Is Don Imus irredeemably stupid or just a run-of-the-mill racist? Perhaps the answer is both. On Monday, Imus's sports sidekick, Warner Wolf, was going over the incredibly long arrest history of football star Adam "Pacman" Jones and Imus just couldn't help himself, interrupting with the kind of question Rush Limbaugh would love: "What color is he?"
"African-American," said Wolf. "Well, there you go," harrumphed Imus. "Now we know." That is the racist part. The stupidity swirls about Imus's subsequent excuse for the inexcusable. He was apparently--in the proud tradition of the civil rights movement--standing up for racial justice. The next day on his show, in a desperate effort to hang onto his job, Imus claimed, "Obviously, [the police] are picking on him. So I asked Warner what color he was. Well, obviously, I already knew what color he was. What people should be outraged about is they arrest blacks for no reason. There was no reason to arrest this kid six times. Maybe he did something once, but I mean everyone does something once." He also said Jones is a "lovely kid."
If you believe that Imus was actually speaking out against racism, you must also believe the war in Iraq had nothing to do with oil, Bush and Cheney just joined Amnesty International and Barack Obama is desperately seeking more photo ops with Muslim women.
But even if you do believe that Imus has traded in his five-gallon cowboy hat for a black beret, his own words contradict this. This is the man run out of CBS radio and MSNBC last year for calling the Rutgers women's basketball team "nappy headed hos." This is the man who said that respected African-American journalist Gwen Ifill looked like "the cleaning lady." This is the man whose sidekicks routinely indulge in aggressive anti-Arab racism that elicits chills instead of giggles.
Jones, who despite his arrests and year-long suspension from the league, has never actually been convicted of anything, said yesterday, "I'm truly upset about the comments. Obviously Mr. Imus has problems with African-Americans. I'm upset, and I hope the station he works for handles it accordingly. I will pray for him."
Yet so far WABC has done nothing. They're seemingly convinced that Imus was merely making a misunderstood antiracist statement. Other defenders have come out of the woodwork, although with allies like these, Imus won't be gaining anymore credibility. For instance there's Sean Hannity, who argues, "Do you realize I've heard this guy repeatedly talk about race relations and the negativity and the negative impact it's had on people's lives? Don't you think if you heard that these comments would be in a broader context that you could judge him by before you run out there?" But even conservative commentators who defended Imus vociferously in the past have said that this might be a Selma bridge too far. Conservative Michael Medved, who suggested earlier criticism of Imus to be political correctness run amok, said on CNN that "it might be time for Imus to go."
It's past time for Imus to go. It is ridiculous that people like Sean Hannity, who are all for shredding the Constitution when it comes to the rights of antiwar protesters or detainees in the "war on terror," wrap themselves in the Bill of Rights and champion the First Amendment and "free speech" when it comes to Imus. This has nothing to do with free speech. This is about whether blatant racism is acceptable both in sports and on commercial radio. This is about whether we embrace the idea that with a microphone comes some measure of responsibility. Finally, most critical, this is about whether Imus himself will ever have to own up to anything. He blamed the black community and hip-hop for his comments about the Rutgers women (sure thing, MC Imus.) Now he is blaming the public at large for our own inability to comprehend his supposedly nuanced and principled brand of antiracism.
Imus can spare us all the kabuki theater of pretending to show how much he has learned from the Rutgers incident. Instead, he should actually take some responsibility by simply apologizing and finding another line of work. That's not political correctness. It's just a desire to see the kind of real antiracism we truly need in this country.
Dave Zirin is the first sports correspondent for the Nation Magazine He is the author of "Welcome to the Terrordome" (Haymarket) and "A People's History of Sports in the United States" (The New Press), coming out this summer. Receive his column every week by emailing email@example.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.