Drop the Race Card

The Washington Post Sunday - - World News - By Joe R. Hicks

Apolo­gies were ev­ery­where week. And so was race. Ra­dio talk host Don Imus was a busy man, say­ing he was sorry when­ever and wher­ever he could. As his drama un­folded, North Carolina pros­e­cu­tor Michael B. Ni­fong was also try­ing to save his rapidly va­por­iz­ing ca­reer, is­su­ing an apol­ogy to three young Duke Univer­sity lacrosse play­ers as the rape charges he had brought against them a year ago were dropped.

The apol­ogy strate­gies clearly didn’t work: Imus lost his MSNBC cable show and his CBS daily ra­dio show, while Ni­fong is

last fac­ing charges that he en­gaged in se­ri­ous pros­e­cu­to­rial mis­con­duct, which could re­sult in his dis­bar­ment.

Okay, th­ese guys aren’t de­serv­ing of much in the way of sym­pa­thy. But what links both cases is the rank racial op­por­tunism in both Imus’s fir­ing and the Duke rape case, in which the Durham County dis­trict at­tor­ney shame­lessly used race in an at­tempt to rail­road three young men for his po­lit­i­cal pur­poses.

Re­mem­ber the Michael Richards episode? In that case, Amer­ica’s civil rights es­tab­lish­ment — led, as usual, by Jesse Jack­son and Al Sharp­ton — mo­bi­lized in an ef­fort to sell the premise that a down-on-his-luck co­me­dian had some­how be­come a barom­e­ter for our na­tion’s race re­la­tions. The for­mer “Se­in­feld” star had

hurled the N-word at black heck­lers dur­ing his rou­tine. Civil rights lead­ers con­tended that this showed how preva­lent racism is in our so­ci­ety. In full mea culpa mode, Richards went on Jack­son’s syn­di­cated ra­dio show and apol­o­gized pro­fusely, but Jack­son sim­ply used it as an op­por­tu­nity to trum­pet, once again, his claim that racism is alive and well in this coun­try.

What re­mains of the once-proud civil rights move­ment jus­ti­fies its ex­is­tence by con­tend­ing— de­spite wide­spread progress — that black peo­ple con­tinue to live marginal­ized and vic­tim­ized lives. This oft-re­peated theme was the base for the ugly stew that was the re­ac­tion to Imus’s slur, and it was the op­er­at­ing theme for Ni­fong as he set about at­tempt­ing to ruin the lives of three in­no­cent men.

Sev­eral decades ago, when I was head of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s South­ern Chris­tian Lead­er­ship Con­fer­ence, I would have joined with Jack­son and Sharp­ton with lit­tle reser­va­tion to call for Imus’s demise. But some­where along the way since then, re­al­ity in­ter­vened and I be­gan to re­ject the view that Amer­ica is a racist, hos­tile en­vi­ron­ment for peo­ple with my skin color. Fur­ther, I be­gan en­gag­ing in the un­for­giv­able sin — re­ject­ing the ortho­dox civil rights view of blacks as vic­tims.

The pat­tern of racial op­por­tunism was well es­tab­lished by the time Imus of­fered his un­so­licited com­ments about the Rut­gers women’s bas­ket­ball team — a team that re­cently com­peted in the NCAA cham­pi­onship game. In his usual gruff man­ner, Imus said that the play­ers are a bunch of “nappy-headed hos.” Let’s stip­u­late that this was a bad idea, and that it was bad for the ob­vi­ous rea­sons — the team (not an all-black group, by the way) ap­pears to be a col­lec­tion of bright, ar­tic­u­late young women, un­de­serv­ing of Imus’s drive-by at­tack. It was also a bad idea be­cause Imus, a vet­eran of po­lit­i­cally in­cor­rect com­men­tary, must have known that such a com­ment was bound to draw at­ten­tion from pro­fes­sional pro­test­ers such as Jack­son and Sharp­ton.

Pre­dictably — like vul­tures await­ing the latest road­kill — civil rights lead­ers be­gan to clamor for Imus to be fired. To hell with sorry! The Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Black Jour­nal­ists (I hate to be a pest, but shouldn’t a group rep­re­sent­ing jour­nal­ists take an ob­jec­tive stance?), along with Jack­son, Sharp­ton and other black fig­ures, turned aside Imus’s re­peated apolo­gies. Protests were or­ga­nized na­tion­wide, of­ten in front of CBS and NBC of­fices, and Imus took the risky step of ap­pear­ing on Sharp­ton’s ra­dio show to ask for­give­ness again, all for naught. There is some­thing sur­real about some­one like Imus pros­trat­ing him­self be­fore the likes of Jack­son and Sharp­ton to save his job. The wide­spread as­sump­tion in cor­po­rate Amer­ica is that th­ese civil rights fig­ures are “lead­ers” of the na­tion’s black pop­u­la­tion. In re­al­ity, they have as­sumed this role through self-ap­point­ment and self-pro­mo­tion. Polls have shown that only about 2 per­cent of blacks view Sharp­ton as their “leader.” As Juan Wil­liams pointed out in his book “Enough,” when Sharp­ton ran for pres­i­dent in 2004, he couldn’t muster enough votes to win a sin­gle pri­mary and couldn’t even carry his home­town of New York. Jack­son also lost con­sid­er­able lus­ter in black com­mu­ni­ties af­ter it was re­vealed that he fa­thered a child with one of his aides and it was al­leged that he was “shak­ing down” cor­po­rate Amer­ica for per­sonal gain.

