At our weekly political meeting at FAIR, where the group's business was discussed and our radio show planned out, items from the corporate press were tossed around, analyzed, critiqued. One week, someone submitted an editorial cartoon showing stereotypical black people dancing in a rain of welfare money, and we were trying to decide whether this was a racist cartoon, or a parody of racist images. When the strip was passed to me, I studied it for a moment, then shook my head slowly and said, "Well, one thing's for sure -- those are some crazy, shiftless Negroes."
The white people, who made up the majority of the meeting, froze, their faces slowly turning toward the two African-American interns to see what damage Mr. Loose Cannon wreaked this time. But the interns, a female and male, laughed, as did another staffer who happened to be Indian. My radio partner (a lesbian, since I'm categorizing here) smiled and flashed me the "What am I going to do with you?" look that I often received from her. Only then did the white folk relax a bit. After all, if the black kids were cool with it, then my crack must've been funny. Or something.
In retrospect, the "shiftless Negroes" line wasn't all that great. It was a sarcastic riff on a ridiculous image, whatever the editorial intent. But the fact that a white lefty didn't fear offending young black lefties cut through the unspoken tension that hung over the office. White guilt can become so self-consuming that the only "acceptable" means of communication to those of darker hues is a rigid condescension and humorless deference, which of course is insulting to any thinking person. My crack didn't tip-toe around racist thinking -- it lambasted it using its own language. (Also, the interns were used to me popping off one-liners, talking in different accents, and doing celebrity impressions. That context helped.) But white people trying to ridicule racism up-close risks all manner of misinterpretation. It's a very fine line, and as with all humor, a very subjective, touchy business.
None of this applies to Don Imus. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of his shtick knows that the I-man and his crew revel in mocking African-Americans, Arabs, queers, women, or anyone else who isn't an aging, craggy white man. Imus's latest outrage, calling the Rutgers women's basketball team "nappy-headed hos," is all over the media, and while Imus professes guilt through stupidity, this racial scandal is a PR goldmine for him and his show. I mean, when was the last time Imus got this much attention? Yes, it's negative attention, but this is America, where publicity conquers all. And that Imus's "punishment" is two-weeks off the air
tells us, as if we don't already know, that the corporate honchos at MSNBC and WFAN appreciate Imus's commercial "edge," and this suspension merely sharpens his brand. The old man is still a Bad Boy. A very naughty, profitable boy at that.
Public contrition is another regular American feature, and Imus played his part yesterday by appearing on Al Sharpton's radio show. The Rev. Al is no stranger to the media spotlight himself, and Imus's remarks serves his celebrity as well. Their conversation made for great radio, for here were two serious media pros playing this controversy for all it was worth. Each knows his role and performed accordingly. It couldn't have been better scripted. Imus knew that whatever punishment he would receive, it wouldn't end his career (far from it). Rev. Al knew and still knows that his calls for Imus to be permanently removed from the airwaves is a pipe dream, so Imus will remain a target of his broadcast ire, as will Imus's soft-on-racism bosses. Win/win all around. And while some legitimate points were raised during the show (Imus would never consistently refer to Jews the way he does to blacks), the noise level owed more to Jerry Springer than to a serious discussion of racism in the media. But then, that's showbiz.
I can't remember ever finding Imus funny, but I did yesterday as he informed Rev. Al of his charitable work for African-American children with sickle cell anemia and cancer. When Imus thundered to Rev. Al's guest, Bryan Monroe of the National Association of Black Journalists, "I bet I've slept in a house with more black children who were not related to me than you have!", I thought, man, that's not only a crazy statement, but a shameless one, too. Imus tried to water down his racist remarks by hiding behind sick and dying black children. And that he did so as the only white person on an African-American radio show was so twisted and absurd that I broke down laughing. If only "SNL" took those kind of chances.
Were Imus genuinely serious about dissecting his racial humor, he would have to admit that as a white person, especially of his generation, he was raised on racist imagery which molded his thinking about black people in general, as is obvious whenever he and his cronies cackle about "nappy-heads" and the like. There is nothing in his humor that attacks racist assumptions, for racist assumptions are the basis of his humor. Thus, he can't use the "satire" defense when caught spewing the garbage that is his act. All white people hold racist assumptions of some kind; we've been conditioned to do so, though, hopefully, this diminishes with each succeeding generation. If Imus copped to this and said, "Look, I've got a lot of racial stereotypes in my head, and I think they're funny. That may be sick, but it's the truth", then we'd be getting somewhere. But clearly, Imus isn't interested in that kind of confession, not while he still has a public platform and is backed by heavy-hitters in the media and politics. He would have to lose everything before being that honest, and even then it might be a stretch. But that's not going to happen -- not this time around, anyway. Despite all the ass-covering, tsk-tsk rhetoric, so long as American elites want him as their court jester, Don Imus's career is not only safe, it is sanctified.ALSO:
My pal Louis Proyect, who somehow manages to listen to Imus, weighs in on the controversy