For a guy who makes his living as a professional talker, the topic of race seems to leave Don Imus oddly tongue-tied.
In case you haven't kept up, the pioneer “shock jock” has been broadcasting a new morning show on WABC-AM since last fall, months after he was fired from MSNBC and CBS Radio for cracking that the Rutgers University women's basketball team looked like “nappy-headed hos.”
He returned to work with profuse apologies and a pledge to foster an open dialogue on race relations on his new show. On Monday he fostered the sort of dialogue he had not counted on. Or maybe he had. Listening to the on-air chatter that has stirred up another racial eruption, I had to wonder whether it was just another bonehead mistake or a brilliant publicity stunt.
On Monday's show, sportscaster Warner Wolf was talking about how the Dallas Cowboys football player formerly known as Adam “Pacman” Jones no longer wants to be called “Pacman.” The former “Pacman” is turning over a new leaf after having been suspended for a season and arrested six times.
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Then Imus inexplicably injected race into the conversation:
“What color is he?” asked Imus.
“He's African-American,” said Wolf, sounding a bit bemused.
“Well, there you go,” said Imus. “Now we know.”
Huh? “Now we know” what? Imus did not say. The omission left the rest of us to wonder whether Imus was expressing some sort of soft bigotry of criminal expectations in regard to black athletes.
It should surprise no one that the Rev. Al Sharpton, who led the campaign to have Imus fired last April, popped up to call the new remarks “very disturbing” and say “we are looking into this.”
Jones said he was upset by the remarks and would “pray for” Imus.
Shock jock misunderstood
But Imus insisted that his critics had heard him wrong. On his show the next day, Imus said he was trying to “make a sarcastic point” about unfair treatment of blacks in the criminal justice system but had been misunderstood. He said he actually was defending Jones, who Imus thought was being picked on because of his race.
“What people should be outraged about is that they arrest blacks for no reason,” Imus said.
He also pointed out how his program's cast is now more diverse than ever. It includes a black producer and two black co-hosts – one male and one female.
Still, after his troubles last year, you might think Imus would be extra careful about clarifying what he means the first time he says it, especially about race.But, if he was looking for attention – and what entertainer isn't? – he could hardly have dreamed up a more slippery way to do it. Even his explanation exposed deep racial wounds.
Just as it is offensive to imply that blacks are more criminal than whites, it is also offensive to imply that blacks are arrested “for no reason,” if you don't back up the assertion with some facts. If “there's no reason to arrest this kid six times,” that, too, begs for explanation. Otherwise, Imus seemed to be committing the same offense of which Sharpton often has been accused: exploiting serious issues like race and crime – and shedding more heat than light.
Ironically, if Imus wants to put his edgy humor to the cause of fostering a helpful dialogue on race, he needs to get serious. He could take some valuable tips from George Carlin, a master of the art who died Sunday at age 71. Carlin will be sorely missed by those who appreciate humor that also makes you think. Whether you agreed with him or not, you knew where he stood. Imus, by contrast, has a self-defeating habit of shooting from the lip – and firing blanks.