duminică, 23 ianuarie 2011

Don Imus in 2047: Precedents & Presidents

More than 40 days have passed since Don Imus was terminated, and it seems that everyone, including this author has put in their two cents. Yesterday's news? Not even close. Now that we've had a little time for reflection we must now ask ourselves how Americans might judge the Imus-Rutgers affair in 40 years? Will it be a footnote on our media history only known to historians and old guys with really good memories? Or is it one of those watershed moments where media and race intersect that will be difficult and embarrassing to explain to our grandchildren? What will I say to my grandchild in 2047 when he/she is working on a high school term paper and stumbles upon a poll from 2007 that shows that half of all Americans thought that Imus should have kept his job? What if my grandchild shows me the long rap sheet of Imus bigotry during America’s “shock jock era”? If he/she ever asks me how Imus received support from that era’s presidents, what will I say? Please excuse me while I pontificate away, but haven’t we been down this road? Are Americans caught up in that movie “Groundhog’s Day”, just with a 40 year delay?

“Imus and Andy”: Don Imus has been known to “mimic” famous African-Americans[1] from Al Sharpton to Vernon Jordan with an over-the-top stereotypical dialect reminiscent of “Amos and Andy” fame (review). Imus grew up in an era where A & A was still an enduring American phenomenon. Amos and Andy was rooted in a long legacy of minstrel show tradition that had whites in blackface; it was a pioneer in radio broadcasting in 1928; its 30+ year run is the longest in radio broadcast history; at its peak in 1930, it spawned a movie and had ONE-THIRD of the nation tuning in on a NIGHTLY basis; and in 1951, with whites-in-blackface no longer socially acceptable, CBS introduced A & A as the first ever all-black cast on network television. The NAACP immediately protested its airing and issued its 7-point bulletin[2]. After A & A won an Emmy award in 1952, the NAACP responded by initiating a boycott of Blatz beer. By April 1953 Blatz withdrew its sponsorship and CBS announced: "The network has bowed to the change in national thinking."[3] At a time when network TV was about as racially diverse as national talk radio is today, such "change" came with a backlash. It would be 20 years before another show with an all-black cast was aired. Defenders pointed to A & A’s witty character-driven scriptwriting as the primary reasons for its popularity. Like the wit of Imus, that entertainment came as part of a “package deal”.

Some 40 years after its final TV (1966) and radio (1960)episodes were removed from syndication, the vast majority of Americans agree that the "Amos and Andy" shows are unfit for broadcasting today. But at the time, network executives and large masses of white Americans just couldn't understand what all the hubbub was about. Even some African-American fans, saddled with the unenviable choice of an unflattering comedic depiction or no depiction at all, wanted the show to remain on the air. Despite the dialects, stereotypes, and minstrel roots, many who considered themselves fair-minded people, thought that it was just good clean fun. After all, didn’t Abbot and Costello make fun of themselves? What’s the difference? Why is the NAACP meddling with our entertainment anyway?

Birth of a Collaboration between Big Media and Bigotry : By 1960 most white Americans DID view the 1915 landmark movie “Birth of a Nation” (review) as racist and unacceptable. But it took more than 40 years and an emerging social consciousness for THAT to happen. BOAN was America's highest grossing movie in American history[4] until it was repaced by ..."Gone with the Wind" -- another epic that glorified the old south. BOAN revolutionized the field of cinema before Amos and Andy did the same for radio. It also sparked the rebirth of the previously dormant Ku Klux Klan which used the movie as a recruiting tool.

With few exceptions, strong protests led by the NAACP were not respected by the white masses whether they were southern segregationists or northern progressives. Citing artistic double-standards, the Mayor of Boston objected that claims of racist propaganda were “no more valid than protests against Shakespeare’s Henry VIII for maligning the Roman Catholic Church”[5]. Many scholars and northern white critics --including The New York Times-- sidestepped the racial aspects, and put high-minded arguments together on purely artistic grounds that separated the film from its ugly pro-KKK elements[6]. Interestingly, Director D.W. Griffith vigorously rejected the notion that he or his work was “racist”. More accurately, he viewed himself more as a victim of unfair criticism. He argued that if BOAN attacked any group of persons it was “whites who led the blacks astray during reconstruction”[7]. In response to critics he produced a pamphlet entitled: The Rise and Fall of Free Speech in America where he frequently argued against the political correctness (he used the word “intolerance”) of the times[8]. These rationales seemed perfectly reasonable to enough people to produce remarkable turnout all across America. While there are certainly notable distinctions between the "art" of Birth of a Nation, the satire of Amos and Andy, and the quips of Don Imus, the unfolding of mass public reaction remains remarkably similar.
Presidential Precedents: All of these pop culture media landmarks were directly or indirectly validated in varying degrees by our country’s highest leadership. After receiving a private screening of Birth of a Nation, President Woodrow Wilson allegedly remarked: "It's like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all terribly true." (Amidst protests Wilson later denounced the movie as an “unfortunate production.”) In the late 50's, president Dwight Eisenhower could be found vacationing with friend Freeman Gosden, the creator and original radio voice of Amos. In this generation, presidents and candidates (Bill Clinton, both Bushes, John McCain, John Kerry, Rudy Guliani, etc.) continue to enable Don Imus and his history to protect their own reputations as past guests on his show. A little presidential backing can go a long way towards shaping a nation’s moral attitude. US presidents have never been too good at leading when it comes to racial matters. After all, most didn’t get elected by contradicting the popular thought of their times.

