DON IMUS’S CRITICS have triumphed. They have gotten the popular talk-show host removed from the air for calling the Rutgers’ women’s basketball team “nappy-headed hos.” Imus’s critics are right in saying that this is no time for glib apologies, but we would all be better off if Imus’s two leading opponents, the reverends Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, were equally forthcoming about their own past bigotries.
In January 1984 Jesse Jackson made news when in conversation with Milton Coleman, a black reporter at the Washington Post, he referred to Jews as “Hymies” and New York City as “Hymie town.” For a while Jackson insisted that he had “no recollection” of making such remarks. On February 19 on the CBS News program “Face the Nation,” Jackson went even further, saying of the charge against him, “It simply is not true, and I think that the accuser ought to come forth.”
Then two weeks later before an audience of 400 at Temple Adath Yeshurun in Manchester, New Hampshire, Jackson changed course. He acknowledged that he had made the “Hymie” remarks attributed to him and apologized. But only with qualifications. “I affirm to you that the term was used in a private conversation,” in which “we sometimes let our guard down,” Jackson said. “An off-color remark has no bearing on religion or politics.” And with this half-hearted explanation for what in his judgment was a slip of the tongue, Jackson was back in business.
Al Sharpton’s most public bout with anti-Semitism occurred during a violent protest over the expansion of Freddy’s, a Jewish-owned clothing store in Harlem. Blacks who patronized Freddy’s during the protest were characterized as “cracker-lovers” and traitors to their race, and on the picket line at Freddy’s, Jewish merchants were characterized as “bloodsuckers.” When Sharpton entered the Freddie’s fray, he not only refused to disavow the anti-Semitism of the protests, he fueled it with a speech broadcast over local radio in which he described the owner of Freddy’s as “a white interloper” and vowed that the people of Harlem “are not turning 125th Street back over to the outsiders.”
Jackson’s and Sharpton’s adventures in anti-Semitism do not excuse Imus’s characterization of the Rutgers women’s basketball team. But the leeway Jackson and Sharpton were given does point up that the campaign to take Imus off the air was helped in no small measure by reporters who weren’t interested in doing their homework, let alone in promoting a national conversation about race. The networks, in particular wanted no part of putting the Imus controversy in historical context or taking on the more difficult question—epitomized by the racial and ethnic jokes on television’s “South Park” or the satire of Sacha Baron Cohen in “Borat”—of saying where the shaky line between racial humor and racial insult currently exists.
To their credit, the members of the Rutgers women’s basketball team in their response to Imus showed that what ought to have been at stake in the Imus controversy is how we create a culture in which words like “Hymie” and “ho” are taboo for everyone. The problem is that for this no-exemptions rule to have become central to the Imus controversy we needed humility from Imus’s accusers, and more from the politicians and pundits (many of whom had appeared on “Imus in the Morning”) than the fear of being labeled politically incorrect if they demurred from the rush to get Imus off the air.
Sadly, the Imus controversy, like the O. J. Simpson trial, has been more successful in widening the racial divisions in the country than in shedding light on them. On the one side, Jackson and Sharpton increased their personal prestige with a quick victory over a shock jock who made himself an easy target. But in winning as they did, they undermined any effort to reach a shared standard for acceptable and unacceptable speech. Both men showed that in addition to being unwilling to be honest about their own controversial pasts, they were unwilling to mount an all-out attack on a rap culture that long before Imus used the word “ho,” popularized it. These days that culture, operating at the highest possible decibel level with a youthful fan base among both blacks and whites, continues to portray black women as “hos” and “bitches” and influences thinking in the black community far more than Imus ever could.
On the other side, those who found themselves defending Don Imus on the cynical grounds that his remarks weren’t really that bad took compensation in another racially explosive story that for one day trumped Imus and Iraq: the dropping of charges against the members of the Duke lacrosse team accused of the rape and assault of a young black woman hired as a stripper for a team party. For die-hard Imus supporters the hysteria surrounding the Duke lacrosse case was proof that their hero, too, was nothing more than a victim.
Who then in the end were the winners and the losers in the Imus wars? Imus lost his job, but beyond that, it has been a wash. Had Imus not been such a bully and the Rutgers women’s basketball team not been so appealing, the Imus controversy might have remained an “incident.” We are no nearer deciding what can be said by a media personality speaking for himself than a media personality speaking as a character burlesquing a bigot. And therein lies the problem. When the pursuit of racial and social justice becomes a gotcha game, the results are always trivialized.
The search for common standards of decency becomes irrelevant, and the winners and losers never look to change who they are. They are too busy putting new notches in their belts and leaving the rest of us to figure out how we keep score in a fight in which the rules keep changing and double standards are the norm. Why can Ann Coulter get away with an anti-gay slur? Or Newt Gingrich with an anti-immigrant slight? Why the disparity in their treatment? Is it their friends in high places or who they insult that saves them?
If the companies responsible for producing rap CD’s became the focus of a boycott against racially demeaning and sexist language, it would be a long, hard culture battle. The struggle would need what is so absent from American life nowadays, the type of cross-racial alliance that in the 1960s made possible the Mississippi Freedom Summer and the Voting Rights Act. But why spend time on such a complex, potentially frustrating task if you are Jackson or Sharpton? The room for stardom in such a boycott would be minimal, and after the boycott was announced, the media would in all likelihood soon lose interest in it. After all, the boycott’s target would be stock holders and anonymous executives rather the kind of middle-aged radio host whose downfall guarantees headlines.
Nicolaus Mills is a professor of American Studies at Sarah Lawrence College and author of “Like a Holy Crusade: Mississippi 1964—The Turning of the Civil Rights Movement in America.”