From Imus Onward

Lessons from the latest chapter in America's ongoing obsession with race

The downfall of radio shock jock Don Imus began with a racial and sexual remark no more extreme than much talk radio fare. Now Newsweek is describing it as one of the "chapters in the story of race in America." But what exactly does this chapter say? That bigotry is still rampant in our culture? That bigotry is, commendably, no longer tolerated? That political correctness has run amok?

As the world now knows, while discussing the Rutgers-Tennessee NCAA women's basketball championship game and bantering with his producer, Imus referred to the mostly black Rutgers women's team as "nappy-headed hos." The comment was then picked up by the left-wing website Media Matters for America, and the rest is history. Black activists and feminists began clamoring for Imus's head. Advertisers deserted in droves. And Imus's two-week suspension turned into a firing.

This headline-making saga has left the public divided and confused. Polls show that slightly over half of white Americans approve of Imus's firing, while African-Americans approved in a range from just over 60 percent to nearly three quarters. Even some people with little sympathy for Imus, such as New York Post sportswriter Philip Mushnick (who calls the radio host a "bully"), saw his firing as the height of hypocrisy. After all, one of Imus's chief accusers was the notorious racial demagogue Al Sharpton, perpetrator of the Tawana Brawley rape hoax. Moreover, the language Imus used had been popularized not by white racists but by black rappers.

There's also the question of what is and isn't racism. What is the difference between Imus' racial humor and that of Sascha Baron Cohen's "Borat" character? Some have argued that, while Borat's slurs ridicule bigotry, Imus' slur ridiculed bigotry's victims. A press release from another leftist media watchdog organization, Fairness and Accuracy in Media, painted Imus as a racism-spewing, straightforward bigot. In Time, African-American writer Debra Dickerson wrote that she was "deeply hurt" by his remark, in which she saw "the express purpose of reminding us that we are not, and can never be, beautiful." Yet even some of Imus' harshest detractors, such as Washington Post sports columnist Michael Wilbon, acknowledge that he has offered serious, sympathetic discussion of race in the past—for instance, when interviewing black congressman Harold Ford during his campaign for the U.S. Senate in Tennessee in 2006. It seems likely that if there is a "purpose" behind Imus's abundant use of racial, ethnic, religious and sexual slurs—including references to tennis player Amelie Mauresmo as a "lesbo" and to Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz as a "boner-nosed...beanie-wearing Jewboy"—it is to shock the egalitarian sensibilities of modern American society. There's a reason he was called a shock jock.

Imus made a career out of poking a stick at America's cultural taboos. Perhaps it was unavoidable that he would finally stir up a hornets' nest that would destroy him. It's hard to tell why this incident set off the swarm. Perhaps it was the timing: "Progressives" on the race and gender front may have been eager to move on from the Duke rape case, and reclaim the moral high ground by refocusing attention on black women victimized by white males.

One paradox of Imus's downfall is its political dimension. While his nemesis, Media Matters, targets "conservative misinformation" in the media, Imus is no male Ann Coulter but a maverick liberal Democrat. This no doubt accounts for the support he has received from some media figures, such as New York Times columnist Frank Rich. But in a way, Imus's politics also made him far more vulnerable to charges of bigotry than a Coulter or a Rush Limbaugh. Imus, for all his taboo-tweaking, acknowledges the moral authority of the commandment, "thou shalt not be a bigot." Hence, his apologies, and even his willingness to discuss his transgression with Sharpton—a step that prompted The Weekly Standard to bid him good riddance.

The Imus saga has prompted the inevitable talk of a national conversation about race. In his column, Rich noted that such a conversation, if honest, should also include a discussion of hip-hop lyrics. But there are other, far less-noticed ironies. Rich's colleague Maureen Dowd is one of many Washington elites criticized for condoning Imus' bad behavior by appearing on his show. Some years ago, commenting on Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas's critique of affirmative action, Dowd opined that Thomas had been driven "barking mad" by the racial preferences he himself had received. What's really more racist: a radio shock jock's dumb casual gibe at a group of black women athletes, or Dowd's calculated putdown of a black man who strays from the approved black point of view?

Now that would make for an interesting conversation about race. But don't hold your breath.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor to reason, and blogs at cathyyoung.blogspot.com.

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    ...it is to shock the egalitarian sensibilities of modern American society. There's a reason he was called a shock jock.

    Imus made a career out of poking a stick at America's cultural taboos.

    Exactly. Look at the context. I don't find him to be funny in the least; but I also don't find Howard Stern or Bubba the Love Sponge funny at all. But that doesn't mean I hate them for the things they say on their broadcasts for shock comedy value.

    The nation needs to consider the context of all things before jumping on the "let's burn 'em" bandwagon. Who is reporting the story? What does the person do for a living? Is this a common thing for said person? These questions are important, but overlooked so often.

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