Though I’m a bit exhausted with this business, I wanted to run the really smart piece below by Kai Wright, one of our guest contributors. I was also thinking we should start brainstorming about who should fill the open slot on MSNBC now that they’ve dropped Imus and his show altogether. Read Kai’s piece and let us know if you can think of a reverse shock jock — someone that can crack a joke and get serious about racism in politics, culture and the economy. Farai Chedaya? Michael Eric Dyson? Jill Nelson???
Why is Imus so Popular? By Kai Wright The ultimate fallout from Don Imus’ casually hateful jokes about the Rutgers University women’s basketball team remains to be seen. But let’s hope it eventually moves past the shock jock and on to a real conversation about bigotry’s deep roots in American society. The drama of Imus’ spectacular self-destruction has so far followed a sadly familiar setpiece: A public figure breaks decorum with overtly racist or sexist or homophobic remarks, prompting the maligned community’s leaders to demand the offender’s scalp. The villain in turn begs for forgiveness, seeking redemption by casting the slur as an error of judgment rather than character. If the perpetrator is savvy, as Imus appears to be, he or she dubs the whole episode a transformative experience. “Grey’s Anatomy” star Isaiah Washington even went into bigotry rehab following his homophobic outbursts earlier this year. But, in the end, all of this merely reinforces a narrow framing of racism in particular, and bigotry in general, as a personality flaw rather than a broad and structural scourge.
Tarso Ramos, of the think tank Political Research Associates, has tracked what he says has been a concerted intellectual movement to redefine American racism in the post-civil rights era. Starting in the mid 1970s, conservative thinkers began championing a new “colorblind” society, in which Jim Crow’s bald, institutional barriers to equality had been removed and the vexing race problem had been solved. Our political and cultural understanding of bigotry quickly devolved from the collective to the individual – racism, Ramos argues, was reduced to “individual acts of meanness” carried out by a few ignorant jerks. The distinction is a substantive one. If racism is personal rather than structural, then racial inequalities are as well. If oppression takes place at the individual level, then liberation must, too. According to this logic, Imus’ antics may hurt black folks’ feelings, but the fact that unemployment among black men is twice that of the national rate is on us. Sure, Washington had no business calling his costar a “faggot,” but when nearly half of the black gay men in a recent federal study test HIV positive, that’s something we’re doing to ourselves. On a societal level, everybody’s got an equal shot to succeed and survive, or so the theory goes. Society-wide remedies like affirmative action are thus poorly conceived, it is argued, because they drag perfectly well behaved white individuals into the ugly process of dealing with inequality. If you’ve never called someone a “nappy headed ho,” why should you have to be involved in righting the racial imbalance at your local university? Because ending bigotry means doing more than clucking our tongues at a few dirty words. Yes, Don Imus must be held accountable – as must the corporations who have profited from his recurring, if usually coded demagoguery. But when are we going to dig up the bigoted roots that helped make Imus so popular in the first place?