Don Imus, the national radio talk-show host for NBC, got himself into some hot water last week when he used racially derogative terms to describe a women's college basketball team. Calling them "nappy-headed ho's", Imus compared them unfavorably to a supposedly "cute" and predominantly white competing team. Today, Imus attempted to apologize to Al Sharpton on the latter's own radio show, but Sharpton didn't let him off the hook:
Don Imus said on his nationally syndicated radio show today that he was a “good person who said a bad thing” by way of explaining his comments about the Rutgers University women’s basketball team that many critics have called racist. ...
Later in the day, the Rev. Al Sharpton, who has been calling for Mr. Imus’s resignation, upbraided him on his own radio show, “Keepin It Real,” as the two discussed his comments.
“This is not about whether you’re a good man,” Mr. Sharpton told Mr. Imus, who was a guest on the show. “This is about setting a precedent that allows racist language to be used on mainstream, federally regulated television and radio.
“What you said is racist,” he said.
I'm amazed that Imus still has a show after these comments. After all, Howard Cosell got kicked off of ABC for referring to a black running back as a "little monkey," even though (a) he often called his grandchildren the same thing and didn't intend it as a racial insult, and (b) Cosell had worked tirelessly to support Mohammed Ali during his career. Jimmy the Greek got bounced from CBS for suggesting that the dominance of African-American athletes came from breeding decisions by slave owners. Al Campanis, a man who had worked hard to boost black baseball players, got forced out of the Dodgers organization for voicing some strange ideas about why there weren't more black swimmers.
At least two of these three men did more for racial equality than Imus has ever done, and gave much less reason for offense than Imus. Yet Imus gets to hold onto his job -- at least, so far.
I'm not saying Imus should get canned for one rather offensive and somewhat malicious offense. But it's not the only time Imus has demonstrated a tone deafness on race, either. Next week, I will be interviewing Bernard Goldberg for the release of his new book, Crazies to the Left of Me, Wimps to the Right: How One Side Lost Its Mind and the Other Lost Its Nerve, his latest look at the political scene. It has not hit the stands yet, but I have started reviewing the proofs -- and Goldberg has a chapter just for Don Imus and his cluelessness on race. Titled "Don Imus and St. Charles", Goldberg recounts another conversation where Imus managed to insult most of the civil-rights movement:
On this particular day he was talking to Charles Barkley, the retired basketball star, whose book about race in America -- Who's Afraid of a Large Black Man? -- had just come out in paperback. They started out by talking about the death, the night before, of Coretta Scott King. Sir Charles, who grew up in Alabama, told Imus how much she and her husband, Martin Luther King, Jr., had meant to him.
This gave Don an opening to tell Barkley that, "In my view, just as a white man, it doesn't seem to me that a lot has changed since those marches in Selma."
Not much had changed? At the time of Selma (1965), most black people in the South couldn't vote, let alone hold public office as many do now. Jm Crow laws still segregated public facilities, and civil rights workers were still getting attacked by law enforcement with the tacit approval of state governments. Plenty changed in 42 years -- and it was people like the Kings who made them change. That isn't to say that more work isn't needed, but only an oaf would insist that nothing had changed since the march from Selma to Montgomery.
Charles Barkley would have none of it. He told Imus that he was wrong, and then talked about what the African-American communities needed to do now, rather than feed into some ignorance how no progress had been made by the civil-rights movement. Goldberg calls Imus a "sissy", but in reality, Imus thought he would pander to his preconceived notion of Barkley's state of mind -- and Barkley called him on it.
Imus spent today pandering as well, it seems. Sharpton wouldn't have any of it, either. Maybe he shouldn't lose his job for making a couple of really bad mistakes, but perhaps these kinds of incidents demonstrate that Imus is very overrated.
UPDATE: Regarding Campanis, here's the Wikipedia entry on the controversy:
Campanis' infamous remarks took place on the late-night ABC News program Nightline, coinciding with the 40th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's Major League Baseball debut (April 15, 1947). Campanis, who had played alongside Robinson and was known for being close to him, was being interviewed about the subject. Nightline anchorman Ted Koppel asked him why, at the time, there had been few black managers and no black general managers in Major League Baseball. Campanis' reply was that blacks "may not have some of the necessities to be, let's say, a field manager, or, perhaps, a general manager" for these positions. Elsewhere in the interview he said that blacks are often poor swimmers "because they don't have the buoyancy." Koppel says he gave Campanis several opportunities to clarify ("Do you really believe that?") or back down on his remarks but Campanis dug himself in deeper with his replies. A protest erupted the next morning and he resigned two days later.