rejoinder: "How come blacks can use certain words but a white person can't? There's a double standard!"
And so goes our disconnect. Nearly four decades after the civil rights movement, one would think we'd be better equipped to communicate frankly about these issues. We're not.
Even seemingly benign incidents point to our racial separation. Last year, following the death of R&B singer Gerald Levert, the Cleveland Plain Dealer received two types of letters regarding its extensive reporting on the Cleveland native's untimely passing: complimentary messages from African American readers thanking the paper for its thorough coverage of a beloved hometown son, and semi-critical letters from white readers who wondered why the paper had given so much ink to a singer they had never heard of. Blacks celebrated him as a hero; whites didn't even have him on their radar. Noting the disparity in reactions, Plain Dealer columnist Ted Diadiun wrote that it was "a powerful reminder that racial harmony and racial understanding can be two vastly different things." We could all work a little harder on the understanding side, he concluded.