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.
Don Imus says he's not a racist. Though his track record of mean-spirited, on-air behavior suggests otherwise, I believe we should take him at his word. What he does now, away from the platform of a national radio show, will bear out the genuineness of his claim. "Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks," said Jesus (Matt. 12:34). What Don Imus needswhat we all needis a heart change.
'It's not just Mr. Imus'
As an African American Christian, I believe in the importance of forgiveness and reconciliation. After comedian Michael Richards went off on his infamous racial rant, I surprised many of my friends when I suggested in an earlier CT article that the best response was not to castigate Richards, as many were eager to do, but to accept his apology and allow him a shot at redemption. Rather than exiling him from meaningful participation in the human race, why not use his mistake as an opportunity to speak forthrightly about those things that keep us apart? Jesus responded to hate with love. His Spirit, no doubt, influenced the words of Martin Luther King Jr. when the late civil rights leader said, "Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that." What's needed today, on so many fronts, is that kind of attitude.
Racism is a sin. And sin, despite our best efforts, continues to dog us. Without honesty, without grace, without vulnerability, without humility, without the spirit of Christ from all sides, we cannot rise above our present dysfunction.
What's needed is the same kind of attitude exhibited by the Christian organization Youth Specialties (an arm of Zondervan Publishing) when earlier this year it was called on the carpet about a racially insensitive comedic skit found in one of its books. The skit featured a stereotypical and ultimately racist portrayal of Asian Americans. After having it called to their attention, Mark Oestreicher, the president of Youth Specialties, immediately issued a heartfelt public apology. "This [error], while we might not want to admit it, reveals a systematic racism," Oestreicher said. "And it's one that I am committed to addressing, in myself (first), and in our organization." But it didn't stop there. At great financial cost, Zondervan and Youth Specialties also recalled every copy of the offensive book, revised and republished it, and offered to replace purchased copies with the re-released version. Many in the Christian community recognized this extraordinary gesture as a model of true repentance and reconciliation.
What's needed is the attitude displayed by the Rutgers basketball players who, after meeting with Imus, released a statement that read, in part:
We, the Rutgers University Scarlet Knight basketball team, accept accept Mr. Imus's apology, and we are in the process of forgiving. [His] comments are indicative of greater ills in our culture. It is not just Mr. Imus, and we hope that this will be and serve as a catalyst for change. Let us continue to work hard together to make this world a better place.
The young women of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights recognize the importance of using this latest racial scandal as an opportunity for deeper understanding, deeper truth. Don Imus's unfortunate words could be our chance to finally move on to February 3.
Edward Gilbreath is the author of Reconciliation Blues: A Black Evangelical's Inside View of White Christianity and an editor-at-large for Christianity Today magazine.
Copyright © 2007 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Gilbreath's recent articles for Christianity Today include:
Exit Interviews | Why blacks are leaving evangelical ministries. (January 15, 2007)
Kramer's Sinsand Ours | What society and the church can learn from comedian Michael Richards's racial tirade. (November 29, 2006)
High-Impact Leader and Shaker | Harry Jackson says it's time for a new civil rights movement and a new black church. (October 27, 2006)
The New York Times has a special section on Don Imus, whose show has been cancelled.
Other Christianity Today articles on race and reconciliation include:
Behold, the Global Church | It's time we figured out how to talk--and listen--to one another. (November 17, 2006)
Catching Up with a Dream | Evangelicals and Race 30 Years After the Death of Martin Luther King, Jr. By Edward Gilbreath (March 2, 1998)
CT Classic: Catching Up with a Dream (Part 2) | Church as Conscience (January 1, 2000)
CT Classic: Catching Up with a Dream (Part 3) | Just Not Getting It (January 1, 2000)
We Can Overcome | A CT forum examines the subtle nature of the church's racial divisionand offers hope. (October 2, 2000)
Divided by Faith? | A recent study argues that American evangelicals cannot foster genuine racial reconciliation. Is our theology to blame? (October 2, 2000)
Matters of Opinion: Racial Reconciliation: After the Hugs, What? | The next step for racial reconciliation will be harder. February 3, 1997)
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