Passing the Buck and Missing the Point:
Don Imus, White Denial and Racism in America
By Tim Wise
April 15, 2007
Let us dispense with the easy stuff, shall we?
First, Don Imus's free speech rights have not been even remotely violated as a result of his firing, either by MSNBC or CBS Radio. The First Amendment protects us against state oppression or legal sanction for our words. It does not entitle everyone with an opinion to a talk show, let alone on a particular network. To believe or to demand otherwise would be to say that Imus's free speech rights outweigh the rights of his employers to determine what messages they will send out on their dime.
Secondly, those who are telling black folks to "get over it," when it comes to racial slurs, such as those offered up by Imus, are missing an important point: namely, the slurs are not the real issue. The issue is that these slurs (be they of the "nappy-headed ho" variety, or the semi-psychotic string of vitriol spewed by Michael Richards a few months back) take place against a backdrop of systemic and institutional racism. And that backdrop--of housing and job discrimination, racial profiling, unequal health care access, and a media that regularly presents blacks in the worst possible light (think the persistent and inaccurate reports of murder and rape by African Americans in New Orleans during the Katrina tragedy)--makes verbal slights, even if relatively minor, take on a magnitude well beyond the moment of their issuance.
Those who so easily let slip dismissive cliches, such as, "sticks and stones," have rarely themselves been the ones for whom slurs signaled a pending or extant campaign of oppression. So, for those whites who seek to change the subject to slurs used occasionally against us--like honky or cracker--please note: it is precisely the lack of any potent, institutional force to back up those words, which makes them so much easier to shrug off. But people of color are well aware that the slurs used against them, particularly when verbalized by whites, are often the tip of a much larger and more destructive iceberg, beneath which tip lies an edifice capable of shattering opportunities, of damaging and even destroying lives. In truth, even the words themselves can injure, especially the young, for whom an insistence on the development of thick skin seems especially heartless.
Third, and please make note of it, this is not the first time Imus had done something like this. In the past he's referred to black journalist Gwen Ifill as "the cleaning lady," a Jewish reporter as, a "boner-nosed, beanie-wearing Jewboy," and Arabs as "ragheads." Furthermore, he handpicked a sidekick who called Palestinians "animals" on the air, and suggested that Venus and Serena Williams would make fine centerfold models for National Geographic. Imus is a serial offender, and his contrition now, while perhaps genuine, has been long overdue.
So, a quick review: Imus is a racist, words can wound, and his employers had both the right and responsibility to fire him. But such is hardly the stuff of which meaningful commentary is made. So now, let us consider a few other matters as they relate to the Imus affair: matters that have been largely under-explored amidst the coverage of this story in recent weeks.
White Hypocrisy, Personal Responsibility, and Shifting the Blame to Black Folks
One thing has been made clear by the Imus incident: namely, white folks are incapable of blaming other whites for white racism and racist behavior. Despite all the demands by whites that blacks take "personal responsibility" for their lives, their behaviors, and the problems that often beset their communities--and especially that they stop blaming whites for their station in life--the fact is, we can't wait to blame someone else when we, or one of ours, screws up. So please note, from virtually every corner of the white media (and from black conservatives who are quick to let whites off the hook no matter what we do), the conversation has shifted from Imus's racism to a full-scale assault on rap music and hip-hop. In other words, it's those black people's fault when one of ours calls them a name. After all, they do it themselves, and Imus can't be expected not to say "ho" if Ice Cube has done it. At this point, I'm halfway expecting to hear Bill O'Reilly say that white folks wouldn't have even heard words like nigger if it weren't for 50 Cent.
But this kind of argument is not only absurd on the face of it, even more to the point, it's a complete affront to the concept of "personal responsibility." It ranks right up there with telling your mom that "Billy did it too," back when you were ten, and playing ball outside, and broke your neighbor's window. As I recall, mom didn't really give a rat's ass, and responded by saying something about Billy, a bridge, and whether his desire to jump off like a damned fool would inspire similar stupidity on your part.
