Last week radio curmudgeon Don Imus made the "nappy-headed hoes" comment documented by the preceding video and lit a firestorm of controversy that has ended in a two week suspension from his show. Reverends Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson entered the fray at some point and led a push for MSNBC to fire Imus outright. No matter how offended you are by Imus' assessment of the Rutgers women's basketball team and their body art, you have to admit that the issue has ballooned quickly into an important measuring stick for how we receive racial epithets in 21st century America.
Of course, the media's treatment of the affair has rendered the phrase "no matter how offended you are" moot. If you were to believe the news outlets' rather subjective headlines, you should feel ashamed by Imus' disgraceful comments. This man has assaulted the honor of these poor poor women, and when it comes to calling someone a "nappy-headed ho," context or intent is irrelevant. You should believe, like Rutgers coach and resident sore loser C. Vivian Stringer, that the comments were "deplorable, despicable and abominable and unconscionable." That name should create a knee-jerk reaction in you, no matter who said it. There is no rationalizing it.*
Granted, I understand why "nappy" is a controversial term. Imus criticized the girls with a word that cut to their blackness, and he attached to that word a completely negative meaning. Indeed, the sexualizing inherent to the term conjures up slave owners' judgments of their black women.
However, the tag team of Jackson and Sharpton--and Sharpton has been tagged into the ring on this one--would have you believe that we should not dignify the remarks with any further analysis. The punishment should fit the crime, so Imus should lose his job of thirty years because of an off-the-cuff comment that seemed tame when compared to Sid Rosenberg's initial mention of "hard-core hoes" and "jiggaboos," which I must note--since no one else is doing so--is a reference to School Daze.
Did Jackson or Sharpton attempt to create an informative, open discourse about why Imus' comments were harmful, ignorant, and inappropriate, not to mention why the opinion of one outdated radio personality should not make a group of powerful, successful women feel inferior? No, they didn't. They called for him to be fired and levied MSNBC against him by threatening to boycott the network. These two men have informed the rest of us that such things will not be tolerated, and we have to accept it. Because that's easier. We can grow as a people by creating a dialogue about the issue, and maybe we can come to an understanding of why it was said and how to prevent it in the future. But that would take real work. The kind of work that real civil rights leaders used to do to exact tangible change for us. And that's not to demean either man's past accomplishments. Both men were in the trenches when it mattered most, and their contributions to us through Operation Breadbasket and the National Youth Movement were invaluable--Jackson marched in Selma, for God's sake. But in the last three decades, they've become politicians. Neither Jackson nor Sharpton should be classified as a civil rights leader anymore because that job title would imply some kind of greater responsibility to a people overall, not just the segment of that populace that votes Democrat.
Anyone who wears a cowboy hat automatically has zero credibility with me anyway. The Rutgers girls could be served well by having arbitrary rules that govern their lives.
Sharpton is calling for what amounts to a broad, sweeping penalty: that people should be fired if they say something that offends another group--race, gender, sexual orientation, et cetera. But it's unfair to believe that we should all have the same response to "nappy-headed ho." While many were deeply offended, I'm sure a number of respectable, erudite African-Americans also dismissed Imus' views as misinformed/unenlightened/illogical/harmless and went on their way. In fact, that's my response when people--say, every black comedian ever--insult me for my whiteness. Or, as is more often the case, for my Catholicism. Why is that response illegitimate? Why is outrage mandatory?
In insisting that we have a zero tolerance policy as Americans, Sharpton may be doing a disservice to the people he is attempting to represent. Imus' words came from a place of ignorance, and that ignorance is spread when people are told how to feel instead of armed with the education to discuss race rationally and intelligently.
Has the hard-line thinking being championed and policed by Sharpton been a deterrent to such offensive behavior? Not at all. In the past year Isaiah Washington, Michael Richards, Ann Coulter, Billy Packer, and Mel Gibson have all been on this PR merry go-round. Don Imus' remarks are further proof that our current mode is not working. The focus should not be on these people's comeuppance; that's irrelevant. Why should that be a more important issue than finding a way as a culture to rise above this?
We empower our children with the saying "sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me." Meanwhile, our society has been lowered to a virtual schoolyard, in which people tell on each other and are more interested in the punishment meted out than why the crime occurred in the first place. Mister Sharpton, am I to believe that racism has been so widely eradicated that the most pressing concern is how a man will pay for what he said on a morning radio show? Somehow I don't think that's true. But thank God if it is.
* And there has been no consistent spelling of "hoes" either. Come on, national media, pull out your Chicago Style Handbooks.