The Race Debate

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 11, 2007; 10:00 AM

Maybe something good will come out of the Imus mess.

It was absolutely riveting television, watching the Rutgers women's basketball team yesterday, from the coach, Vivian Stringer, to the players who took the microphone. In the course of denouncing Don Imus for his terrible racist crack about the team, they did more than show that they have great class. They did more than shatter every negative stereotype that might be floating around about African American women. They made us all confront the issue of race.

Imus's remarks were repugnant, as he himself now recognizes, which is why he's spent the last two days apologizing--on his show, on Al Sharpton's show, on the "Today" show. The two-week suspension by CBS Radio and MSNBC was entirely appropriate, as Imus has acknowledged.

But without excusing in any way what Imus said, where did he get the term "ho's" in the first place? From a polluted culture that regularly gets a pass from big corporations and critics. I don't see anyone calling on rap artists like Eminem, who fill their music with racist and misogynistic lyrics about abusing and even murdering women, to apologize. No, they get big-money contracts because they sell a lot of CDs.

What about Imus's critics? Jesse Jackson fathered an out-of-wedlock child with a top aide -- he said he was sorry -- and used the anti-Jewish slur Hymietown in his first presidential campaign. And I'm still waiting for Sharpton to apologize for slandering a white detective in backing Tawana Brawley's false claims of gang rape two decades ago.

Journalists like me who have gone on Imus's show have done so because we enjoyed the opportunity to talk about politics and media without the stuffiness of so many other programs. And it's probably true that too many of us looked the other way when he went over the line with some of his cruder comedy bits. He's now vowing to clean up his act, and I hope he does. It's one thing to make fun of politicians or journalists as liars and weasels; we're in the public arena and fair game. A group of hardworking student athletes isn't. They didn't do anything to warrant being slimed.

What will the presidential candidates do? John McCain and Rudy Giuliani, after criticizing the Rutgers crack, say they'll continue to appear on the program. Chris Dodd announced on "Imus in the Morning." It's not an issue for Hillary Clinton, who's never come on--not surprisingly, considering that in the mid-90's Imus ran a song parody called "That's Why The First Lady Is a Tramp." But it was Clinton's husband who put Imus on the national map by bantering with him during the 1992 New York primary.

In my view, Imus is not a hater or a bigot. He supported Harold Ford when the African American congressman ran for the Senate. He's raised tens of millions of dollars for kids with cancer, of all races, who are put up at his New Mexico ranch. Imus practices a form of insult comedy that too often goes up to the line of decency, goes over the line or, as in this case, obliterates it. But he seems truly chastened by this bit of stupidity.

I was struck by two things that the Rutgers women said. One was to ask of the networks that are now pestering them for interviews, where were you when we were just an underdog team fighting for a national championship? The other was their willingness to meet with Imus. They showed that, despite the unwarranted insult, they're willing to engage in dialogue.

"It was not the first time Don Imus uttered something racist, homophobic, sexist or anti-Semitic," says the L.A. Times. "But the shock jock's comments last week about the Rutgers University women's basketball team continues to eclipse any controversy created by all of his previous slurs, sparking soul-searching from past guests and supporters."

Even the White House had to weigh in: " 'The president believed that the apology was the absolute right thing to do,' spokeswoman Dana Perino said. 'And beyond that, I think that his employer is going to have to make a decision about any action that they take based on it.' "

And then there's Obama: "With the Rev. Al Sharpton leading calls Monday for radio host Don Imus to be fired over racially insensitive remarks, Senator Barack Obama's presidential campaign avoided the controversy throughout the day," says the Boston Globe.

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