Wednesday, April 11, 2007
Where the buck stops
Lots of questions have emerged, but let's get this much straight, right from Jump Street: What Don Imus said about the Rutgers' Scarlet Knights Women's Basketball Team was, as coach C. Vivian Stringer is quoted as saying, “despicable and an abomination.”
Was it sexist? Absolutely. Congresswoman Carolyn Kilpatrick, and chair of the Black Congressional Caucus, said that this was “an affront to all women.”
Was it racist? Without question. Framing the magnificently played championship game between Rutgers (mostly African American) and Tennessee (mostly Caucasian) as “The Jiggaboos verse the Wannabees” leaves no doubt.
Was it homophobic? Despite the appalling lack of media coverage about the more subtle but nonetheless painful remarks Imus made about these “. . .big women . . . did you see some of the tattoos? . . .on some of those arms.. . .rough girls . . . .” well, there's no doubt in my mind.
Clearly, the word picture which emerged from the deep, dank crevices of his classic pre-Neanderthal male mind was one of physically, psychologically, and because they were African American, sexually aggressive women which threatened (when it didn't titillate) his obviously fragile ego system.
Should there be consequences for his behavior? Most assuredly.
Should he apologize? Yes. Definitely. He has, apparently several times and in several places, including an appearance on the Al Sharpton Radio Show wherein he was repeatedly and appropriately grilled by the flamboyant activist. To his credit, Imus has indicated his anxious willingness to meet with the Scarlet Knights and their coach to apologize in person.
Is a two week suspension (with or without pay), enough? That depends on who is talking. Clearly, African American activists like Sharpton and Jessie Jackson and various public figures like Woopie Goldberg and Spike Lee are saying a resounding, “No!” They want him fired. Period. They want ‘financial consequences’ for his actions – even though two sponsors (Staples, Proctor and Gamble and Bigelow Teas) have already withdrawn their support of the program and this is, after all, ‘sweeps’ or ratings week in the world of audio media.
Others question the place of redemption and reconciliation. Coach Stringer says she and her team will wait until after they meet with him, “look him in the face” and, as Team Captain Essence Carson says, “hear what he has to say for himself” after “he meets us and gets to know us.”
Isn't there a double standard here? Just four years ago Jackson called New York City “Jewtown” on national television. And, while Jackson and Sharpton, among others, have decried the sexism and homophobia of rap artists, they have not been successful in reversing the tide of prejudice from within their own community. What, besides FCC regulations, makes what Don Imus said - a white, middle aged male - any different?
Are we surprised by Imus’ remarks? No. At least, I'm not. C’mon. He's not called a ‘shock jock’ for nothing. He's said these things before. Worse. It's just that this time, he picked on a team of women who are stellar athletes who maintain a 3.0 average; who were valedictorians in their high schools; who are future doctors, music prodigies, and Girls Scouts; and whose drive for the championship earned them a place in the hearts of everyone who has ever struggled against formidable odds to earn a mark of excellence for themselves.
Oh, yes, and they happen to be African American women.
I maintain that while these questions are important ones to ask, they are the wrong questions to lead us to a solution to this problem. Let me be clear: the deeper problem is about racism and sexism and homophobia in particular and prejudice in general in this country – the “land of the free and the home of the brave.”
This is hardly news. It is a problem of long-standing and of epidemic proportions. While we have made significant gains, it will take years, indeed, generations, to completely reverse the scourge and curse of prejudice and bigotry based on gender, race, sexuality, age, class and other physical and psychological differences.
The presenting problem, however, begs the more immediate questions: What will we, as a civilized, postmodern culture, hold as ethical standards of public discourse? Should we regulate ‘free speech’ and ‘artistic expression’ in the marketplace? If so, then how? What level of prejudice, if any, will we tolerate?
Is it okay for African American comedians, Chris Rock or Eddie Murphy, to repeatedly use the ‘N’ word, but not anyone else? I mean, they are just making a living, right?
Is it okay for Snoop Dog or Eminem or rap artists of any race to refer to women as ‘bitches’ and ‘ho’s’ but not anyone else? It's just artistic expression, right? We don't want to stifle that.
Is it okay for gay activist and author Larry Kramer or lesbian humorist Kate Clinton or any other LGBT person to call another a ‘fag’ or a ‘dyke’ but no one else? It's just entertainment, all done in good fun, right?
Who decides the ‘standards of decency’? And, what are the consequences, if any, for not honoring or respecting, or maintaining those standards?
Which brings me to the one question I believe will lead to a solution to the immediate problem: Do you listen to Don Imus? If you do, you are, quite literally, where the buck stops. The radio program ‘Imus in the Morning’ exists only because there is an audience for what he has to say. It's the old truth of supply and demand. If there were no demand, there would be no one like Don Imus to supply the need.
So yes, let's hold Imus accountable. Let's hold everyone who breaks the standards of decency, however they are defined by the community, accountable for their actions. Let's have zero tolerance – in the public and private sectors – for prejudice and bigotry on any level and toward any person or group or class of people.
In order for that to be effective, it has to start with me. It has to start with you. Vaclav Havel, the former President of the Czech Republic once said, “The transformation of the world lies in the human heart.” I have never believed that to be more true than it is right here, right now.
The buck stops where the transformation begins – in the human heart and with the human resolve that prejudice and bigotry in any form is not to be tolerated anywhere in the world.