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The reaction was swift and justifiably angry to shock jock Don Imus’s latest racistcrack that the Rutgers women’s basketball players were nappy headed ‘hos’ (An evenmore curious characterization given Imus’s trademark floppy mop). Imus didn’t stepover the line of racial incorrectness he obliterated it. He straddled the repentanceline with his kind of, sort of, apology in which he did not say “I” only “we.” Thecareful phrasing turned the “apology” into generic pabulum and was tantamount topersonal absolution.
But even if Imus had made a sincere bare-the-chest heartfelt apology it wouldn’tamount to much. That’s the standard ploy that shock jocks, GOP big wigs, andassorted public personalities employ when they get caught with their racial pantsdown. On a few occasions the offenders have been reprimanded, suspended, and evendumped. However that’s rare. Imus’s act has been syndicated on dozens of stationsfor more than a decade by MSNBC. Though the network gently distanced itself fromImus, it won’t likely show him the broadcast door.
There are two reasons why. And they tell much about why loudmouths such as Imus canprattle off foul remarks about gays, blacks, Latinos Asians, Muslims, and women andskip away with a caressing hand slap. The first reason is that these guys ramp upratings and that makes the station’s cash registers jingle. Since January, Imus’sMSNBC show has drawn an average of more than 350,000 viewers. Nielson Media Researchsays that’s a leap of nearly 40 percent over the same period in 2006.
The other reason it’s virtually impossible to permanently muzzle Imus and othersthat talk race trash is the sphinx like silence of top politicians, broadcastindustry leaders, and corporate sponsors. GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney andformer Democratic presidential contender John Kerry bantered with Imus on his showin recent weeks. Yet, Romney hasn’t uttered a word condemning Imus’s bile. And Kerryissued a tepid statement through a spokeswoman in which he merely branded it “astupid comment” and praised him for owning up to it.
While Kerry and Romney are two of the better known politicians to recently cacklewith and at Imus’s digs on the show, a steady parade of politicians andpersonalities have trooped to Imus’s microphones over the years. And not all ofthem, as Kerry and Romney showed, are hard-line GOP conservatives. Senators JoeLieberman and John McCain leaped over each other to get a spot with Imus. And wehaven’t a heard a peep from any of them about his remarks.
The problem of the silence or perfunctory belated criticism by higher ups to racialtaunts surfaced a few years ago following then Senate Majority leader designateTrent Lott’s veiled tout of segregation. It touched off a furor, and ultimately Lottstepped down from the post, but it took nearly a week for Bush to make a stumbling,and weak sounding disavowal of him. The silence from top politicians and industryleaders to public racism was even more deafening a couple of years ago when formerReagan Secretary of Education William Bennett made his weird taunt that abortingblack babies could reduce crime. Even as calls were made from the usual circlesalmost always blacks and liberal Democrats for an apology, or his firing from hissyndicated national radio show, neither Bush or any other top GOP leader said amumbling word about Bennett.
There’s another reason for their silence. The last two decades many Americans havebecome much too comfortable using code language to bash and denigrate blacks. In the1970s, the vocabulary of covert racially loaded terms included terms such as "lawand order," “crime in the streets," "permissive society," "welfare cheats,""subculture of violence," "subculture of poverty," "culturally deprived" and "lackof family values" seeped into the American lexicon about blacks. Some politiciansseeking to exploit white racial fears routinely tossed about these terms.
In the 1980s new terms such as "crime prone," "war zone," "gang infested," "crackplagued," "drug turfs," "drug zombies," "violence scarred," "ghetto outcasts" and"ghetto poverty syndrome” were shoved into public discourse. These were covertracial code terms for blacks and they further reinforced the negative image of youngblack males as dope dealers, drive by shooters, and educational cripples. And theimage of young black women as a dysfunctional collection of B’s and “hos,” welfarequeens, and baby makers. The Rutgers cage ladies attend a solid academicinstitution, worked hard to get to the top of the basketball heap, and have notposed discipline problems, yet the vile racial typecasting still made them fair gamefor ridicule.
The Reverend Al Sharpton, the National Association of Black Journalists and ahandful of sports columnists will continue to loudly demand that MSNBC and radiostations give Imus the ax, and they should. But they won’t. There’s simply too muchmoney in racial trash talk, and too much silence from the higher ups that send atacit signal condoning it. That silence is Imus’s ultimate trump card.
BlackNews.com columnist Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.His new book "The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation BetweenAfrican-Americans and Hispanics" (Middle Passage Press and Hispanic Economics NewYork) in English and Spanish will be out in October.