By seeking to shift blame for Imus's comments, or those of Michael Richards, or whomever, onto black folks, white America has shown our duplicity to be something over which we have no shame. Of course, we've been doing it a long time. Witness the way that whites are quick to point out--whenever the issue of slavery is raised--that "blacks in Africa sold other blacks into bondage," as if that would make blacks every bit as culpable as the folks whose wealth was built by the slave system; as if Europeans had only come to Africa for the weather, and had been coerced into the transatlantic slave trade. Or consider the way that whites blame indigenous people for the mass death they experienced after the invasion of the Americas, by saying, with no sense of misgiving, "Well, it wasn't our fault, I mean, they mostly died of disease," as if native folk would have contracted these diseases short of the desire by whites to conquer the planet for our own aggrandizement. Or consider the way that whites seek to rationalize racial profiling, by arguing that since blacks have higher crime rates, individual and perfectly innocent blacks really can't complain when cops target them, and should instead blame their own for the way blacks get viewed, and treated; same thing with Arabs and terrorism. It's their fault, in other words, personal responsibility be damned.
Rap has been an especially useful scapegoat, such that whenever whites act out in a racist way we seem quick to blame rap. In fact, sometimes, when whites commit violence we blame rap too, as with the two school shooters in Jonesboro, Arkansas in the late 90s, who were reported to love rap music, as if that would explain their decision to ambush their classmates. When whites throw "ghetto" parties on college campuses, which denigrate the humanity of persons living in this nation's poorest and most marginalized communities, they routinely claim to be merely mimicking what they've seen on MTV. Snoop Dogg made 'em do it, see? Or perhaps it was Jay-Z, or Biggie, or 'Pac. Odd how the Sopranos never get blamed when white folks kill someone, nor the Saw movie trilogy, or, for that matter (since we're on the subject of music), Johnny Cash, who sang about shooting a man in Reno "just to watch him die." Hell, Johnny even sang that song in a prison to a bunch of inmates, with no apparent concern for inciting violence on their part.
And speaking of Cash, the rush to blame rap is especially intriguing given the history of violent themes in country music--a genre that is never blamed whenever some white, NASCAR lover commits murder. Consider country legend Porter Wagoner, whose song "Cold Hard Facts of Life," tells of a man who kills his wife for cheating on him. Or better still, "The First Mrs. Jones," in which Wagoner's protagonist, speaking to his new wife--who has just left him--tells her how he stalked and murdered his former betrothed, after which killing he buried her body parts in the woods. In other words, unless the "second Mrs. Jones" comes back to him, she's going to join the first one, pushing up daisies in the forest. If Young Buck dropped a song like this, white America would be screaming about how he was encouraging violence against women. But for Wagoner, a revered member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, no such concern attaches. He's just "telling a story."
Then there's Johnny Paycheck's classic, "Pardon Me, I've Got Someone to Kill," or Jimmy Rodgers who sang, "If you don't want to smell my smoke, don't monkey with my gun," or several of the violent ditties recorded by Spade Cooley in the 1950s: a man who didn't just sing of violence, but also practiced what he preached, by beating his wife to death in front of their teenage daughter in 1961. That rap is viewed so much more negatively than any other genre of music--so many of which have had their fair share of disturbing, violent and sexist imagery--attests to the racialized way in which danger has come to be understood. Only a fool could think race wasn't the primary reason for the double standard. In fact, research has found that when lyrics with violent themes are presented to whites in a focus group, as being rap lyrics, the participants respond far more negatively than when the same lyrics are presented as the lyrics they actually are: from a folk song, sung by whites.
But blaming rap is not only conveniently opportunistic, and intellectually dishonest, given all the pandering about personal responsibility. It also ignores the reasons why rap music sometimes--though not as uniformly as some seem to believe--peddles images of violence, or lyrics that are sexist. After all, if eighty percent of all rap music purchases are made by whites (and that is the conventional wisdom), then white consumers must be responding, via their purchases, to an already held impression of black people. Without such a pre-existing mental schema firmly in place, the images of blacks as gangstas, pimps, dealers and "hos" wouldn't resonate nearly so much as to make possible billions of dollars of sales annually. In other words, perhaps whites need to consider the possibility that the thug image has been marketable, and thus created a financial incentive for black artists to play to that trope because these images comport with the negative things that much of white America believes about blacks in the first place. Things which they believed, it should be noted, long before Cool Herc threw his first house party in the Bronx.
If white folks were interested in buying CDs by rap artists who sang about radical social transformation and community uplift--and yes there are many, many such artists out there--then that's the music that would be churned out in larger numbers. But white consumers aren't, by and large, looking to buy songs about overthrowing the system from which we benefit. White boys in the stale and lifeless 'burbs would rather listen to songs about guns and drugs, and being a thug, through which music they can live a more exciting life, if only in their fantasies. So in the ultimate irony, it is white buyers who make that kind of rap profitable, but instead of asking for any responsibility from them, we blame the artists for doing what they're supposed to do in a capitalist system, which is respond to market demand, no matter the social consequences. Naturally, of course, it isn't capitalism that gets the blame--a thoroughly European creation that has brought misery to millions, as did state socialism (another issue from the womb of Europe)--but rather, the black folks who have taken the bait offered by the market system. Even better is to read Cal Thomas's column from this week, in which he blamed liberal values and permissiveness for the coarseness of rap music, rather than the values trumpeted by the right, like profit-making.
