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Is This America in 2007?

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AIX-EN-PROVENCE, France – A few months ago, while visiting French acquaintances, I was surprised at how strenuously I had to defend the United States against their belief that we remain a thoroughly racist society. 

“We have plenty of problems,” I told my hosts. “No question racism has been high on the list. But I sense that things are genuinely changing. My state – Massachusetts – elected its first black governor. My city – Boston – elected a black woman as sheriff. And Barak Obama is one of the top candidates for president. These are just a few signs of change.”

I felt pretty good about my defense, even in stilted French. You see, I believed it. Now I’m not so sure.

That Don Imus gets all of a two-week suspension – and not an immediate one at that -- for calling a championship-level, largely black, college women’s basketball team “a bunch of nappy-headed hos” is disgusting.


That the likes of CNN’s political commentator Jeff Greenfield, comedian Bill Maher and former Jimmy Carter aide Hamilton Jordan all apparently just shrugged off Imus' remark and kept scheduled appearances on his show, as the New York Times reports they did, is incomprehensible.


The same article reported that Sen. John McCain, whom Imus supports, was quick to come to Imus’ defense, saying he’d appear on the shock jock’s show again because he “believes in redemption.”  Are there any limits, senator, to simply saying, “I’m sorry?"


Just what does all this say about America today? 


Perhaps you don’t have to be French to realize that racism remains unvanquished in the United States, at least if the racist is white, male and making lots of money for major corporations as Don Imus is. Stop and consider for a moment. Can you imagine what would happen if any black man, a sportscaster, a radio jock, were to offhandedly refer to an all-white, college cheerleading squad – please forgive my language here; it’s to make a point – as a bunch of “dumb blonde cunts?” 


He’d likely be physically assaulted. He’d certainly lose his job, not get a two-week vacation.


We can’t begin to be a truly egalitarian society when crass, vulgar shock jocks are allowed to hide behind their crassness, behind their vulgarity, to issue overtly racist, sexist remarks with impunity against a team of young women who had done nothing more than play superb basketball and defy the oddsmakers by making their way to the NCAA Women’s finals.


 I don’t care if Imus is making CBS radio and MSNBC oodles of money. Let him find another line of work.


: “These young ladies before you are valedictorians, future doctors, musical prodigies,” the team’s coach, C. Vivian Stringer, said at a nationally televised press conference decrying Imus utterly gratuitous character assassination.  She continued, “(these) racist and sexist remarks … are deplorable, despicable .. and unconscionable.”


If the likes of McCain, Jordan, Greenfield and Maher – white males across the political spectrum – can’t see that, if they don’t see enough problem in Imus’ words to end their association with him, and if the corporations that put on Imus’ show don’t feel enough pressure to end it, then in America, in the year 2007, Imus’ words, for many Americans, are not unconscionable.  They are acceptable.


And for that, we can all share some part of the blame.

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Jerry Lanson teaches journalism at Emerson College in Boston. He's been a newspaper reporter, columnist, writing coach and editor. His latest book, "Writing for Others, Writing for Ourselves," was published in January by Rowman & Littlefield.
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