Passing the Buck and Missing the Point:
Don Imus, White Denial and Racism in America
by Tim Wise
…those who are telling black folks to “get over it,” when it comes to racial slurs, such as those offered up by Imus, are missing an important point: namely, the slurs are not the real issue. The issue is that these slurs (be they of the “nappy-headed ho” variety, or the semi-psychotic string of vitriol spewed by Michael Richards a few months back) take place against a backdrop of systemic and institutional racism. And that backdrop–of housing and job discrimination, racial profiling, unequal health care access, and a media that regularly presents blacks in the worst possible light (think the persistent and inaccurate reports of murder and rape by African Americans in New Orleans during the Katrina tragedy)–makes verbal slights, even if relatively minor, take on a magnitude well beyond the moment of their issuance.
One thing has been made clear by the Imus incident: namely, white folks are incapable of blaming other whites for white racism and racist behavior. Despite all the demands by whites that blacks take “personal responsibility” for their lives, their behaviors, and the problems that often beset their communities–and especially that they stop blaming whites for their station in life–the fact is, we can’t wait to blame someone else when we, or one of ours, screws up. So please note, from virtually every corner of the white media (and from black conservatives who are quick to let whites off the hook no matter what we do), the conversation has shifted from Imus’s racism to a full-scale assault on rap music and hip-hop. In other words, it’s those black people’s fault when one of ours calls them a name. After all, they do it themselves, and Imus can’t be expected not to say “ho” if Ice Cube has done it. At this point, I’m halfway expecting to hear Bill O’Reilly say that white folks wouldn’t have even heard words like nigger if it weren’t for 50 Cent.
In addition to trying to shift the blame for white racism onto black folks, we whites seem to be congenitally incapable of simply condemning racism, and after such condemnation, ending the sentence with a period. No indeed, after each condemnation it appears as though we are compelled to offer a comma, followed by a semi-exculpatory clause, which minimizes or outright nullifies the force of the condemnation itself.
As in, “Yes, what Imus said was horrible, and mean-spirited” (and sometimes we’ll even admit, racist, although several were unable to verbalize this word), “but he does wonderful charity work,” or runs “a camp for kids with cancer.”
So long as the bigger problem of institutional injustice remains off the radar screens of the media however, even victories against personal bias will remain largely irrelevant. And this is so because it is that larger racial inequity that so often contributes to personal bias in the first place, by giving the impression to weak-minded individuals that those on the bottom of the social and economic structure must have something wrong with them, or else they’d be doing better. That is what our society encourages us to believe, after all. Until we get a handle on racism as a social phenomenon, we’ll be unlikely to make lasting progress on ending it as a personal one, whether for Imus, or anyone else.