Sticking Our "Buts" in Where They Don't Belong
In addition to trying to shift the blame for white racism onto black folks, we whites seem to be congenitally incapable of simply condemning racism, and after such condemnation, ending the sentence with a period. No indeed, after each condemnation it appears as though we are compelled to offer a comma, followed by a semi-exculpatory clause, which minimizes or outright nullifies the force of the condemnation itself.
As in, "Yes, what Imus said was horrible, and mean-spirited" (and sometimes we'll even admit, racist, although several were unable to verbalize this word), "but he does wonderful charity work," or runs "a camp for kids with cancer."
As in, "Yes, what Michael Richards said was awful and racist, but he was heckled and just lost control" (actually, witnesses say he started in on black audience members before they had said anything to him, so this excuse is not only flimsy, in any event, it's also a lie).
As in, "Yes, Mel Gibson was wrong to say those things, but he'd been drinking."
As in, "Yes, those white officers who shot Amadou Diallo were wrong, but it's tough being a cop in a dangerous neighborhood."
As in, "Yes, the founding fathers mostly owned slaves and were racists, but they were just products of their time and can't be judged by the standards of today"--an argument that is thoroughly offensive, since, after all, admonitions against theft and murder (both of which were implicated in the slave system) have been around for thousands of years. Not to mention, the idea that "everyone felt that way back then" is false: the slaves certainly didn't, and neither did white abolitionists.
Or, my favorite, as regards the Imus matter: "Yeah, Imus was wrong to say what he said, but the people criticizing him, like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, are even worse." One has to wonder what white folks would do if Jackson and Sharpton weren't around; who would we have to divert attention from our own biases? Attacking these two is the default position of white America whenever one of ours does something wrong: "Well what about Jackson? What about Sharpton?" This is then followed by a reminder of the former's "Hymietown" statement, and the latter's involvement in the Tawana Brawley affair.
But even if one accepts the standard white critique of Jackson and Sharpton, the argument nonetheless amounts to a colossal failure to apply "personal responsibility" logic to oneself and one's community. It is yet another attempt by whites to change the subject. Not to mention, both men's past foibles exacted a price from them as well, from which it took several years to recover. It's not as if they received a free pass, and to be sure, had either man had a radio show at the time, there is no doubt that they too would have been canned by their employers for making racist, or anti-Semitic comments. Twenty-three years later, Jackson's comments about New York still haunt him, and no doubt had an impact on his political career, for example. As with Jackson and Sharpton, Imus should be able to redeem himself over time, to be sure. But as with both men, he shouldn't expect redemption to happen immediately, and without first paying a price.
And truthfully, to say that Sharpton and Jackson are more offensive than Imus is almost incomprehensible. On the one hand you have two men who have spent their entire adult lives in the struggle for equal rights. On the other, you have a talk show host whose career has been about offending people and pushing the boundaries of good taste. A man who told 60 minutes in 1998 that he hired his co-host, specifically to tell "nigger jokes." A man who calls tennis star Amelie Mauresmo a "big lesbo" on air. A man whose contribution to the world amounts to shocking people in morning drive time. Hardly comparable to registering voters, fighting for civil rights, running empowerment organizations that seek to build community unity, or any of the other endeavors in which Jackson and Sharpton have been involved.
But here's the bigger truth: if white folks are tired of seeing Jackson and Sharpton out front whenever white racism rears its ugly head, there's an easy way to solve that problem. Namely, all we have to do is do the work ourselves! If whites were willing to stand up and unapologetically, and without equivocation, condemn the racism in our community--following the lead of grass-roots folks of color with names far less known than the two men in question--perhaps Jackson and Sharpton wouldn't have to be the ones leading the rally. Maybe they could take a break. Maybe they could get a much-needed and earned vacation. But that's the problem: most whites do nothing in the face of racism. Most of us don't speak up, don't talk back, don't challenge family, friends, colleagues, or anyone else when they engage is racist actions or merely tell racist jokes. We sit back and remain largely silent, or condemn but only with caveats included. No wonder black leaders like Jackson and Sharpton end up being the visible faces of resistance: we aren't showing up at all, so what are they supposed to do?
