“They look like nappy-headed hos,” Don Imus, host of Imus in the Morning, WFAN-660, snarked to Bernard, his sidekick. Imus was referring to the women of the Rutgers basketball team – the black ones.
Naturally, the Reverend Al Sharpton got wind of this comment – and once he did – and only once he did – did the demagoguery begin, the “crisis” begin, the pitting of “the black community” vs. the “racists” begin.
Make no mistake: Imus is a bigot. He is a racist. His remark was rude and insulting, not to mention quite foolish. Moreover, Imus has had a history of making anti-African American comments on the air – remarks over which he has received some heat – making the latest comment all the more inexplicable.
But in matters such as these – where calls for “therapy,” “treatment” and apology are knee-jerkedly made withut regard to context, to irony, or to reality – it helps to observe that this is a case of more than a white man making racist comments; indeed, quite much more.
The Reverend Al Sharpton invited Imus onto his show several days ago, and during the program, solemnly declared Imus to be a racist. Sharpton further glumly detoned, “It would be awful if you suffered no consequences for this.” (To which Imus replied, “No consequences? Being embarrassed in front of the world isn’t a consequence?”) Naturally, Sharpton called for Imus’ resignation.
Does this pattern of banal bigotry met by faux outrage sound familiar? It should. We’ve seen the steps of the pattern play out with such other bigo-luminaries as Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, Neal Boortz, Tim Hardaway, Isaiah Washington, and General Peter Pace.
There is something particularly nagging, though, about this case because it involves Mr. Sharpton, who until now knew little to nothing about Mr. Imus’ radio program. What does Mr. Sharpton now know? That Imus is a racist. Therefore he is evil and he must be exterminated. Period. To judge people based upon one remark – even a very cruel one – is an act that should be undertaken with care, since we are all imperfect and we are all bigots. If anyone is incapable of displaying the finely honed skills of judgment that allow one to come to an informed conclusion about what consequences should befall a bigot, it is Al Sharpton. Sharpton is every bit the bigot that Imus is. Every bit the racist. But Sharpton, save for the Tawana Brawley/Pagones incident (in which he was found to have defamed Mr. Pagones) has NEVER been successfully called on his bigotry. Why? Because, I suspect, the people who would call on him would believe the calling to be a futile gesture. Why futile? Because Sharpton, like other race demagogues (including white ones) will play the victim card in response to any such attack – he will unilaterally convert a legitimate attack about his bigotry into an attack on “African-Americans.”
Which raises the question: Who elected Al Sharpton as a spokesman for black people, or for people of color (whom he ignores if they are not black) generally? The “black community” (which, like any other community, is a fictional construct that exists in the eye of the beholder)? White people? All of us? I do not know. Anyone who presents himself as the moral representative of a group of people whose main (and in some cases, only) commonality is an immutable characteristic such as race is someone to whom presumptuousness is no stranger. If one is to put that presumptuousness into action, as Sharpton has done, one should at least proceed with care, lest hypocrisy become joined at the hip with the presumptuousness.
Sharpton is not one to proceed with care. He is rude, crude and dismissive of others. He, like so many other race-baiters, thrives on the notion of “anti-blackness” – it is like oxygen to him; take it out of the room and he will suffocate. Anti African-American bigotry does not exist to Mr. Sharpton as an evil to be vanquished so as to improve the socioeconomic status of black people; it exists as an opportunity for Mr. Sharpton to make money, to profess his sanctimony, and to speak for people who may not wish he invokes their name.
Example: recently, Mr. Sharpton stated that the word “nigger” should not be used by white people (he did not elaborate as to what consequences would befall white people if they continued to use the word). But, he noted, black people could call each other “niggers,” as they have done. Perhaps the word does indeed mean something different when used among black people (this assumption presupposes that the term has a fixed definition that is commonly understood by black people). But Mr. Sharpton will not tell is WHAT that different meaning is, of course, because if he did, he would be, in his mind, revealing something about “black culture” that the rest of us do not deserve to hear. He might even be opening himself up to criticism. So, by not revealing the meaning, he gets to lecture white people, speak for black people, while all the while getting to hide the ball as to his true motivation behind why he is carving out the “nigger exception.” Sharpton, this way, gets to claim that he is simultaneously interested in racial harmony and racial categorization at the same time. After all, if he cannot label, categorize and demonize, he is out of a job.
Should Imus resign? I don’t know. I think that suspending him will teach him nothing, in the sense that a 70 year-old bigot will not change his spots – even if he is “suspended” for two weeks, or even if he “apologizes” to the basketball players – a meaningless gesture since he doesn’t really mean it and they really don’t want to hear it and won’t take it to heart, thus rendering such an exercise pointless.
If I were Imus, here is how I would handle it. I would start my next show by stating, “I am a bigot and a racist. I always have been. So is everyone else, including Al Sharpton. My comments were a reflection of that bigotry. To apologize for them is to apologize for my existence. Maybe I should do that. I don’t know. I have no idea whether I should resign, because I do not presume to purport to know what “message” that would send – my guess is that it would send no “message” – at least no productive one – at all. I apologize for offending anyone by my remarks. I shall henceforth try to keep my racist attitudes to myself, but please understand that they will always exist, just as Mr. Sharpton’s will. It is not for him to decide whether I should resign. Perhaps only God can make that judgment. But since he does not speak to me, I will have to leave that decision in the capable hands of my employer, MSNBC. The folks at MSNBC are bigots too, but they are bigots who have power over my career. If they fire me, rest assured that they will do so as a pointless gesture – a concession to “tolerance,” and not because they believe that firing me will change anything about anything. Of course, if you don’t like me, don’t listen to my show. But then, especially those of you who think that I am a racist and are offended by it – you weren’t watching it already, right? Right? I mean, why would you do that, unless you get off on racism, like I do? So that’s the end of my sermon. Whatever happens is fine by me.”
If Imus gave such a speech, the reaction that would ensue would be akin to the reaction that greeted Orson Welles’ radio version of “The War of the Worlds” – one marked by confusion, puzzlement, astonishment, fright, amusement, terror, and most of all, sheer awkwardness.
Maybe that’s what we need in this country – a little more Real awkwardness that we should be forced to deal with, not artificial awkwardness paraded about for our supposed entertainment. We cannot, after all, “deal” with our country’s most pressing problems while we are engaged in nothing but the much less difficult task of manufacturing them.