Saturday, April 14, 2007

On Don Imus’s Dishonor

Published: April 13, 2007


CBS and NBC News took a while to fire the popular radio talk show host Don Imus for calling the young black women on a successful Rutgers University basketball team "some nappy-headed hos," but they did it in the end.

Over a week went by between the insult, at once racist and sexual in its evocation of crinkle-haired whores, and the ouster. Time enough for a number of middle-aged white guys to opine that Imus had been a careless idiot, was contrite and should keep his job.

Among them were two prominent Republican candidates for the presidency, Senator John McCain of Arizona and Rudolph Giuliani, the former New York mayor. They were joined by some hedge-our-bets New York publishers for whom the now defunct "Imus in the Morning" show sold books.

Some people never get it. Imus contended he'd made "a stupid, idiotic mistake in a comedy context." But race is still the explosive dividing line of American society; the comedy stops where denigration and stereotyping begin. Slavery and segregation did not happen somewhere else. They happened here.

Their legacy, refracted down the years despite every effort to right wrongs, is still apparent in statistics that illustrate where black anger comes from and why blacks and whites see different Americas.

Close to 25 percent of African-Americans live in poverty, compared with 8.6 percent of whites. By the time they reach their mid-30s, 60 percent of black high school dropouts are either prisoners or ex-cons.

Among white children, just over 1 percent have imprisoned fathers, while almost 10 percent of black kids have dads among the 2.2 million Americans behind bars. Blacks go to prison eight times as often as whites.

C. Vivian Stringer, the coach of the team and an African-American, told me that one of the "young ladies" playing for the Scarlet Knights of Rutgers lost her father in third grade and her mother more recently to cancer. The eight black players came from places and backgrounds ranging from Utah to small-town New Jersey.

To varying degrees, they fought their way against the odds to college and that National Collegiate Athletic Association women's basketball championship game. It was then that Imus chose to indulge his inner, back-to-the-plantation bigot.

"What he said was just outrageous, although I take no pleasure in his dismissal," Stringer said. "We have to learn from what happened to Imus."

Lesson One might be that when it comes to race in America, saying sorry is not enough. The legacy is too onerous, the pain too enduring, for contrition to be worth much.

Taking young black women whose achievement makes them powerful potential role models and casting them as salable scum illustrates the very specters that America has labored to banish over the past decades. To do that from a position of power is unconscionable.

"These are women whose strength and prowess and role-model teamwork represent inspiring values, and to see them denigrated in that way is egregious," said Donna Orender, the president of the Women's National Basketball Association. "It is important that the advertising and listening communities have spoken."

The speed with which prominent companies pulled ads from a show Imus had built over 30 years was indeed striking. Many people spoke out quickly, too, reflecting changes in American society to which some part of Imus was apparently immune.

As Etan Thomas, a center for the Washington Wizards basketball team, commented to me in an e-mail, "I do know that racist people make racist comments."

I know that, too, from repeated exposure at an impressionable age to apartheid South Africa. There, I watched blacks bathing in filthy harbors while whites sunned themselves on sandy beaches; wandered by mistake into enough black-only rail carriages or public toilets to see life on the other side; and endured more than one middle-aged, the-worse-for-booze white businessman inquiring whether I could conceive of being attracted to a black woman.

The prevailing views, once the alcohol had kicked in, and often before, made even Imus's little outburst seem mild. Apartheid, like slavery, cast the black as a lower species.

Black-ruled South Africa is now working to undo the damage of all that. It is a slow process, but, thanks to Nelson Mandela, not a bloody one. White-dominated America is also trying to unravel long shadows cast by racism. The date of Imus's outburst, April 4, was the same as that of the killing of Martin Luther King Jr.

Perhaps such coincidences are unimportant. Or perhaps they should prompt intense reflection.

Another coincidence is that the Imus affair came at the same time as another steamy fracas involving college and sport, race and class, reached its conclusion.

This was the Duke lacrosse team affair, in which an African-American woman with a criminal record from the historically black North Carolina Central University accused three white men from the elite Duke University of raping her after she had been hired to strip at a party.

This week all the charges against the students were dismissed. But that only happened after the principle that anyone is innocent until proved guilty appeared to fall by the wayside in a welter of outrage against the white students led by a district attorney facing a close election in an area with a significant black vote.

These two stories share a common thread: Truth suffers when race becomes a distorting lens. Imus's bigotry and the zeal of Michael Nifong, the prosecutor who has also apologized, are two sides of the most anguished legacy of U.S. history.

Five members of Stringer's basketball team were freshmen. She said they came to her with "braces on their teeth, eyes real wide and high-school giggles." They were hesitant, so she told them "to be black or white but never gray, don't sit on the fence, make a decision, move." And they went all the way to the final.

"These young ladies have gone from caterpillar to butterfly," she said. Words worth contemplating if never-gray America is to fly higher.