The reaction was swift and justifiably angry to shock jock Don Imus's latest racist crack that the Rutgers women's basketball players were nappy headed 'hos' (An even more curious characterization given Imus's trademark floppy mop). Imus didn't step over the line of racial incorrectness he obliterated it. He straddled the repentance line with his kind of, sort of, apology in which he did not say "I" only "we." The careful phrasing turned the "apology" into generic pabulum and was tantamount to personal absolution.
But even if Imus had made a sincere bare-the-chest heartfelt apology it wouldn't amount to much. That's the standard ploy that shock jocks, GOP big wigs, and assorted public personalities employ when they get caught with their racial pants down. On a few occasions the offenders have been reprimanded, suspended, and even dumped. However that's rare. Imus's act has been syndicated on dozens of stations for more than a decade by MSNBC. Though the network gently distanced itself from Imus, it won't likely show him the broadcast door.
There are two reasons why. And they tell much about why loudmouths such as Imus can prattle off foul remarks about gays, blacks, Latinos Asians, Muslims, and women and skip away with a caressing hand slap. The first reason is that these guys ramp up ratings and that makes the station's cash registers jingle. Since January, Imus's MSNBC show has drawn an average of more than 350,000 viewers. Nielson Media Research says 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 others that talk race trash is the sphinx like silence of top politicians, broadcast industry leaders, and corporate sponsors. GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney and former Democratic presidential contender John Kerry bantered with Imus on his show in recent weeks. Yet, Romney hasn't uttered a word condemning Imus's bile. And Kerry issued a tepid statement through a spokeswoman in which he merely branded it "a stupid comment" and praised him for owning up to it.
While Kerry and Romney are two of the better known politicians to recently cackle with and at Imus's digs on the show, a steady parade of politicians and personalities have trooped to Imus's microphones over the years. And not all of them, as Kerry and Romney showed, are hard-line GOP conservatives. Senators Joe Lieberman and John McCain leaped over each other to get a spot with Imus. And we haven'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 racial taunts surfaced a few years ago following then Senate Majority leader designate Trent Lott's veiled tout of segregation. It touched off a furor, and ultimately Lott stepped 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 industry leaders to public racism was even more deafening a couple of years ago when former Reagan Secretary of Education William Bennett made his weird taunt that aborting black babies could reduce crime. Even as calls were made from the usual circles almost always blacks and liberal Democrats for an apology, or his firing from his syndicated national radio show, neither Bush or any other top GOP leader said a mumbling word about Bennett.
There's another reason for their silence. The last two decades many Americans have become much too comfortable using code language to bash and denigrate blacks. In the 1970s, the vocabulary of covert racially loaded terms included terms such as "law and order," "crime in the streets," "permissive society," "welfare cheats," "subculture of violence," "subculture of poverty," "culturally deprived" and "lack of family values" seeped into the American lexicon about blacks. Some politicians seeking to exploit white racial fears routinely tossed about these terms.
In the 1980s new terms such as "crime prone," "war zone," "gang infested," "crack plagued," "drug turfs," "drug zombies," "violence scarred," "ghetto outcasts" and "ghetto poverty syndrome" were shoved into public discourse. These were covert racial code terms for blacks and they further reinforced the negative image of young black males as dope dealers, drive by shooters, and educational cripples. And the image of young black women as a dysfunctional collection of B's and "hos," welfare queens, and baby makers. The Rutgers cage ladies attend a solid academic institution, worked hard to get to the top of the basketball heap, and have not posed discipline problems, yet the vile racial typecasting still made them fair game for ridicule.
The Reverend Al Sharpton, the National Association of Black Journalists and a handful of sports columnists will continue to loudly demand that MSNBC and radio stations give Imus the ax, and they should. But they won't. There's simply too much money in racial trash talk, and too much silence from the higher ups that send a tacit signal condoning it. That silence is Imus's ultimate trump card.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst and an editor at New America Media. His new book The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics (Middle Passage Press and Hispanic Economics New York) in English and Spanish will be out in October.