So, we are con­fronted with the specter of in­di­vid­u­als who have lit­tle in the way of moral cred­i­bil­ity, and have them­selves made big­oted pub­lic com­ments (Jack­son called New York “Hymi­etown” and Sharp­ton re­ferred to Jews as “di­a­mond mer­chants”), now pre­sent­ing them­selves as ar­biters of pub­lic moral­ity and good taste in broad­cast­ing.Add to that the re­al­ity of to­day’s hip-hop and gangsta rap CDs and videos, which com­monly use big­oted, misog­y­nis­tic lyrics that make the as­sault on Imus ap­pear hyp­o­crit­i­cal in the ex­treme. The phrase “them’s some nappy-headed hos” pales in com­par­i­son to rap lyrics that de­base women and glo­rify the “thug life” in ways that trou­ble all but the most crass among us.

This is more than just a dou­ble stan­dard; it is an agenda of racial op­por­tunism that pro­motes the view that blacks are pow­er­less vic­tims of white racism. In this view, blacks are al­ways in need of gov­ern­ment in­ter­ven­tion to save them from white hos­til­ity.

This is the view that Ni­fong ex­ploited in his nar­row quest for po­lit­i­cal sur­vival.

As he pre­pared to run for re­elec­tion as Durham County dis­trict at­tor­ney last year, his vic­tory was no sure thing. What el­e­vated him from the pack of con­tenders was his ag­gres­sive stand on a de­vel­op­ing case that was tai­lor-made for his pur­pose. An “ex­otic dancer” had said that she was raped af­ter per­form­ing at a party thrown by mem­bers of the Duke lacrosse team. Be­cause she is black and the three young men ul­ti­mately charged are white, the case soon be­came one of “racial jus­tice.” That, at least, was the view of the Durham County black com­mu­nity, which Ni­fong and the civil rights es­tab­lish­ment soon ex­ploited.

Throw­ing aside the prin­ci­ple of “in­no­cent un­til proven guilty,” Ni­fong cam­paigned hard in the black com­mu­nity, mak­ing it clear that he viewed the three men — Reade Seligmann, Collin Fin­nerty and David Evans — as guilty of the al­leged rape, and re­fer­ring to the Duke team as priv­i­leged “hooli­gans.” This de­spite the fact that the ac­cuser’s own state­ments dis­qual­i­fied her­from tes­ti­fy­ing un­der the state’s le­gal def­i­ni­tion of rape,that two DNA tests could not link the de­fen­dants to their ac­cuser, a ndthat Ni­fong is now fac­ing charges that he with­held ev­i­dence from the de­fen­dant’s lawyers, made mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tions to a judge and made un­eth­i­cal state­ments about the case in pub­lic.

All of this ap­pears to have been in the ser­vice of Ni­fong’s re­lent­less need to ap­pease black vot­ers and a civil rights es­tab­lish­ment that was call­ing for the de­fen­dants’ heads to be de­liv­ered on a plat­ter. But guilt for this at­tempted rail­road­ing must also be borne by the “pro­gres­sive” po­lit­i­cal el­e­ments within the Duke Univer­sity com­mu­nity who called for a full-speed-ahead pros­e­cu­tion — damn the ev­i­dence. The jury to which Ni­fong played was the black com­mu­nity of Durham. This strat­egy worked; he was re­elected. But the case has come un­done, be­cause of Ni­fong’s own mis­be­hav­ior and be­cause of the dancer her­self, whose ever-shift­ing sto­ries and ques­tion­able past un­der­mined her cred­i­bil­ity. North Carolina At­tor­ney Gen­eral Roy Cooper said that the case was “a re­sult of a tragic rush to ac­cuse and fail­ure to ver­ify se­ri­ous al­le­ga­tions.”

While jus­tice was fi­nally served in the Duke case, what was ac­com­plished by Imus’s fir­ing? Jack­son and Sharp­ton may have gained an­other notch on their civil rights belts, and an over-the-hill shock jock is stand­ing in the un­em­ploy­ment line, but the plight of black ur­ban com­mu­ni­ties re­mains un­touched. Poor par­ent­ing is still tak­ing place, cul­tural rot is still af­flict­ing the lives of black ur­ban dwellers, dis­pro­por­tion­ate fa­ther­less­ness is still a re­al­ity, and bad schools as well as high lev­els of crime are still facts of black ur­ban life ev­ery­where.

It’s easy to tackle a dod­der­ing old ra­dio show host who has said some­thing patently stupid. But it’s far more chal­leng­ing to ad­dress things that are real prob­lems for real peo­ple. Most ur­ban dwellers couldn’t have picked Imus out of a lineup if their life de­pended on it. It’s no won­der that some crit­ics, like me, ar­gue that fig­ures such as Jack­son and Sharp­ton, among oth­ers of their ilk, are di­nosaurs fight­ing only to main­tain a patina of rel­e­vance.

As co­me­dian Bill Cosby has ob­served: “There are peo­ple that want you to re­main in a hole, and they re­joice in your hope­less­ness be­cause they have jobs mis­man­ag­ing you. How­ever, your job is not be­com­ing vic­tims. We have to rise up and fight on all lev­els to suc­ceed.” Amen, brother Cosby.

jhicks@cai-la.org

DON IMUS IN 1976; AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

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