The Don Imus Remark, in Proper Context

I confess that if my daughter or granddaughter were a member of the Rutgers basketball team, there would probably be no limit to my outrage at them having been called “nappy-headed hos,” as radio talk show host Don Imus did before being fired from both MSNBC and CBS. I would hope, however, that once all things were placed in context, I would view the incident in its proper context.

Imus’s comment was not just about women; it was specifically directed to black women. Thus, it was more about race than sex, and the incident reveals, once again, the explosiveness of the issue of “race.”

We would do well to note that Imus’s show was not some marginal program; “Imus In The Morning” was a mainstream event. It represented daily relief from an otherwise tense life for many Americans. Imus made us laugh at activities of the world, including politics. That is why countless high-profile individuals appeared on his show while others yearned to be on.

Life has become too serious, and because it has, I believe there is general agreement that there is a place in American life for comedy, even irreverent comedy. But, irreverence, particularly given America’s current political atmosphere, often becomes offensive, and the question then becomes: who decides that something is offensive, and what should be the consequences for saying something offensive?

This question underscores why we must proceed with caution as we navigate this period of our history, lest we compound the error that I believe has already been made with the termination of Imus’s shows by MSNBC and CBS.

Every day, for several hours, Imus’s listening audience wanted him to make them laugh. In his satirical, sarcastic, irreverent manner, he fulfilled those expectations. This time, he “crossed the line,” to use his own words. But, there is no handbook of what one can say on a talk radio show. We expect hosts to be spontaneous, creative, entertaining, to “push the envelope” sometimes. As such, when they screw up, we need to cut them a little slack while letting them know that we have no tolerance for comments like “nappy-headed hos.”

It is not prudent for our nation, and especially for the viability of the First Amendment, for us to practice what amounts to a “one strike and you’re out” policy. Say one “offensive” thing to the wrong group and you will be fired. That is essentially what has happened to Don Imus. To be certain, he has said many offensive things, and to a lot of groups, over the years. Yet, he has always said them with the presumption of the acceptance of our culture and within the context of the format of his popular show. “Ho” is not a term originated by Imus. It is a term accepted by a not insignificant share of American society.

Now, it is being suggested that the rules be changed and that Imus be given no grace period to make the adjustment. I consider that unfair. More important, I consider the “one strike” approach to be a serious damper on free speech. Who wants to be irreverent or to say anything that might be even borderline offensive when the consequence might be the loss of your job?

The Al Sharpton Show

Al Sharpton is supposedly a “Christian” preacher. As I watched Al Sharpton drag Imus through the mud, however, on Sharpton’s own radio talk show, repeatedly saying “I want you fi-yed,” I saw a bully, not a Christian. I saw one power-hungry entertainer beating up on another. Imus in defeat was a helpless victim, while Sharpton in victory was the bully. Americans don’t like bullies.

It is my sense that Sharpton overplayed his hand; and while he might have won the battle, he will lose the war. It is my prayer, now that Jesse Jackson, Sharpton and others who called for Imus to be “fired,” have had their wish granted, that they will be judged by the same standard. All of us should monitor every word they say and if they misstep in any way, do unto them as they did unto Imus until they apologize. Jackson never apologized after the charges were dismissed for what he had said about the Duke lacrosse team when they were originally charged with rape. And, being falsely branded as a “rapist” is certainly a far more serious offense than being called a “ho.” With respect to Sharpton, his explanation for not forgiving Imus was lame and disingenuous. But, once again, both Jackson and Sharpton got away with it – at least at that moment.

On a human level, I pray that Don Imus is able to regroup and to redeem himself from this dreadful, but instructive, incident. From all that I have read, the content of his character is good. In his private life, he has served America well. A racially “born again” Imus – given his creative mind – can do much more through a daily show to call attention to the destructiveness of rappers who brand black women as “hos” than a Don Imus forced into premature retirement.

We have learned nothing from the Imus incident that we didn’t know already. This was not some “come to Jesus” moment for MSNBC or CBS or the commercial sponsors. This was an instance in which the influences of money, the reckless pursuit of power, and race, connected; and that is always a dangerous intersection in American life.

I would be delighted if the Imus incident caused us all to make our public discourse less coarse. And, while we are at it, I have two requests. First, to the media and network executives: I want you to know that it is racist for you to presume that black people are so monolithic that you can reduce the sum and substance of all blacks into two personalities – Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. It is racist to presume that black people have “representatives” or “leaders” who speak for them. We don’t.

Finally, to those who want to purify our airwaves and our culture by eliminating offensive language, I remind you that those of us who are “black” and “conservative” ought to be included in this new “Non-offensive Language Bill of Rights.” Being called “Uncle Tom” and the litany of pejorative terms leveled at us is offensive and ought to be stopped. In fact, I am still waiting for an apology from Jesse Jackson for calling me “strange fruit” – not a term of affection for anyone familiar with American history.

Something tells me, however, that I shouldn’t hold my breath for the apology to come.