MY RABBI – DON IMUS
If I were the type who believed in divine intervention, I’d swear that Hashem was responsible not only for outing Don Imus, but also for doing so during Passover. Passover is a celebration of freedom. It’s the time when all Jews get together with family and friends to celebrate our ancestors’ release from Egyptian slavery. But as you know, Egypt is hardly the only nation whose legacy has been associated with slavery. We’ve had a bit of that here in the good ol’ US of A. And this Passover, a certain celebrity has been kind enough to remind us of our own history of slavery and how its effects seem to linger on and on and on.
Given the holiday season, it seemed altogether appropriate to spend last Friday taking my family to Monticello. In a profound sense, Monticello is a glowing tribute to freedom. There, visitors can bask in the glow of a majestic home designed by a man with the freedom to read and write voraciously, maintain a working farm, collect art, play music, pursue various sciences, and entertain like the gregarious aristocrat he was. It’s difficult to imagine a man freer than Thomas Jefferson. But TJ had a bit of help – just a bit -- and to visit Monticello is to be constantly reminded of that assistance.
Jefferson fully recognized the evils of slavery. He once wrote to Benjamin Banneker, the African-American scientist, that “nobody wishes more than I do to see … that nature has given to our black brethren talents equal to those of the other colors of men.” Then again, Jefferson also wrote, in his Notes on the State of Virginia:
The first difference [among the races] which strikes us is that of colour. … Is it not the foundation of a greater or less share of beauty in the two races? Are not the fine mixtures of red and white … preferable to that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immovable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race? Add to these, flowing hair, a more elegant symmetry of form, their own judgment in favour of the whites, declared by their preference of them, as uniformly as is the preference of the Orangutan for the black women over those of his own species. The circumstance of Superior beauty, is thought worthy attention in the propagation of our horses, dogs, and other domestic animals; why not in that of man?
In Jefferson’s day, to be a white Southerner was to question not merely whether blacks should have the same rights as whites but whether blacks were fully human. Lincoln changed some of that when he freed the slaves, but can we who wish to take Passover seriously truly celebrate the “freedom” of the blacks who lived under Jim Crow? Different schools, different toilets, different water fountains, different restrooms, different jobs …. That was freedom in name only. The descendents of slavery continued to be treated as sub-human.
A century after the slaves were “freed,” a new day supposedly dawned. Thanks to MLK, Rosa Parks, Thurgood Marshall – and even some Jews, like Heschel – Jim Crow was gone. But what exactly should we call the era that has taken its place? American blacks remain disproportionately poorer than whites, disproportionately less educated, disproportionately more prone to dying younger … and disproportionately blamed for their lot in life. You see, white America has now decided that black Americans are fully “free,” and if they wish to locate the cause for why they have not reached the pinnacle of our “meritocratic,” “open” society, they need only look in the mirror.
Well, at least that was the attitude before the I-Man, my rabbi, decided to teach us all a lesson. You’ve surely heard the story by now. In reference to the women’s basketball team from Rutgers that grittily parlayed a three seed into a birth in the national championship game, Imus called the team a bunch of “nappy-headed ho’s.” Obviously, the women at issue were black – hence the “nappy headed – and some of them had tattoos – hence, I kid you not, the “ho’s.”
Imus tried to pass off the comment as a “joke.” But most of us are still struggling to find the humor. There was nothing clever about his word choice. Nor did he make an attempt to capture irony. In fact, Imus’s remark wasn’t funny on any level. It was, from all appearances, a visceral utterance by a garden-variety racist who sees all black women who don’t stroll around in business attire as an inferior species. Imus, may or may not prefer black women to white ones, but at least he shares with Jefferson’s orangutan a common interest in their sexuality. How touching.
