Tuesday, April 17, 2007

On skewering Imus but missing the point:

What Don Imus said is inexcusable and it is probably appropriate that he was fired, if only because access to a national radio audience is not something that should be awarded someone who repeatedly uses the platform to utter rude remarks. (I probably would have said the same thing about Imus even before the “nappy-headed hos” comment.)

Firing Don Imus may allow the media storm to blow over and CBS to find a reliable new source of ad revenue, but the thing is: firing one person doesn’t do much to address our societal problem with race. (Keep in mind, several other “luminaries” have been embroiled similarly in recent memory with no discernible or lasting impact.) Actually I’m not all that surprised by Imus’ behavior. I am more disappointed in the resulting “moral outrage,” which has been a little, um, weak and obligatory. We’re having a knee-jerk P.C. reaction rather than seizing an opportunity to look deeply at our national disease, with intent to cure it once and for all.

I think the things Imus, Michael Richards, Mel Gibson and the others have said are so telling because they slip out despite the expectations that we behave. These are the famous (now infamous), whose every word is listened to by many and/or recorded. How many others “slip” under the radar in insidious ways which, taken together, prevent real equality?

I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but unlike most of the pundits, I have spent some time thinking about the real problem. Here’s what I’ve come up with:

Possible solution: Reparations

I don't know if we as a society are ever going to get over the race thing because I don't think most white people think they do anything to oppress black people or that they have any responsibility in the present because of the past. Despite some talk of reparations, society has never made amends for what it has done to black people. I don’t think most white people really think reparations are owed—witness the way many white people react to affirmative action. But making reparations in tangible form ($) would be the societal analog of the heartfelt apology in a family relationship. It would absolve the oppressors of guilt, while acknowledging the herculean struggle of those who have been oppressed these several hundred years, and helping to reverse the damage in real terms.

Possible Solution: Get to Know Each Other Better

I think deep down many white people think there is a lot of truth to the stereotypes of black people and what's complicated about stereotypes is that that's always the case. But all human beings are complicated and multi-dimensional. Black people have contributed so much to our culture-- and white people show their respect/envy/awe (interesting that the synonyms of awe in my thesaurus are: fear, terror, dread, fright, trepidation, fearfulness) of that in a way by copying, usurping, imitating black people in music etc. a la Elvis Presley right through Emminem-- but there's still no broader respect. It may be the same mentality that allowed masters to beat a slave one day and make babies with her the next... and then beat them too. Call it morbid fascination or (God forbid) jungle fever. What it is really is xenophobia—fear of the other.

What we need is for everybody to really know and care about some people from each of the other groups. Knowing real people with all their complexities makes it easier to see the similarities among us and harder to subscribe to stereotypes. To do this, we need to take down the institutional walls that still divide us from healthcare to red-lining to education to salaries.

Possible Solution: Become Color Blind?

I don't think race, which is not real but a construct so, more accurately, color will ever be something we don't see. And I agree with all that greeting card sentiment about America as tossed salad rather than melting pot. Diversity makes life rich and interesting, why would we want to ignore it? Much harder is to see people as they are and value people who are different from us anyway.

King didn’t say the goal was to be color-blind. He said someday he dreamed we’d see people not for the color of their skin but for the content of their characters. Those women on the Rutgers team have shown who they are: hard-working, talented, accomplished, poised as well as black. Don Imus looked past all that and saw the same old stereotype (or maybe even dredged it up purposely to neutralize strong women who embodied the anti-stereotype). He’s not an aberration. If we keep pretending he is, we will never live King’s dream.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I find it heartening that there seems to be more consequence resulting from the harmful commentary of individuals great and small. Bigotry is not protected speech and chilling it is a good thing. The result is not what one would call universal or even predictable, but every little bit helps. It's a step. Once in a great while we get to take a giant leap. The next one may be an anti-climactic female or president of color. Or maybe not.

But it is true that there's denial among white people about owing reparations or even about taking responsibility. Denial is a major sport. There are Holocaust deniers and they get reported in the media, run countries, win elections. When I look at a guy like Wolfowitz I think, there's a monument to the white male paradigm of arrogant denial if ever there was one. I have more fear of that guy than any kid wearing his pants around his ankles.

I don't think anybody has it right yet. How can we know how we're supposed to act when we even can't talk about the elephant in the kitchen?

Will paying money called reparations help? I doubt it. Money, like water, finds the quickest way down the drain. But suppose that doesn’t matter. There are other difficulties. Will American blacks identify themselves as an oppressed class entitled to reparation (or pretend to do so since there’s funding available), and how will they feel about that? Will American whites agree the payment to their neighbors is just, fair and right? What about the other races not invited to play? What about other countries that benefited and contributed?

If we succeed for once in focusing only on our own poop, and if everybody climbs aboard the bus, a big if, where does the money go? This is not an insignificant question given the scale of the payment owing (I’ve heard somebody owes my neighbor and his brothers and sisters about a trillion dollars). Will we use the money to buy lottery tickets (those amazing voluntary tax payments – who thought that one up?), or perhaps another flat screen telly? Or a trust fund for our family but not by god yours? Or mother and father’s health care provided by white-owned major corporations? Hey, are we allowed to ask where the money will go and whether it’s a good thing? Yes we are. Common wealth.

Should we pay the money anyway? Yes we should. Why? Because although money talks, money is a deed and not a word. We can start raising the money by filling in that five-sided money pit in Arlington, Virginia, and after that we can hold that bake sale people wanted to do when the “Sell a Cookie -- Buy a Bomber” campaign got going for five minutes thirty years ago.

But rather than still another tax credit, I’d pay money forward to something with lasting social significance like a thousand-year global college trust fund, or a pan-African development fund. A real trust too, not one of these phony government ones. Something like the amount of money times 100 that Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are using to begin to bring better health care to Africa would be a good annual investment.

Gates and Buffett probably see their largesse as seeding a future market but it was the African continent that lost the most from slavery, and it still is. Gold and diamonds and men, women and children and riches beyond measure stolen and exported, further generations of oppression and apartheid laws, tribal genocide ignored, disease unchecked and untreated, kids orphaned and abandoned by the thousand. Talk about denial.

Sadly, global warming is about to distract us and Africa will suffer the most again.