Earlier this month, “shock jock” radio show host Don Imus was fired from his job at CBS for his comment about the Rutgers University women's basketball team. According to bestselling author Bernard Goldberg, Imus said something even dumber about race a year ago and hardly anyone noticed. Goldberg was invited on TODAY to discuss his new book, "Crazies to the Left of Me, Wimps to the Right." Here is an excerpt:
Don Imus and Sir Charles
I got up one morning and turned the TV to MSNBC to watch Don Imus’s show, which isn’t always easy. Don can be interesting, and funny, and, of course, needlessly cruel to anyone he doesn’t like. But he can also be so boring that your hair begins to hurt. Don, you see, has devoted much of his life to helping sick kids. He’s a genuine humanitarian. And for that he deserves our gratitude. But even his own sidekicks want to put guns to their heads when he goes on and on and on (and on and on) about his latest cause -- autism. And when he’s not boring the hell out of us with that, he’s droning on and on about the nasty chemicals in household window cleaners and why you should buy the “toxic-free” kind his wife came up with. He also spends a mind-numbing amount of time hawking his salsa and chips, which he sells to raise money for the sick kids.
Sometimes, on a day when the big news is about an earthquake in some third world country that left 20,000 dead, he’ll whine about how tough it is to be stuck in heavy traffic while sitting in the back seat of his chauffer-driven limousine. If his coffee gets cold he’ll act like it’s a tragedy on the same scale as the worldwide AIDS epidemic, as one of his own pals once put it. There’s no doubt about it: tuning in to “Imus in the Morning” is like watching a freak show hosted by a nasty Mother Teresa in a cowboy hat. He even looks a little like her
But despite all that he’s still better than a lot of the other banal crap that’s on in the morning. (Once, I actually saw a segment on the CBS morning show on how to properly fold sheets.) Imus, on the other hand – when he’s not being boring -- has an edge. And he goes out of his way to convey the impression that he’s a tough guy who isn’t afraid to say what’s on his mind, no matter who might not like it. But like so many white men, when the subject turns to race, Don Imus is a weenie.
On this particular day he was talking to Charles Barkley, the retired basketball star, whose book about race in America – Who’s Afraid of a Large Black Man? – had just come out in paperback. They started out by talking about the death, the night before, of Coretta Scott King. Sir Charles, who grew up in Alabama, told Imus how much she and her husband Martin Luther King, Jr. had meant to him.
This gave Don an opening to tell Barkley that, “In my view, just as a white man, it doesn’t seem to me that a lot has changed since those marches in Selma.”
Just to make sure it sunk in, let me give you that quotation one more time:
“In my view, just as a white man, it doesn’t seem to me that a lot has changed since those marches in Selma.”
This may be the dumbest single sentence uttered on the subject of race in the 21st century, and one of the dumbest ever. The march from Selma to Montgomery was in 1965. Imus was talking to Barkley in 2006. And not much has changed? Has Don been in a coma?
In 1965, blacks were marching in Selma because George Wallace, the segregationist governor, and the other bigots who ran Alabama, wouldn’t let them vote. Maybe Imus hadn’t noticed, but that changed.
Black people couldn’t eat at lunch counters with white people or drink out of the same water fountains. That changed.
Civil rights workers were being murdered and buried in earthen damns. That changed.
White racist sheriffs were turning vicious dogs and water hoses on black people. That changed.
The idea, in those days, that a black man or woman would someday be elected mayor of a town or city in the Deep South was beyond preposterous. That changed, too.
And so did a million other things, big and small.
But, you see, intelligent white people like Don Imus say monumentally dumb things like this mainly because it makes them feel good. He might as well have said, “You see, Charles, I’ll say anything, no matter how stupid, just so I can show you my racial sensitivity – because that makes me feel like a decent human being.” Actually, more than anything else, it makes the weenies feel less guilty about being white.
Don has authors on his show from time to time. Perhaps he ought to invite on Shelby Steele, a black scholar who wrote a book on the subject, called White Guilt. “Whites know on some level,” Steele wrote, “that they are stigmatized by their skin color alone, that the black people they meet may suspect them of being racist simply because they are white.”
Perhaps Shelby Steele did not have Don Imus specifically in mind when he sat down to write that insightful sentence, but over the years Steele had met plenty of white people, just like Imus, who said dumb things to show their virtue. “White guilt,” Steele says, “does not depend on the goodwill or the genuine decency of people. It depends on their fear of stigmatization, their fear of being called a racist.”
This gives us some important insight into why Don Imus could so cavalierly brush away 40 years of American progress and declare that when it comes to race he hadn’t noticed much change in America since 1965. There’s always the fear that if you say the “wrong” thing, you’ll be seen as a bigot. It’s easier simply to say something dumb than run that risk.
But let’s give Don Imus the benefit of the doubt. Let’s say he isn’t as egregiously ignorant as he sounds. Let’s say he really knows better but was simply being dishonest to show off his “racial manners.” That would put him in some pretty good company.
From the moment our country was founded dishonesty has been the price of admission to enter the conversation on race. Remember that line our Founding Fathers came up with and enshrined in the Declaration of Independence? The one about how “All men are created equal.” The slaves must have gotten a kick out of that. A century later we were supposed to believe Americans could really live their lives “separate but equal.”
Don Imus’s observation, “it doesn’t seem to me that a lot has changed since those marches in Selma” — while not as eloquent as “All men are created equal” — is just as dishonest.
Except on this particular day, the big black man wasn’t buying any of it. When Imus asked Charles Barkley if he agreed that not much had changed since the days of Selma, Sir Charles said, No, he most definitely did not agree. Sounding a lot like Bill Cosby, he told Imus that, “We as black people have become our own worst enemy. If you’re out there killing other black kids, selling drugs, having kids you can’t afford, and not getting your education, you just compound the problem. Racism exists. But there comes a point when you have to say enough is enough.”
Imus, as “just a white man” didn’t have the guts to say any of that, even though he surely must have known that Barkley was speaking a sad truth. But then Sir Charles — unlike Don Imus and the other sissies who are afraid to talk honestly and openly about race — has both sense and courage, and precious little respect for guilt-ridden white men, or for the niceties of their hollow platitudes about race in America.So what we continue to get is timid nonsense from frightened white people consumed by guilt and more than willing to ignore nearly a half century of progress on the matter of race in America; white people who feel most comfortable when they’re gingerly tiptoeing around the subject. Too bad important issues like the ones Charles Barkley and Bill Cosby and more than a few black conservatives talk about all the time are too hot for the well-off white weenies to handle. You think they’d show a little more courage if it was their kids who were killing themselves?
Excerpted from “Crazies to the Left of Me, Wimps to the Right” by Bernard Goldberg. Copyright 2007 Bernie Goldberg. Reprinted with the permission from the publisher, Harper Collins.