Imus Humiliated? Big Deal

Jimmy the Greek (1988). John Rocker (1999). Trent Lott (2002).  And now Don Imus – all taken down (though Lott has been somewhat restored) because they made public racist comments. They have suffered because they used racist words.

Imus’s case (like his comment) is particularly graphic.  He is paying dearly for calling the young black women of the Rutgers college basketball team a bunch of “nappy headed hoes.”


To which I say two things.


First, good riddance, Don Imus, you’ve been fouling the public airwaves with your noxious racist nonsense for long enough.


Second, big deal. The deeper, entrenched societal – historical and institutional racism – the structurally imposed white supremacy lives on despite the occasional, ritualistic public humiliation of Imus and his ilk.


In fact, I’m not sure, the deeper racism – the racism of unequal structures and unspoken deeds – deepened by the symbolic defenestration of such primitive, verbally racist clowns.


I’m getting tired of these incidents in which “white America” (Martin Luther King Jr.’s phrase) gets yet another opportunity to pat itself on the back for being compelled by the long shadow of the Civil Rights Movement to de-legitimize primitive, level-one racism.


These recurrent and occasional public rituals of symbolic white humiliation help maintain the majority white illusion that racism no longer poses significant barriers to black advancement and racial equality in the United States.  


The main problem with the conventional white wisdom holding that racism no longer poses relevant barriers to black Americans in post-Civil Rights America is a failure to distinguish adequately between overt “state of mind” racism and covert institutional, societal, and “state-of-being” racism.  The first variety of racism has a long and sordid history. It includes such actions, policies and practices as the burning of black homes and black churches, the murder of “uppity” blacks and civil rights workers, the public use of derogatory racial slurs and epithets, the open banning of blacks from numerous occupations, the open political disenfranchisement of blacks and the open segregation of public facilities by race. 


It is largely defeated, outlawed and discredited in the U.S. In the “politically correct” climate that exists today and which owes part of its existence to the victories of the Civil Rights Movement, it is difficult to imagine thousands of white Chicagoans carrying signs saying “Nigger Go Home” (and related sentiments) as blacks marched through one of the city’s nearly all-white neighborhoods.  It would be hard today to imagine a white politician openly counseling whites to vote against a black candidate because “it’s a racial thing,” as Chicago alderman Eddie Vrdolyak put it in the spring of 1983, when the popular African American leader Harold Washington became the first black to win the city’s Democratic mayoral primary.


But the second variety lives on, with terrible consequences.  It involves the more impersonal operation of social, economic and institutional forces and processes that both reflect and shape the related processes of capitalism in ways that “just happen” but nonetheless serve to reproduce black disadvantage in numerous interrelated key sectors of American life. It includes racially segregating real estate and home-lending practices, residential “white flight” (from black neighbors), statistical racial discrimination in hiring and promotion, the systematic under-funding and under-equipping of schools predominately attended by blacks relative to schools predominately attended by whites, the disproportionate surveillance, arrest and incarceration of blacks, the disproportionate concentration of predatory financial institutions and the converse absence of essential business and services (banks, full-service grocery stores, doctor and dentist offices etc.) in black communities.


Richly enabled by policymakers who commonly declare allegiance to anti-racist ideals, this deeper racism has an equally ancient history that has outlived the explicit, open and public racism of the past and the passage of justly cherished civil rights legislation.


It does not necessarily involve individual white bigotry or even subtly prejudiced “ill will” against blacks. It does not required evil, prejudiced words.  Consciously or even unconsciously prejudiced white actors are not necessarily required and black actors are more than welcome to help enforce the societal racism of the post-King era. This entrenched, enduring, and more concealed societal racism is about structures and deeds – objectively unequal policies, practices and institutions – not language and words. 


This deeper racism does not depend on racist intent or rhetoric to exist as a relevant social and political phenomenon.  It only needs to produce racially disparate outcomes through the operation of objectively racialized processes.  It critically includes a pivotal failure and/or refusal to acknowledge, address, and reverse, the living (present and future) windfall bestowed on sections of the white community by “past” racist structures, policies and practices that were more willfully and openly discriminatory toward blacks. 


