My exposure to Don Imus is limited to snippets of several programs, always as a captive audience as when I was in a taxi and the driver was tuned in. These experiences did not leave me wanting more, although now that the feeding frenzy off his apparently shattered career and reputation has subsided because there’s little left to feed off, several notables have declared that they appeared on his program and that it had redeeming value.
Broadcasting is infested by a huge excess of what is offensive and silly and shock jocks are but one zone of this infestation. The sewage reaps enormous profits for the media companies that air the stuff and it is beneficial, as well, to corporate sponsors. Imus’ comment about the Rutgers women’s basketball team was crude, sexist, racist and inexcusable. It was no more crude or bigoted than certain of his other exercises in ethnic disparagement. Of course, his equal opportunity offensiveness does not get him off the hook.
There seems to be an unwritten rule that distinguishes between inappropriate racial comments and inappropriate comments directed at religious and ethnic groups. The latter may evoke an occasional slap on the wrist; more often, there is a free pass. When Blacks are disparaged, it is off to the guillotine, the sentence invariably preceded by acts and words of penance, including contrition before the low ethical altar of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, both of whom are experts on bigoted expressions.
Senator Trent Lott was inordinately punished for foolish remarks about Senator Strom Thurmond. Michael Richards of Seinfeld fame got into deep trouble for his racist nightclub rant, assorted sports figures and announcers have been severely punished for allegedly racist statements and these and much else point to a double standard. Imus was not removed or even censored for his frequent disparagement of the Catholic Church, nor for the following anti-Semitic tidbit, in which referring to a previous program, he remembered “how the Jewish management at whatever, whoever we work for, CBS, or whatever it is, were bitching at me…. I tried to put it in terms that these money-grubbing bastards could understand.”
This strikes me as at least as offensive as the Rutgers crudity. Nor have people been much exercised over strongly anti-Semitic material in the Rutgers student newspaper. Why are defenders against ethnic disparagement less exercised when Pat Buchanan goes to town against Jews or any other group on his long hate list? Why is there so little concern about the spreading xenophobia expressed nearly daily by Lou Dobbs on CNN? What about Ann Coulter, the darling of right-wing loonies? The primary test of the consequences of ethnic disparagement should be whether it is a) calculated and b) likely to provoke prejudice and incite toward group hatred. By this measure, Imus should not be banned and Buchanan should.
The explanation for the double standard may be that our intolerance of racial offensiveness is a way of atoning for our long tolerance of racism and worse crimes against Blacks, as well as an attempt to combat the significant strands of racism that remain. It is also true that disparagement of Blacks, even when it is minor, is likely to be magnified because Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are always ready to be exploitative and the media are always ready to accommodate them. They are the turn-to guys for verbal emissions trumpeting the charge that once more Blacks are victims. That is one reason why the Duke lacrosse fiction spun out of control.
For all of his failings, I feel sorry for Jesse Jackson because he has become a cartoonish caricature of what he once was, a pathetic figure who trots out to do his tired act. Sharpton is far more effective and far more dangerous. It is easier to count the ways that Robert Browning loved Elizabeth than it is to count the ways that Sharpton has traduced ethics and decency. Yet, he is perhaps the leading spokesman for Black America, a deficit for Blacks that transcends in its malevolent consequences by a great margin the damage resulting from the Imuses of America.
If there is a need to combat media-based racism, a good starting point are the sitcoms and movies that portray Blacks in a negative manner. Then there are the foul-mouthed comedians. Most critically, there is hip-hop and rap music that promote guns and violence, specifically including against women, and just about every major social pathology that afflicts American life. It isn’t slavery alone and its continuing legacy in the form of racism that results in the ongoing destruction of Black families, that is responsible for so much violence of Blacks against Blacks, that robs Black children of equal educational opportunity and robs them, as well, of the hopes and dreams and light that education may bring.
There is nothing more racist today in American life than the trash that the media companies and Black performers market to Black audiences. As Bob Herbert just put it in the Times, “gansta rappers…have spent years encouraging black people to see themselves as (the “N” word) and women as whores.” What is the message being sent to Black youth by Black performers dressed as slobs who make vulgar gestures as they mouth guttural sounds?
So far as I know, Al and Jesse haven’t campaigned against the internal Black racism that impels Black youth to self-destruction. Bill Cosby has, but he has had little impact, I think because young Blacks don’t pay attention to him and therefore the media companies and corporations that target young Black audiences do not pay attention either.
This form of racism directed specifically at Blacks is not benign. Its impact is evident in the statistics of Black life. There is therefore a second double standard when we ignore how Blacks are being harmed by Black self-disparagement.