Tim Wise breaks it down on Don Imus and Whiteliberalconservative America's bizarre, frightening but predictable counter-attack

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 of Imus really 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....

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.

For the rest, go here.


Anonymous said…
Did you see the article on Imus? http://www.michaelellenbogen.com/Frames/tips.html
Who does this person think he is? Talking about us like that. I hope someone puts this on U Tube and MySpace. The book looks good…..

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