Don Imus: the good-natured racist

CONSTANCE L. RICE is a civil rights attorney in Los Angeles.

‘THAT’S SOME nappy-headed hos.” When white radio shock jock Don Imus dropped this little gem about the Rutgers women’s basketball team onto the airwaves, he couldn’t possibly have imagined that it would trigger a two-week suspension of his top-rated radio gig, the “Imus in the Morning Show.”

On the Imus insult meter, “nappy-headed hos” wouldn’t rate above a 3. It doesn’t even come close to one of his meaner riffs. Regular listeners of the show expect racist and sexist banter. As Imus explained to Mike Wallace on “60 Minutes” in 1998, his show has someone specially assigned to do “nigger jokes.” But rest assured, the Imus crew has plenty of kike, wetback, mick, spick, dago, Jap, Chink, redneck and unprintable Catholic priest jokes too. Not to mention the rabid homophobia and occasional Islamophobia.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, the NAACP, NOW — the whole civil and women’s rights establishment — are up in arms, and they should be. Imus’ remarks were racist, offensive and, given that these athletes are not fair targets, out of bounds. There is no excuse for what he said.

But there’s also no basis for firing him or ending his show. Firing Imus for racist riffs would be like firing Liberace for flamboyance. It’s what he does.

More to the point, Imus should only be fired when the black artists who make millions of dollars rapping about black bitches and hos lose their recording contracts. Black leaders should denounce Imus and boycott him and call for his head only after they do the same for the misogynist artists with whom they have shared stages, magazine covers and awards shows.

The truth is, Imus’ remarks mimic those of the original gurus of black female denigration: black men with no class. He is only repeating what he’s heard and being honest about the way many men — of all races — judge women.

Just as black comedians who make mean jokes about Asians and Latinos don’t see themselves as racists, I’m sure that Imus doesn’t see himself as a racist either. He reveres blues artists such as B.B. King and Ray Charles. He praises American icons such as Jackie Robinson and Martin Luther King Jr. He clearly likes former Tennessee Rep. Harold Ford and has interviewed Sharpton a few times. He treated Lani Guinier with uncharacteristic respect during her guest appearance to discuss her latest book.

His sympathy for the Katrina victims came through. And after the James Byrd dragging-lynching in Texas in 1998, Imus did not joke. In serious tones that couldn’t hide his sorrow or disgust, he quietly remarked that it was unwise for black people to ever trust whites.

After listening to him for 10 years, I’ve concluded that Imus is not a malevolent racist. He is a good-natured racist. And the streak of decency running down his self-centered, mean persona is sometimes pretty wide.

Imus and company are jocular misanthropes who say what a lot of folk only dare to think. That’s why many tune in: to eavesdrop on a seventh-grade white boys’ locker room — and to hear some of the best political interviews on the air. More often than not, the humor works, but it is universally offensive and sometimes goes too far, as it did in this case.

It is what it is. If his show has to go, there are hard-hitting black and Latino acts on cable that will be put in the cross hairs next. In the end, it’s healthier to have what people of all races really think out in the open rather than hounded into the shadows.

After Imus sincerely apologizes to the women on the Rutgers team and listens to the well-deserved criticism, he should go back to doing what he does best — tearing down the powerful.

And then the rest of us concerned about black female denigration can begin to examine our own glass mansions.