It is hard for any sentient being to have missed the recent furor over the firing of Don Imus. His use of “nappy-headed ho” as a synonym for “black woman” was the straw that broke the camel’s back. In a sense it is not surprising he said something so offensive. After all, this is the same man who calls Arabs “rag heads” and confused PBS anchor Gwen Ifil with a cleaning lady. In his career, Don Imus has gone so far across the line that it would take a high powered telescope to see it any more.
There are some who feel that Imus had his right to free speech abridged when he was fired. This is absolutely false. Imus worked for private advertisers, who have a right to regulate the content they air. After all these companies realized that keeping Imus could really hurt their efforts to market to the millions of nappy-headed hos out there (or for that matter people who have any sense of decency). Simply put, they are fully within their rights to rid themselves of something which hurts their ability to do business. I could understand the free speech argument if the federal government had come and clapped Imus in irons and flown him to Guantanamo Bay for making his remarks, but alas this is not the case.
Yet, as much as I detest Imus and the comments he made, I cannot help sensing a gnawing hypocrisy on the part of the advertisers who did drop him. Some of these same companies are the ones who profit by selling self-hating, misogynist rap lyrics every bit as harmful as the comments Imus made. This isn’t an attack on all hip hop by any means. I happen to believe that rap is just as legitimate as any other music genre, and that plenty of rappers have good music and convey meaningful messages. But that’s precisely the problem. We never hear about those rappers since giant corporations only advertise the worst sorts of rap to pander to the lowest common denominator and make the most money. If we are willing to hold Imus accountable for his comments, it’s only fair to hold companies accountable for the content they sell to children.
Furthermore, it seems awfully strange that these companies chose this occasion to pull their support. They trumpet their decency as their justification for withdrawing their ads. Yet I wonder, where exactly was this decency and righteous anger when Imus made sexist comments against Contessa Brewer, or when he demeaned a black New York Times sports columnist as a “quota hire?” The answer is simple. There wasn’t a big enough uproar, and he made them money. I have a hard time seeing these corporations as the paragons of tolerance and morality they claim to be. In fact, they owe us an apology for tolerating Imus for so long.
Most troubling is that firing Don Imus does nothing to improve the lives of African-Americans in this country. It is too easy to assuage our consciences by firing a man for an outrageous comment and ignore the larger realities of racism. That’s unfortunate, since we are a long way from anything resembling racial equality in this country. Nationwide, blacks are incarcerated at 8.2 times the rate of whites. In fact, young black males are more likely to go to prison than attend college. Blacks earn on average only 77 cents for every dollar whites earn. In going for that first mortgage, Blacks receive high cost loans 15.7% of the time while Whites receive such loans only 8.7% of the time. This is true even after adjusting for income level, location, type of lender, and the loan amounts. For every statistic I name here, I could easily give another two.
And these are examples of racism which can be quantified. Much harder to measure are the ways unconscious stereotypes affect the lives of others. We have an easier time picturing a black kid on a basketball court than in a laboratory. I have encountered both whites and blacks who think a black kid working hard in school is “acting white.” In the immediate aftermath of hurricane Katrina, blacks wandering in search of food were labeled as “looters,” while their white counterparts were more charitably described as “searching for food.”
I focus on anti-black stereotypes here for a reason: while there is plenty of black racism against whites (and other ethnic groups), blacks don’t generally have the power to institutionalize their prejudices on a large scale. Consequently, while their racism is just as wrong, it does not cause the same harms that anti-black stereotypes and racism do.
At the end of as a poem lambasting the flaws of another, the Catullus wisely noted that “we all have something of a knapsack on our backs.” In other words, we are all imperfect. We must therefore examine ourselves for the same hatred we saw from Imus. And we must ask ourselves, just what we find so enthralling about figures like Rush Limbaugh and Don Imus that millions of us tune in when know about the racist comments they have made. The sad truth is that for all the racist jokes and comments Imus made, there are probably millions of Americans who have thought or said the very same things.
So at the end of the day, while I applaud the firing of Don Imus, I just don’t see it as some great victory over racism. That’s because the problem is much bigger than Don Imus. The real problem is a culture that allowed Imus to be so popular in the first place when his racism was plainly evident to all. The real problem is a culture that raises scarcely a whisper at present-day racial inequalities much more harmful than any bigoted remark. If we’re serious about fighting the racism so plainly manifested in Imus’s comments, then we can’t fire him and call it a day. We must fight the disease itself and not just scattered symptoms.