Standing Up to Imus

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, April 14, 2007

This week I walked into the auditorium of Francis Junior High School, where in May 1954 our principal announced at a hastily called afternoon assembly that the Supreme Court had just abolished segregation in public schools. That decision struck down legally sanctioned discrimination, but as the Don Imus episode reminds us more than 50 years later, the disease of discrimination is hardly a thing of the past.

I was at Francis for a cherry blossom tree-planting ceremony honoring three people for their service to the school.

But as I watched a group of seventh-graders cheerfully dig holes and plant trees under the guidance of Cherry Blossom Festival officials, Don Imus came to mind.

How could he not? Most of the students helping with the dedication ceremony were black girls.

Sen. Barack Obama said this week that when Imus described the Rutgers University women's basketball team as "nappy-headed hos," the nationally syndicated radio host didn't just cross the line. Said Obama: "He fed into some of the worst stereotypes that my two young daughters are having to deal with today in America."

Obama, of course, could also have been speaking about girls at Francis and beyond, including women in my own extended family.

But Imus is not the only disturbing figure in this sickening story.

I heard callers to radio stations say that they failed to see the harm caused by Imus's slurs. Others said that even if Imus did go overboard, people on the receiving end of his insults should grow up and get over it.

Besides, as some Imus sympathizers said, his offensive language originated with black rap and hip-hop artists and is commonly heard in the inner city -- as if that absolves the 66-year-old broadcaster of marking the young collegians with a despicable label.

Most disappointing of all, perhaps, was the attitude of prominent media figures who have appeared on Imus's show in the past and who say they would appear on his show again if given a chance. That's now an unlikely option, with his firing by CBS Radio.

But given Imus's record of using demeaning stereotypes about African Americans, women, Jews and gays, why did my colleagues appear on his program in the first place, let alone express a willingness to go back?

Don Imus's descent into the derogatory didn't start with "nappy-headed hos."

There's his putdown of an African American sports columnist at the New York Times as a "quota hire," and his reference to African American journalist Gwen Ifill as a "cleaning lady" when she covered the White House for the New York Times. What about evidence that Imus had said he had hired a staffer to do "nigger" jokes? How about his deplorable references, as my Post colleague Michael Wilbon wrote, to black athletes as apes?

And it's not just race and sex. This week the Anti-Defamation League, in a news release, hailed Imus's suspension as "a long time in coming." The ADL's national director, Abraham H. Foxman, said that his group has logged dozens of complaints about Imus's on-air remarks and has written twice to Imus but that it never received any response from him or his program team.

Foxman said the ADL wrote to Imus in December after Imus and his co-hosts on a Nov. 30 program referred to the "Jewish management at whoever we work for, CBS," later described by Imus -- according to Foxman -- as "money-grubbing bastards."

In the release, Foxman said that in a December 2004 broadcast, "Mr. Imus referred to publishers of a new book called 'The Christmas Thief' as 'thieving Jews.' Later on the same program, he attempted to apologize for that remark by saying (of thieving Jews), 'I apologize, I realize that's redundant.' "

Still, Don Imus's media friends find ways to keep him in their good graces.

Those colleagues proved to be more devoted to Imus than to the people he has slandered. They silently averted their gaze from his record to go on his popular show and sell themselves.

To shift the argument, as some have done, from Imus to the legitimacy of the Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson criticizing Imus, given their own past insensitive remarks, is a smoke screen. The National Association of Black Journalists led the outcry against Imus. We didn't need Sharpton or Jackson to tell us how we should feel about Imus's insults or how to recognize what is morally wrong.

What is needed, however, is for people to come off the sidelines when they see an injustice and, even if they aren't affected, to have the courage and enough regard for their fellow human beings to stand up for what's right.

That much I learned as far back as Francis Junior High School.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company