By James Harris
Longtime radio personality Don Imus and his executive producer, Bernard McGuirk, have been fired by MSNBC and CBS for their racially charged dialogue during which they referred to members of the Rutgers women’s basketball team as “nappy-headed hos.” Imus and McGuirk’s comments triggered sharp opposition from black leaders Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. And though both civil rights bigwigs have made careers out of these kinds of remonstrations, I think Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would be ashamed of the way that Jackson and Sharpton have pimped his legacy.
During the civil rights movement, blacks fought to gain a seat at the table, asking for basic human rights—to be able to drink from the same fountain as whites, not to be lynched by lawmakers and so on. King’s leadership in the 1950s and ‘60s stemmed from one hope: “That little black boys and little black girls would be able to sit at the table of brotherhood with little white boys and little white girls.” King’s dream has, for the most part, come true.
But in the time since, what have blacks and black leaders done with their civil rights? What have leaders like Jackson and Sharpton done to strengthen the spirit of black children who continue to grow up in violent and disjointed communities? By and large, predominantly black areas have festered in tragedy while black leadership has failed to reverse the plight of the black populace.
Michael Eric Dyson, an author and a University of Pennsylvania professor, explained on NBC’s “Today” show that if people like Imus “are using the airwaves to spread hate, [their and] his racial epithets must be met with equal force.” Imus has indeed been met with blunt and comparable force from the black community and from advertisers General Motors and Procter & Gamble. But given the fact that black male high school graduates in their 20s are jobless at a rate of 30 to 50 percent and black male dropouts are jobless at a rate of 60 to 70 percent and, as board Co-Chair of AIDS Project of the East Bay Michon Coleman explained to me, black women account for nearly 70 percent of all new AIDS cases in the United States, there are far more pressing matters for blacks than an inundated radio loudmouth.
If Imus and his cohorts get on the radio and scream “Nigger!” repeatedly for four hours, that has nothing to do with black people. Why does it matter what he says? If the black family is to be made strong, then blacks must take responsibility for their own uplift. And, yes, protest is part of that responsibility, but this particular protest was a waste of time.
I have spoken to Al Sharpton on a few occasions; his radio show and TV show are outstanding. Simply put, he gets it. But I would ask the Reverend, when are blacks going to get past protest of racist diatribe and get to the reparation of the black family? If blacks fail to start reconstruction on their broken social and economic structures and don’t collaborate to start open, honest dialogue about the misogyny and violence that bedevil hip-hop and about the tendency of black men to find homes in prisons across America, then progress will continue to evade those who need it most.
The Imus episode and the surrounding hoopla only divert the attention of America as they force us to recognize the obvious: that there are still racists among us. Dr. King’s legacy was never about making sure whites like Imus didn’t use inflammatory language, but rather it was about the establishment of dignity and pride for blacks who had been stripped of their humanity. What happened to that struggle, to that kind of improvement? I will not—nor should you—celebrate the dismissal of Imus, because after his 15 minutes of shame are over, black men will still be slaying each other with unbelievable frequency in Camden, N.J.—only minutes from Rutgers University. Don Imus may be out of a job, but black pride is still fading into the abyss.