Racing to Judgment
If you wondered whether the issue of race in America was still the awful ghost that haunts us all, the recent fate of Don Imus answered your question.
It was a drama with plenty of villains and precious few heroes.
And it was fascinating to watch.
Who were those heroes and villains?
First, despite what Al Sharpton and Coach Vivian Stringer might dictate to the masses, Imus was not a villain. In one instant he just became too old to play his game, and the jackals at the water hole got him.
No sympathy here. Imus is a millionaire many times over who lived and died by controversial remarks. It was made all the easier because he made the mistake of being as mean off camera to fellow employees as he was to his on-air guests. When he looked to see who had his back, there was no one there.
He also made the mistake of assuming charity work allows you to say or do anything. Wrong.
What is most interesting is that his final jibes were actually a flawed attempt to compliment the Rutgers squad, making them out as the gritty underdogs versus the perennial, well-funded champs from Tennessee.
To make this analogy even more dicey, Imus and his crude and often funny sidekick Bernard McGuirk were trying to weave a reference to Spike Lee’s film “School Daze” into the analogy by referencing the divide that exists in black culture over skin tone and class. The fact that both these guys were actually conversant in Spike Lee’s work showed more social awareness than almost all white men in America.
Nonetheless, it was a difficult dive and a spectacular belly flop.
A contrite apology and suspension were justified. Maybe more. But the forces of sanctimony took over and the real villains emerged.
Both Sharpton and Jesse Jackson realized there was exposure to be had and quickly played their worn guilt cards on the usual white suspects. At the same time Jesse and Al were preparing the Imus jury, they bloviated on the question of why they had not used similar outrage and economic pressure on the media forces that have, over the last two decades, reintroduced racial epithets and misogyny to American pop culture that had long been banished.
Why is it that words we could never say in our house can now be said on every radio station in America? Jesse and Al had plenty of indignation, but no answers, to that question.
Sheepish white media folk were also villains. Despite being regular guests on the Imus circus, they claimed they were unaware that the show was both raunchy and lily white. Many quickly acted as if they no longer knew the man who helped them sell their books.
Few copped to the truth that they loved Imus because he was free of political correctness and a welcome relief from the bland, vapid newsreaders of all colors and gender that dominate the media.
There were more villains. Media magnates of every color, who have made millions reintroducing the very street-slang words Imus uttered, acted appalled.
The president of BET, whose late-night music video lineup is replete with misogyny and self-loathing, acted as shocked and offended as anyone. The guy left one to wonder if only wealthy black men had the right to insult black women and make a profit.
The Rutgers coach, Vivian Stringer, also took to the stage to give a third-rate MLK Day speech that doomed her young charges to an old model: victimhood. At the same time she somehow managed to be more self-aggrandizing than Sharpton and Jackson. She also seemed mindless to the fact that African American athletes dominate college and pro sports. Hard to be the dominant majority and the victim at the same time.
In the midst of all of this, there were also heroes.
There was Barack Obama, who didn’t speechify or victimize himself. He simply said what a good dad should say; that as a father of two girls he was angered. He also said that if Imus worked for him, he would no longer be employed. Bingo.
Essence Carson, the captain of the Rutgers team, was a hero by reacting but not overreacting. In far fewer words than her coach, she communicated her hurt but also her willingness to forgive. She was a young woman who made one hope that a new generation will take over our racial debate.
And finally there was Kansas City Star columnist Jason Whitlock. Whitlock is an African American sportswriter who dared state that the debate over Imus was keeping Black America from facing the real questions.
After all, mused Whitlock, did Imus glorify selling crack cocaine to black women?
Did he celebrate black men shooting each other randomly?
Did Imus suggest that it’s uncool to be a husband and father, or to pursue an education?
This honest and brave writing left me with one thought: If MSNBC is looking to replace Imus with someone bold and thoughtful, who could help us all make sense of our problem, they might consider making a call to Jason Whitlock.
Madison-based television producer John Roach writes this column monthly. Comments? Questions? Write firstname.lastname@example.org.
|Madison Magazine - June 2007|