This one could get me in trouble.This weekend, Major League Baseball is celebrating "Jackie Robinson Day" honoring the man that first broke the color barrier in America's Pastime. This morning, some of the biggest names in the African-American community (as well as giants of sports, politics etc.) will pay their respects to the man that put Grambling State University on the map, Eddie Robinson. But most of the talk this weekend on sports and political programs won't be focused on these two wonderful men. The pundits and their rabid listeners will probably be discussing Don Imus, and Newt Gingrich.
A little more than a week ago, Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House, made this less-than-well-thought-out statement,
We should replace bilingual education with immersion in English so people learn the common language of the country and they learn the language of prosperity, not the language of living in a ghetto.
He has since apologized (in Spanish even) insisting that while his word choice was poor, his thoughts were well-intentioned. The idea (and I agree with him on this) was that those who speak English fluently have an exponentially better chance of succeeding financially and otherwise in our society. By using mostly (or entirely) their native tongue, immigrants are locking themselves into place geographically, financially and otherwise. For these statements, Newt was hung out to dry.
Aren't they true? Isn't learning the language of business one of the easiest things a person can do to put themselves in a position to succeed? Sure he could have made his point without using that flag word, "ghetto", and therefore implying (however unintentionally) that immigrants (particularly Latinos) WANT to be (and stay) in the ghetto. That's not what Newt meant, and it's not even really what he said. But that's how it was taken. So he apologized and explained. Very good, Newt.
Then there's Don Imus. Imus is not (thank God) a former Speaker of the House. He is the forefather of Disc Jockeys like Howard Stern and Opie and Anthony. He has recently skewed his show a little more political and has hosted some high caliber guests. This made it all the more noticeable when he and his producer, Bernard McGuirk, had the following conversation:
"That's some rough girls from Rutgers," Imus said. "Man, they got tattoos..."
"Some hardcore hos," McGuirk
"That's some nappy-headed hos there, I'm going to tell you that," Imus said.
So, before we go any further. I want everyone to understand that these two incidents are COMPLETELY different. Newt Gingrich made an intelligent comment in a tactless way, Don Imus made an insensitive comment trying to get a laugh. This isn't Imus' first controversy, and I'm sure it won't be his last (his ratings are far too high for him to be fired altogether), but hopefully it will make him understand that there are consequences to his actions.
That being said, why do we react so strongly to Imus' statements while letting others just like them pass without commentary. Mr. McGuirk, Imus's producer, made a further racially insensitive statement that is almost never mentioned when journalists or editorialists discuss the incident. Might that be because McGuirk's statement was a quote from a Spike Lee movie? If I read the lyrics to almost any song from rappers like Eazy E or Dr. Dre (minus the profanities of course) over the airwaves, would I be called out for bigotry, racism and misogyny, or would it be overlooked because of the authors?
Don Imus got a butt whooping in the press, and he deserved it, but he's not anywhere near the worst offender where misogynistic and racist comments are concerned. When is it okay to question the actions of people of another race, while not allowing them to question your actions? Jews are often accused of this very attitude. The idea that they can question Israel's policies, but Gentiles must keep their opinions to themselves or be accused of antisemitism. African-Americans sometimes take this one step further. Bill Cosby, for instance. He spoke out about problems he saw for young African-Americans and was called an "Uncle Tom". I don't get it.
Then again, maybe I'm not supposed to. I am, after all, about as white as you can possibly be. I am Protestant, and do come from a middle class family. I'm not the first one in my family to go to college (or to graduate even). I'm not really in any minority. The closest I come is that several generations ago my ancestors crossed the ocean from Ireland. They were a minority, downtrodden and despised. But those days are long over (everybody's Irish on St. Patrick's Day, remember). The Irish went from "No Irish Need Apply" to the White House to beloved part of American society. The days of me being discriminated against are over.
So maybe I can't put myself in the shoes of someone who still lives with oppression and discrimination. Perhaps if I could, I would understand why there are a set of rules that apply to those of us in the group and another set for those outside of the group. Even if I could sympathize with this frame of mind, I still think it is wrongheaded.
The Golden rule, a concept that literally every religion and civilization has some version of, states: Love thy neighbors as thyself. The idea is that we do unto others, as we would have them do to us. We treat others as we want to be treated. Isn't the reflexive true as well? Shouldn't we treat ourselves like we want others to treat us? If we belittle ourselves verbally and overlook our abilities aren't we setting ourselves up for others to do the same?
Doesn't that apply to using racial slurs and sexist speech?
"Mick" is a slang term for Irish that has long since lost its sting, but if it hadn't, and I (and Irish musicians) used it freely, could I really expect for no one outside of my race to use it? Why does anyone want to use the "n-word"? Why not toss that aside as a dark reminder of a time we have left behind?
Likewise if I refer to my wife or my sister as a "ho" or a "bitch," do I have any right to expect others to stay away from such characterization? Sure, I might have meant it as a term of endearment (I'm not sure how), but how can the stranger that overheard us talking know that? I have represented these women I care for as less than worthy individuals, and now he will likely act on that representation. That doesn't make it alright when he uses the offensive words, but it leaves me with a big chunk of the blame.
None of this excuses or explains what Don Imus did. It was offensive, it was rude, and it was wrong. But Al Sharpton and the like should understand that Imus is not the real problem. There seems to be (from one whiteboy's perspective) a culture of negativity that is very prominent in African-American youth, and Don Imus didn't have anything to do with that. But then again, this is just one whiteboy's opinion.