The racism that matters most today does not require a large portion of the white population to be consciously and willfully prejudiced against blacks or any other racial minority.  “State-of-being” or “structural racism” generates racially disparate results even without racist intent – “state-of-mind” racism – on the part of white actors.  It oppresses blacks with objectively racialized social processes that work in “routine” and “ordinary” fashion to sustain racial hierarchy and white supremacy often and typically without white racist hostility or purpose.  The prolific anti-racist sociologist Joe Feagin has been writing about this for a long time. 


Sadly, the fact that level-one racism has been defeated while the deeper level-two racism survives is not just a matter of the social and racial justice glass being half-full.  It’s more darkly complicated than that. The second and deeper level of racial oppression may actually be deepened by civil rights victories and related black upward mobility into the middle and upper classes insofar as those victories and achievements encourage the illusion that racism has disappeared and that the only obstacles left to African-American success and equality are internal to individual blacks and their community – the idea that, in Derrick Bell’s phrase, “the indolence of blacks rather than the injustice of whites explains the socioeconomic gaps separating the races.” 


“It’s hard,” Leonard Steinhorn and Barbara Diggs-Brown have noted, “to blame people” for believing  (falsely in  Steinhorn and Diggs-Brown’s view) that racism is dead in America “when our public life is filled with repeated affirmations of the integration ideal and our ostensible progress towards achieving it.”  In a similar vein, Sheryl Cashin notes that “there are [now] enough examples of successful middle-class African-Americans to make many whites believe that blacks have reached parity with them.  The fact that some blacks now lead powerful mainstream institutions offers evidence to whites that racial barriers have been eliminated; the issue now is individual effort.”  Deeds of racism get trumped by words and images of racial inclusion and equality.


And the white-run culture’s regular rituals of self-congratulation about the nation’s defeat of overt, level-one racism – the Martin Luther King, Jr. national holiday, the playing of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech over school sound systems and on television, the routine reference to integrationist ideals in political speeches, etc. – tend to reinforce the dominant white sentiment that the United States no longer has much of anything to answer for in regard to its treatment of black America.


Belated though it may be, the prosecution and conviction of older white racist killers from the dying days of the Jim Crow South reinforces the cultural denial about the living and even deepening racism that matters most in the post-Civil Rights era – the one that it practically written into the operation of established and respected social forces. “See,” many whites conclude, “we are so militantly opposed to racism that we even prosecute these old Klan types at the end of their lives.”


A similar logic comes into play with the Rocker/Greek/Lott/Imus ritual. “See, “ the white majority claims, “we are so remarkably anti-racist that Imus is out of a job for saying racist things about black females – using words that are mild in comparison to what black rappers say about black females! We are one liberal and progressive nation when it comes to race! Did you know I’m even thinking about voting for Barack Obama? We husband saw him on Oprah; we watch her every day.”


Please. They watch in a living room in a highly segregated, possibly all-white neighborhood or town that is much whiter than the U.S. population as a whole, where black home-seekers are rarely taken by real estate agents and where blacks are routinely subjected to racial profiling. Many Caucasians “like” Oprah and Obama partly because those two “good blacks” cultivate white trust by trimming their sales on difficult and stubborn questions of racial oppression (on Obama’s deep accommodation of dominant racial [and  socioeconomic and imperial] hierarchies, see Paul Street, “The Pale Reflection: Barack Obama, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Meaning of the Black Revolution,” Black Agenda Report, March 21, 2007, available online at  http://www.blackagendareport.com/index.php? option=com_content&task=view&id=149&Itemid=34).


As Ralph Nader argues, there’s words and then there’s deeds. The real proof of racism’s defeat in America will come only when real-life social and policy actions are properly aligned with purportedly cherished words of integration and justice:


“Words inflaming more than deeds is also too often the case when racial epithets are uttered by public figures. All those groups and civil rights leaders who conquered and ended the Don Imus media empire should ask themselves what have they done in any sustained manner, given their power and media access, about the brutality of racism by commercial interests in the urban ghettos. Deaths, injuries, disease and loss of livelihood are a daily occurrence, apart from raw street crime and drugs. Little children seriously poisoned by lead, asbestos and other toxics. Whole neighborhoods redlined without adequate corporate police protection. Predatory lending, predatory interest rates, marketing shoddy products and contaminated food proliferate.”