At the end of the day, it is white silence and collaboration that has always made racism--whether of the personal or institutional type--possible. If whites had, in larger numbers, joined with folks of color to challenge white supremacy, there is no way that such a system could have been maintained. There is no way that racist persons would be able to spew their venom without fear of reprisal, in most cases. They would know that such verbiage, or racist actions would be met forcefully, and that those engaging in such things would be ostracized. But white silence and inaction has given strength to the racists, whether on radio or in corporate offices, or government positions, or police uniforms; it has emboldened them to act out, since they have long had little reason to believe anything would happen. Slaveowners would have been powerless had the whites who didn't own slaves stood up to them and challenged their evil; so too with segregationists, those who lynched thousands of blacks from the late 1800s to the early 60s, and those who engage in discrimination today. The silent and passive collaborators with injustice are just as bad as those who do the deed, and have always been such. And too often, those folks have been us
Only when whites decide to connect with the alternative tradition of resistance, as opposed to collaboration, will things change. Only when we choose to take our place in the line--however much longer it should be--of antiracist white allies, will we be in a position to lecture folks of color on how they come at the issue. And even then, we'll have far more to learn than to teach in that regard. But until that time, and for however long white folks decide to remain on the sidelines in this struggle, our entitlement to say much of anything sideways to the Jacksons or Sharptons of the world will remain virtually non-existent. Pay some dues, and then maybe you can talk. Until then, shut it down.
And Yet, the Bigger Issue: Missing the Systemic Forest for the Individual Trees
But perhaps the biggest problem with the coverage of this one man's racism, is the way in which the media rushes to cover individual acts of bigotry, a la Imus or Michael Richards, while largely ignoring the larger issue, and evidence of widespread systemic racism in health care, criminal justice, education or employment.
So by now, pretty much everyone knows what Imus said, which is fine, so far as it goes. But why has there been no news coverage of the recent report that complaints of housing discrimination, including race-based complaints, are at an all-time high, and where is the outrage?
Why no coverage of the new report from the United Church of Christ, indicating persons of color are far more likely to live in neighborhoods where hazardous waste sites are placed, and that the typical host neighborhood for such sites has twice as many people of color as the typical neighborhood without such a site? And where is the outrage over this kind of environmental racism?
Where is the coverage of the recent study, which found that less access to high quality health care is the primary reason for higher prostate cancer death rates for black men, relative to white men? And how many have heard that according to research published in the American Journal of Public Health, nearly 900,000 blacks died from 1991 to 2000, who wouldn't have died had they had access to health care that was equal to that received by whites: roughly 90,000 African Americans each year? And where is the outrage over racial disparity in health care?
Where is the media fanfare about the recently updated research from Melvin Oliver and Thomas Shapiro, to the effect that the racial wealth gap between whites and blacks has remained huge, even as income gaps have fallen? Oliver and Shapiro report that even among college-educated black couples with middle class incomes, their wealth disadvantage relative to similar whites remains massive: on average, these African American couples have less than one-fourth the net worth of their white counterparts. In large measure, the wealth gap can be traced to policies that historically restricted black asset accumulation and gave whites significant head starts in the same area, yet their findings have been reported in virtually no white-owned media outlets.
Or what about the research from Vanderbilt University, which finds that light-skinned immigrants to the U.S. have incomes that are significantly higher than those of immigrants who are otherwise similar--in terms of experience, education and skill levels--but who have darker skin. According to the research, which adds to a long line of data suggesting the role of colorism in the playing out of white supremacy, being one shade lighter than another immigrant is as beneficial to a person's income as an entire additional year of schooling. But where has the coverage been on this issue, and where is the outrage?
In other words, perhaps the biggest problem with the Imus coverage is the way that even liberal commentary on the subject has tended to reinforce the notion that racism is a one-on-one kind of thing, an interpersonal problem, or a character flaw, for which the easy solution is banishment from the airwaves, or perhaps several sessions of counseling.
So long as the bigger problem of institutional injustice remains off the radar screens of the media however, even victories against personal bias will remain largely irrelevant. And this is so because it is that larger racial inequity that so often contributes to personal bias in the first place, by giving the impression to weak-minded individuals that those on the bottom of the social and economic structure must have something wrong with them, or else they'd be doing better. That is what our society encourages us to believe, after all. Until we get a handle on racism as a social phenomenon, we'll be unlikely to make lasting progress on ending it as a personal one, whether for Imus, or anyone else.