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Talking Race After Obama and Imus: Can we Calm Down Enough to Learn From Each Other?



This is hard for me to admit -- but I haven't been listening enough.

Not because I regret any of my views about the Don Imus debacle -- if you doubt that, read my column in today's Perspective section.

But because it feels like the whole country has been shouting at each other for more than a week -- pitted against each other by a wrinkly radio star with a penchant for race humor and a news media determined to find ratings heat from racial friction.

You can watch me grapple with these issues on CNN at 10:30 a.m. today, when I stop by Howie Kurtz' Reliable Sources show to talk Imus for what I hope will be the second-to-last time (I'm also scheduled to go on Bubba the Love Sponge's satellite radio show Tuesday). I think I have strong, well-reasoned arguments for why Imus had to be punished for his long history of racist jokes, so I'm not inclined to give much argumentative ground to those who think otherwise.

Still, I found myself thinking about midway through last week: Isn't there a better way to talk about this? 

I have another story in Perspective today talking about Barack Obama and how his presidential candidacy has forced all of us to think about race in new ways. Focused on inclusion and unity rather than conflict and confrontation, Obama has staked out a way of taking about race which is more confortable for white people -- less about making them feel guilty and more about uniting all races in common goals.

Which is a wonderful thing; until we hit a subject on which we can't agree.

Imus wasthe perfect example of this problem. Black people couldn't understand why some white people kept trying to explain away his transgressions; white people couldn't understand why some black people would laugh at Eddie Murphy using the word "ho," groove to Snoop Dogg rapping the word "ho," and demand Don Imus' head for using the same word.

We in the media, charged with bridging those gaps, did nothing but add fuel to the fire -- finding the most contrarian voices for cable TV "debates," turning to Rev's Sharpton and Jackson every chance we got and challenging those trying to end the racist humor more than those who hired the racist humorist.

Worst of all, this debate was taking place mostly on cable TV and talk radio -- the worst mediums for discussion of complex, emotional issues. A teachable moment about race and culture flew past, as everyone was too busy making their own points to consider the viewpoints of others.

Perhaps it's time to admit a few truths:

-- Black people have tolerated awful language referring to black people in rap music for a long time. But one reason white folks don't know that black people have been debating this issue for years, is that mainstream media outlets didn't care so much about the discussion until explicit rap became a counter-argument for Imus.

--- Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are seriously flawed leaders. But mainstream media outlets didn't pay attention to the complaints about Imus, started by the National Association of Black Journalists, until Sharpton joined the protest. One reason peopel feel these two monopolize black issues, is because they are among the few who draw sustained media attention.

--- As attractive as Obama's message of unity is, I'm not sure it would have rid broadcasting of Imus' show effectively as protest and confrontation did. Those executives broadcasting his show already knew how awful it was -- and had already apologized for past jokes before. They were fully prepared to ride out the protests until the sponsor defections, internal protest and bad publicity got too bad. It's telling that Obama didn't issue a statement until after Imus was suspended and Harold Ford jr. -- another black politician with a different take on race -- didn't say much until after he was fired.

--- Some white people argued the issue without fully understanding black people's perspective on things like use of the term "nappy headed" -- not necessarily a slur -- and the fact that a lot of rappers DON'T use racist language liberally. Some black people -- this one included -- were so busy pressing the case for Imus' accountability, we couldn't acknowledge white people's anger over the hypocrisy issues.

And, unfortunately, the lesson so far is that Sharpton's way of addressing racial inequality is more effective than Obama's. Wonder if we'll ever figure a way to address these tough questions without tearing each others' guts out?


[Last modified: Wednesday, July 21, 2010 2:38pm]


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