“Where have been the cries of outrage, the demands for removal of these conditions and prosecution of these crooks and defrauders? The abysmal conditions are daily, weekly, monthly. They have been occasionally reported in gripping human interest terms and statistics and maps.”


“If only the offenders used words, instead of committing these awful deeds. Maybe there would have been action, front page headlines and prime time television and radio coverage. If only they used words!” (Ralph Nader, “Outrageous Words, Outrageous Deeds,” Common Dreams, available online [April 19, 2007]at www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=91&ItemID=12616).



Martin Luther King, Jr. foresaw this problem. He was concerned, with good reasons, that the defeat of open segregation and racial terrorism in the South would reinforce the majority white nation’s tendency to avoid more covert, established, respected and nation-wide forms of racial oppression while encouraging whites to falsely conclude that “all the nation’s racial problems have been solved.”


It is important to remember that the bigotry to which the belatedly humiliated shock-jock Imus gave FCC-amplified voice is historically rooted in more than prejudice as such. Anti-black prejudice originated from a need to defend and advance the special economic super-exploitation and material subordination of blacks.  That long exploitation gave rise to a historically cumulative racial wealth and power gap whereby contemporary disparities are fed by past inequalities in powerful ways suggesting that the very distinction between past and present racism is part of the ideological superstructure of contemporary white supremacy functioning as an ongoing barrier to black advancement and equality. It also created a context for rampant white male sexual exploitation of black female slaves, creating a mark of sin that slavery’s apologists tried to mitigate by painting out black females as promiscuous “Jezebels” – “nappy headed hoes” in 21st century parlance (see Deborah Gray White’s remarkable study Aren’t I a Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South [New York, NY: WW Norton, 1999])



It’s time to stop being impressed by things like the public shaming of Trent Lott and Don Imus.  It’s long past time for whites to stop congratulating themselves for thinking they might vote for a technically black (e.g. Barack Obama) politician or for watching Oprah or for putting up a LeBron James or a Tiger Woods poster or for disciplining an employee who said “nigger” on the job.


It’s long past time to reserve a sense of being impressed for policies and actions that seriously tackle the deep, inherited, structural and living historical barriers to racial justice and equality in the U.S.


Don Imus can apologize all he wants to the young women at Rutgers and to the black community in general.  Apologetic words about racist words are nice but deeds matter more – deeds that start to go to the root of disparities. 


I’ll be impressed when Imus provides the lion’s share of his Caucasian fortune to organizations fighting contemporary racist deeds in the U.S.  I’ll be more impressed when he supports those working to advance the case for constructive racial reparations – when he gives his wealth to the cause of starting to fix some of the damage inflicted on black America by centuries of historically imposed white privilege.


But I’m not holding my breath on that. Most whites react negatively to the notion that they should be expected to pay through programs like affirmative action or even reparations for slavery and discrimination that took place before they were born. “Get over it” they say, disregarding the facts that the historically accumulated white racial windfalls of slavery and Jim Crow live on, that some black Americans are still just two generations removed from their enslaved ancestors and that (as Feagin notes)“the near slavery of legal segregation only came to an end in the 1960s, well within the lifetimes of many Americans alive today.”


(I am one of those Americans. They passed didn’t pass the elementary Civil Rights Act until 1964, when I was a first-grader who could be forgiven for thinking that racism wasn’t an issue in the U.S. because the World Series Champion St. Cardinals relied on Bob Gibson, Bill White, Curt Flood and Bill White.) 


Apologies for contemporary level-one racism and even, as is becoming increasingly popular for southern state governments, for slavery are nice. What is really needed are programs, structures and policies for a meaningful and many-sided reparations effort. And as Martin King used to say, it won’t be cheap.



Paul Street ([email protected]) is a journalist and author in Iowa City.  His next book Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: A Living Black Chicago History will be released in June.



Leave a comment