Before I continue, allow me to acknowledge my bias. While I truly do love Jefferson, I’ve never been able to tolerate Imus. As a political junky, I’ve listened to him from time to time over the years because he’s always seemed to find top-drawer guests. So I’ve listened, but I haven’t liked what I’ve heard. Mostly, I recall him being a political moderate whose stock-in-trade was to suck up to some people and lambaste others. He wouldn’t simply criticize people’s conduct. He’d glibly characterize public figures as “morons” and “idiots” as if he had somehow brilliantly captured their essence in a single word. Believe me; that crap gets old really fast. And I could only take a little bit of it before I turned the guy off, not to return for weeks or even months at a time, until I somehow forgot how obnoxious he was and tuned in once again.
When I learned about his “nappy-headed ho’s” comment, I was immediately sickened both by the comment and by the man who made it. It would have been a pleasure to boycott his show as well as those of his enablers in a gesture of solidarity with the women he victimized. Surprisingly, as it turned out, no such boycott is necessary. Imus has been fired from his radio show and his television simulcast. The marketplace has worked remarkably! Say what you want about Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, and I’ve had my own bones to pick with them over the years, but they came up huge on this occasion. They organized a concerted campaign to get the I-Man off the air where he can no longer peddle the trash that he calls entertainment.
So what are we to make of Imus’ little gaffe? Just a stupid mistake by a shock jock whose fifteen minutes are up? I sure hope not. To me, Imus isn’t merely the “moron” he likes to call others. He is a wonderful teacher – a rabbi, as it were -- because he does his teaching during Passover and he selects topics suitable for the season.
What Imus has taught is that a new day has not dawned. African-American slavery may be history, Jim Crow may be over, but black America hardly remains free. For the men and women who stroll the streets of Newark, Jersey City, Camden and Trenton – the largest cities in the state where Rutgers is located – they have to battle the Don Imuses of the world every day. Oh, they’re free to try to assimilate alright, but if they want to wear their hair in a way that feels comfortable to them, even if (like the Rutgers basketball team) they’re dressed in something as innocuous as gym shorts, they are eyed with disdain by many members of the white establishment. And if they need jobs from white businessmen – good jobs, the kind that can get you out of the towns mentioned above – they are free to try to find them. But they will be competing with white candidates who are thought of as human while they, sadly, are not.
Whores, pimps, crooks, drug dealers, lazy good-for-nothings, or to use Don Rumsfeld’s little term, “dead-enders.” That’s how working class blacks are so often viewed in their own country regardless of how they behave. Michael Richards reminded us a bit of this fact, but Don Imus really drummed it home.
So, fine, we have our Passover lesson. The real question is what are my fellow Jews going to do with it? Are we going to simply note that white-against-black racism continues to exist in our “land of the free.” Or are we going to take an active role in fighting it and the poverty that it has spawned?
I’d like to start by proposing that we consider whether there are any qualified candidates from black America who we might want to see lead our national government in two years. Do we know of any candidates who handle themselves with the class shown by the Rutgers basketball team during their Tuesday press conference? Do we know of any candidates who have demonstrated themselves to be every bit as intelligent as any of the whites who are seeking the top job? Do we know of any candidates who don’t simply have black skin, but share the same relatively progressive agenda that most black Americans have adopted as their own? Do we know of any candidates who, because of their skin color, are well suited not only to speak passionately on behalf of the black community, but also to lecture those members of that community who need lecturing?
You know exactly who I’m talking about.
The truth is that Mr. Obama is so brilliant that it is difficult if not impossible to relate to the man. But we can sure as heck relate to the women of the Rutgers team. And whether it’s because I’m a father of two girls, or whether it’s because I try to take seriously Jewish values, I felt that Imus was smearing myself and my daughters when he humiliated those women. So let’s start by relating to those ladies, one and all. This Passover, the lesson isn’t simply that we were slaves in Egypt. We were slaves. But now, we are simply “nappy headed ho’s.” As such, we have the ability to watch out for others who would treat “our kind” as less than human. And when that happens, we have the ability to join together with our brothers and sisters and fight anyone and everyone who would deny “us” our dignity.
For reminding my fellow Jewish Americans of that lesson, Rabbi Imus, I say “Amen.”