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Empty-Headed Show: Don Imus and Minority Outrage

It may just be my imagination, but it seems as though people are raising a lot more hell over offensive speech. Every time I blink, someone’s being taken to the woodshed for saying something racist, sexist, or homophobic. In the last few months I recall uproars over Michael Richards, Isaiah Washington, Tim Hardaway, Ann Coulter, a Snickers ad and now, most recently, Don Imus. And that’s only the stuff I can think of off the top of my head.

What is going on? Why has a man like Don Imus, who has spewed so much racist filth over the years (see the now infamous Gwen Ifill “cleaning lady” comment, for example), finally lost his job? Why did people react so angrily now? I suspect that the fury embodies the frustrations of minorities, who have had to endure 25 years or so of repression and reversals but have had few effective political outlets to express their anger. Many black people are just damn tired of being criminalized, degraded and discriminated against. And many queer people are equally tired of stigmatization and discrimination. And we are starting to speak out--perhaps at peripheral, symptomatic issues--but to me even these lashes at symptoms indicate an "enough is enough" attitude.

And when anger at a racist, heterosexist system is bubbling beneath the surface like hot magma, you never know when or where there’s going to be an eruption. So shock jocks who employ racist, sexist, and homophobic rhetoric cavalierly should take note.

The source of the indignation at people like Imus or, say, Tim Hardaway is legitimate. It is a reaction to the degradation of our material lives, which is reinforced and supported by racist, sexist, homophobic discourse. This needs to come out more forcefully in our expressions of outrage against bigoted speech. Yes, Rev. Sharpton, I’m sure your daughter was offended by the comments—but let’s also hear about some of the concrete hardships black women face! Let’s hear about how anti-black stereotypes do concrete harm to black people.

Racism, sexism and homophobia are not just matters of divining people’s inner feelings and prejudices, they can also be measured demographically. If anyone would like to get started with some resources, let me recommend The Color of Wealth: The Story Behind the US Racial Wealth Divide or American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass. These resources discuss how our present inequalities are rooted in past discrimination and how without radical social reforms these inequalities will continue to fester.

Yet, the discussion in the media is limited to talk about how comments offended and hurt people’s feelings. I am not suggesting that feelings are unimportant or unrelated, but the outrage is also about more than emotions. It is about education and housing disparities, job discrimination, police brutality, increasing rates of HIV, appalling levels of incarceration, etc.

It would be a godsend for the status-quo if our outrage were directed solely at peripheral manifestations of racism like talk show hosts, or what some peroxide blowhard says at a right-wing conference. If we leave it at this, executives and corporate oligarchs will simply proclaim their commitment to “diversity,” expunge the most overt offenders, and paper over the overarching racist, sexist ideas they support. As Harvey Fierstein so eloquently put it:

Our nation, historically bursting with generosity toward strangers, remains remarkably unkind toward its own. Just under our gleaming patina of inclusiveness, we harbor corroding guts. America, I tell you that it doesn’t matter how many times you brush your teeth. If your insides are rotting your breath will stink.

Fierstein made the common mistake of limiting the question to individual prejudices, when he should have talked more about structure. But his point is nonetheless strong. By all good demographic measurements, our insides, as a nation, are indeed rotting. We live in a racist, sexist homophobic society and no “diversity” and “tolerance” rhetoric will be able to whitewash that.


alex said...

right on, brian!

Andrea said...

Great post, Brian!