The Ills Behind That Slur

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Why is it that I am experiencing a terrible bout of cynicism watching all the post-Imus hand-wringing?

It's certainly not that I have any personal stake in Don Imus's firing. I never appeared on his show. I'm not being self-righteous. I was never invited. And that was a relief. I don't think I could have handled Imus.

Nor do I have a problem with his being fired. My heroine in this controversy is my old friend and colleague Gwen Ifill, of whom Imus said when she was assigned to the White House beat in 1993 by the New York Times: "Isn't the Times wonderful? It lets the cleaning lady cover the White House." He survived that, partly because Ifill moved on to greater things.

Ifill got at the essence of what was wrong with Imus's racist and sexist words about members of the Rutgers women's basketball team when she wrote last week in the Times, scorning "people who cannot grasp the notion of picking on people their own size." Ifill did not call for Imus's firing, but he was cooked by her essential point: that the Rutgers women should not be rewarded for their "grit, hard work and courage" by getting called ugly names on the radio. It's good that African Americans have more influence now than they did when Imus demeaned Ifill 14 years ago.

Finally, I have no use for the degrading aspects of a rap culture that has popularized slurs against African Americans and women -- and this despite my teenage son's occasionally successful efforts to get me to understand hip-hop.

Back in 1995, I wrote in praise of the late C. Dolores Tucker, a longtime Democratic Party activist, for her alliance with conservative Bill Bennett against misogynistic lyrics. Teaming up with Bennett did not make her popular in her own party. I quoted her as saying: "African American women got tired of their children calling them 'hos, bitches and sluts." Bless her memory.

So I suppose I should welcome our grand new national conversation about race, gender, shock talk and incivility. After years in which advocates of "political correctness" were criticized for allegedly promoting censorship, maybe we'll realize that public voices have a responsibility to think before they slur.

But I'm not optimistic. I can't help but see this as yet another example of how we are far more comfortable discussing what certain celebrities say than what we as a society do. We love to talk about "the culture" and what can be done about it because such talk is, quite literally, cheap.

Arguing about Imus does absolutely nothing to provide our poorest African American kids with better schools, health insurance, or a chance at college and higher incomes. We rightly heap praise on those noble Rutgers women, but we should ask ourselves whether Imus would have gotten away with comparably sleazy comments targeting less visible and less successful women, or men. I think we know the answer.

We don't want to talk about the structural problems of poverty, racism and class inequality. Words such as "class" and "structure" are so boring. It's much more fun to talk about talk.

But let's look at a few of the supposedly boring facts. According to the U.S. Census, black households in 2005 had a median income of $30,858, compared with $50,784 for non-Hispanic white households. The black poverty rate was 24.9 percent. The white poverty rate was 8.3 percent.

In 2005, according to the Justice Department, 4.7 percent of black males were in prison or jail, compared with 0.7 percent of white males. For men in their late 20s, just under 12 percent of blacks were incarcerated, compared with 1.7 percent of whites. Life expectancy for black men is more than six years shorter than for white men.

Yes, these numbers are an ongoing legacy of racism. And cultural factors, including family breakdown, are an important part of the story. But unless we spend a lot more time, energy, intellectual capital and money grappling with these facts, we can hold countless seminars on "Who Can Say What?"-- the words pasted over Imus's mouth on Time magazine's cover this week -- without doing a single serious thing to undo racism's gravest damage to our most left-out citizens.

What bothers me most is that all of us will feel so much better about ourselves after we condemn Imus -- or hip-hop or trash talk or whatever other target we pick. And when we've finished talking, how much will we have accomplished?

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