Don Imus and Megan Kanka In A Soundbite Nation

Over at BlackProf, Darren Hutchinson has a good post about the understandably strong response to the comments of shock-jock Don Imus. Here’s a taste:

How do persons concerned with racial justice convince people to examine structural racism with the same level of intensity as they devote to incidents such as Nappy-Gate? When idiots like Imus (and Lott and all the other racists du jour) have moments of Freudian slippage, Sharpton, Jackson and others respond; the idiots apologize; and the racist “moments” pass. Victory! But what about the next day? Racism in its structural and individualized forms persists. Is it possible to capitalize on moments like these to bring attention to issues far more dangerous and pervasive than Imus (like conjoined poverty and racism)? Does intense focus on idiot du jour racism, rather than structural racism, make the latter even more obscure and beyond remediation?

I think this is an extremely important point. Events like the Imus fiasco have multiple pathogenic results. They make millions of people feel good about their petty racisms because “I never would have said anything that stupid and offensive.” They create excellent opportunities for individuals and institutions who promote, or benefit from, racism to speak out against Imus and publicly document their supposed opposition to racism, thus innoculating them against future criticism. Most of all, they obscure potent forms of institutional discrimination by creating the impression that Imus-like comments are the prototypical form of racism that we should all worry about.

Ironically, I fear most the suggestion that events like this reduce racism because they generate an important public debate about race. Any public debate happening in the aftermath of Imus seems to be a sideshow obscuring the main event – institutional racism that lacks fingerprints or soundbites, and operates silently and effectively throughout America’s day to day. The Imus affair reminds me a bit of the aftermath of Megan Kanka’s brutal abduction and killing. As bad as that individual case was, the public debate and legislative response – targeting the comparatively rare child sexual abuser who victimizes strangers- completely obscured the much more significant child sexual abuse problem in America: sexual assaults by close friends and family members and, in particular, step-dads and their equivalents. (Robin Wilson’s article remains a critical piece of this literature.)

As a general matter, if CNN can’t describe an issue in 60 second or less, it’s not a problem our society can acknowledge or address. Deep seated societal racism cannot be captured in a clip. Don Imus can be. The consequences? We learn that Imus = racism. Punishment and apology follows. And a relieved nation moves on.

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5 Responses

  1. Dan Filler = Al Roker says:

    Except Al Roker (in an interview available online) made this very same argument and both you and he are wrong. One need only look to the news coverage on NBC (the Today Show, for instance) — notice how NBC is reaping all the ratings from this event — to see black talking heads mention the segregation in the media, the lack of black hosts on NBC, etc. The structural racism argument is being made by those who think public airwaves should not be used to disseminate racist speech and that’s most of the black talking heads who have appeared on NBC in the wake of this incident, including Al Sharpton. One might note, however, that NBC profits from all this activity, and thus theorize that it’s really just the left’s version of the infotainment one sees on Fox.

  2. AYY says:

    “Societal racism?” “Structural racism?” Let’s see. Well, there were the cartoons about Condi and Janice Rogers Brown. There were the snide comments about Clarence Thomas. There was the Duke gang of 88. There were the Michigan BAMN people. I could go on. Is that the racism you mean?

  3. Legally A Pain says:

    Dan Filler Does Not Equal Al Roker.

    To start, the most obvious evidence of that statement is that Dan Filler is not a balding black man; however, and ironically, such visual descriptives are of little use here in the blogsphere, unlike life in the unfortunate real world. Nor does Dan Filler have past experience in weather forecasting (and if his March Madness picks are any indication of forecasting ability, a future in that arena looks bleak as well). The point is that Mr. Filler, a law professor with extensive experience as a public defender, and Mr. Roker, a broadcasting professional who is a life-long member of a minority community, are coming from entirely different places, and have experienced racism in different ways. It would be unfair to say that either is wrong.

  4. Intellectually An Idiot says:

    If you thought I was unaware that Dan Filler and Al Roker are different people, then it casts doubt on the quality of your analysis.

  5. Legally A Pain says:

    Ouch! No, friend, I was mostly just poking at the virtual ribs of Mr. Filler for a bit of fun. However, I do think that your characterizing him and Mr. Roker as “wrong,” when they are merely asserting their opinions – which, in my eyes are very qualified opinions on the matter of a deeply-seeded racism that our society neglects to address – might be interpreted as overly harsh. That said, it is the beauty of this blog that you should have your chance to assert your thoughts as well.