A slur, an apology, a termination, a hiatus and a return.
Don Imus’ fall eight months ago was as fast as he was popular. And on Monday, he quietly returned.
It’s not all the same now. Far fewer radio stations broadcast his program, “Imus in the Morning,” than did a year ago. And Imus himself insists he has changed. He referred to the controversy that ended his show as a “life-changing experience.”
It must have been. Newly aware of his potential to offend, he will not be able to recreate his past irreverence.
The rest of us have to hope that the effects of Imus’ experience extend beyond his radio program. As communities across the country continue to handle issues of discrimination and bigotry, examples like Imus’ are vitally important for forging paths for the future.
Imus’ return seems particularly relevant at Yale now, given the recent visible instances of prejudice on campus.
A year ago, Don Imus was not a sports figure. His show, which ran from 1971 to 1977 and then again from 1979 until earlier this year, began as a vehicle for Imus to act as a shock-jock but morphed into a daily revue of news coverage, humor and guest interviews. Only with the show’s switch to WFAN, a 24-hour sports-talk radio station, did Imus regularly incorporate sports coverage into his lineup.
But Imus was prominently thrust into the consciousness of sports fans with his offensive remarks in April. Speaking about the Rutgers women’s basketball team — on their way to the NCAA finals at the time — he called the players “nappy-headed hos.” Along with his co-host and guests on the air, Imus laughed away. Within days, he was fired.
The fuller context is even more offensive. Imus’ comments came after his co-host, Bernard McGuirk, called the players “hard-core hos.” The two, along with guest and former co-host Sid Rosenberg, continued to talk about the players’ “toughness,” comparing them to the Toronto Raptors and the Memphis Grizzlies because of the teams’ names.
Appropriately, Rutgers head coach Vivian Stringer defended her players and attacked Imus on multiple grounds: His three words managed to incorporate racist and sexist thinking. And, perhaps worst of all, he attacked people who deserved just the opposite — respect and admiration beyond that owed to each member of society. In her public response, Stringer wrote:
“Throughout the year, these gifted young ladies set an example for the nation that through hard work and perseverance, you can accomplish anything if you believe. … To serve as a joke of Mr. Imus in such an insensitive manner creates a wedge and makes light of the efforts of these classy individuals, both as women and as women of color.”
Don Imus has provided a perfect example of how complicated 21st-century prejudice is. As a former loyal listener of his show, I am confident that Imus is not a bigot. He is not a racist or a sexist, at least explicitly. And his caring is evidenced by his devotion to the Imus Ranch, a 4,000-acre ranch in New Mexico to which he invites children suffering from cancer, nearly half of whom have been from minority groups in recent years. The ranch costs Imus millions of dollars each year.
But none of that matters. What he said earlier this year was undeniably offensive and obviously prejudiced. “Nappy-headed” served only to identify the players by their race, to categorize them as black (eight of the 10 players were black) and to make their appearance paramount in their public identity. Calling the players “hos” showed once more the amazing disrespect for women that persists in American society today, a disrespect that is accepted in many other contexts.
But Imus’ sin goes beyond the offensive punch of his three-word slip-up. One doesn’t say something like what he did unless one thinks it is acceptable. Forget whether Imus is a racist or a sexist — no one is completely free of prejudice. His remarks showed his lack of regard for people different from him.
Ignoring them as individuals, Imus classified the Rutgers players only by superficial categorizations. His co-hosts are equally guilty of this offense, and we should all wonder about the nature of his program, for that was the environment in which they felt comfortable taking offensive shots at upstanding and admirable young people, college athletes who had achieved all for which they could hope.
Should Imus be back on the air? I don’t know. If his termination was indeed appropriate, as most seemed to believe it was, it is hard to justify allowing him to return to the air. But second chances are not given solely out of kindness.
In examples like Imus’, a second chance is a chance to undo the wrong of the past. It is now the responsibility of the host to do so, and only in this way will his return be justified. Imus must do his part to change the nature of the public discourse.
Pete Martin is a sophomore in Morse College. His column appears every Wednesday.