Did Rev. Al Sharpton Get It Right About Don Imus?

Rev. Al Sharpton said Imus’ racist remarks are an
issue of proper use of public airwaves, an old, almost forgotten position in the
free-wheeling world we know today. I think Rev. Al got it right.

It’s not
about whether
you’re a
good man;
this is
about setting
a precedent
that allows
racist language…
–The Rev. Al Sharpton

“It’s not about whether you’re a good man; this is about setting a precedent that allows racist language to be used in mainstream, federally regulated television and radio,” Rev. Al Sharpton told Don Imus when Imus appeared on Sharpton’s syndicated radio program. The transcript is here.

I think Rev. Al got it exactly right. It’s interesting that Rev. Al invoked the broadcast standards issue because the FCC has slowly walked away from its role to protect the public interest in the past twenty years. We’ve heard more racism and offensive language on the airwaves as a result.

In early March two jocks at a New Jersey station announced Operation Rat a Rat/La Cucha Gotcha, a listener participation game encouraging anyone to turn in suspicious individuals. Clearly, the game was a racist put-down making a broad stroke characterization of Latinos as illegal immigrants and playing on the Spanish word for cockroach, “la cucha racha.” As Imus, these two claimed their racist game was mere entertainment and they are equally disrespectful of all races, as if this justifies racist behavior. The Immigrant Solidarity Network for Immigrant Rights called on Latinos to boycott the station’s advertisers and listed them on a website. I note today that advertisers are abandoning Imus as well.

It isn’t far-fetched to note that hate radio began in Rwanda with subtle racial slights and the gradual lifting of the barriers of taste and propriety. An ethos of disrespect developed in which hate-mongering became possible. Racial supremacists were able to deliver messages that led to the killing of Hutus and Tutsis through coded messages that all understood. They didn’t need to advocate slaughter outright to instigate murder.

Is Imus’s behavior approaching this extreme? No. But Rev. Sharpton’s point is on target. Racist language is not acceptable on federally regulated airwaves. Those licensed to use these airwaves are licensed to serve the public good. Imus has gotten away with racist remarks on more than one occasion, capitalizing on the public discussion. MSNBC has tolerated this and politicians and celebrities wanting face time on television overlooked it. In effect, the system enabled Imus, so the outcry today seems more than a little hypocritical. If MSNBC executives had acted at the time of the offense, and not after the public outcry, their words would carry more authenticity.

And those politicians who decry moral values and continue to appear on Imus’ show don’t do anything for their credibility either. This is why I think Rev. Sharpton is correct. What is at issue, besides the cruelty toward the young women of Rutgers’ basketball team, (and this cannot be minimized) is the lack of concern for the public good that is represented by this whole enabling system.

We are not well-served by racism. It corrodes the fabric of our society, it denies a fundamental value–respect for human dignity–and it undermines the public good. This isn’t about Imus being a good guy. It’s about using the public airwaves of mainstream media to tolerate racism and and shredding the fabric of an inclusive community, an important ideal of the historic and evolving Federal project that is E Pluribus Unum.

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