"40/40 Vision": So with opportunistic presidents and divided public opinions on Imus, where do we look for moral leadership? The answer is… history. Viewing "Amos & Andy" and "Birth of a Nation" in "40/40 vision" can not only shed light on our future mass reaction to Imus, but it can tell us so much more. In his essay on “The Absurdity and Consistency of White Denial”[9] author and educator Tim Wise explains that in ANY era, white masses have grossly misdiagnosed the true extent of systemic racism in our country. These pop-media examples are merely symbolic of a greater collective white denial that Wise describes as an "intergenerational phenomenon":
“… what does it say about white rationality and white collective sanity, that in 1963--at a time when in retrospect all would agree racism was rampant in the United States, and before the passage of modern civil rights legislation--nearly two-thirds of whites, when polled, said they believed blacks were treated the same as whites in their communities--almost the same number as say this now, some 40+ years later? What does it suggest... that in 1962, 85% of whites said black children had just as good a chance as white children to get a good education in their communities? Or that in May, 1968, 70% of whites said that blacks were treated the same as whites in their communities… In other words, even when racism was, by virtually all accounts (looking backward in time), institutionalized, white folks were convinced there was no real problem. Indeed, even 40 years ago, whites were more likely to think that blacks had BETTER opportunities, than to believe the opposite...

…Truthfully, this tendency for whites to deny the extent of racism and racial injustice likely extends back far before the 1960s. Although public opinion polls in previous decades rarely if ever asked questions about the extent of racial bias or discrimination, anecdotal surveys of white opinion suggest that at no time have whites in the U.S. ever thought blacks or other people of color were getting a bad shake. White Southerners were all but convinced that their black slaves, for example, had it good, and had no reason to complain about their living conditions or lack of freedoms. After emancipation, but during the introduction of Jim Crow laws and strict Black Codes that limited where African Americans could live and work, white newspapers would regularly editorialize about the "warm relations" between whites and blacks, even as thousands of blacks were being lynched by their white compatriots…”
See No Evil: Wise’s commentary demonstrates a “blind spot” that the majority of white Americans have historically had when asked to fully recognize institutional racism WHILE IT IS OCCURRING and without the luxury of 40 years hindsight. Even some of our most educated presidential scholars from Thomas Jefferson to Woodrow Wilson had this blind spot. So where does this blind spot come from? Lack of education or intelligence? Nope… just PRIVILEGE + human nature. Most people who have privilege never want to give it up. Enter “privilege” and very smart people might suddenly become very stupid right before our very eyes. If we like our privileges enough, we might actually convince ourselves, in our own time, that: Columbus discovered America, slaves were happy, separate was equal, domestic violence is a "family matter", "no" means "yes", "trickle-down" helps the poor, homosexuality is just “a preference”, and torture is okay. History shows that most privileged people will rationalize just about ANYTHING before giving up a benefit. Many otherwise smart and level-headed people will even convince themselves that Don Imus really did learn the "n-word" from Snoop Dogg before they willingly give up their favorite morning show. Want to turn a Mensa member into Forest Gump? Just try and take back a cookie from the top of their stack. Psychologists like to call this phenomena "cognitive dissonance theory". My mother likes to call it "being spoiled rotten".

What side of history will you be on?: If our past is any indication of our future, Imus apologists and enablers will be on the wrong side of social history in 2047. But unfortunately, we don’t have another 40 years to burn before we “get real” about understanding how racism and bigotry operate in our country. Smacking that racial snooze button one more time is not an option. Consensus must be reached on the simple stuff like Imus, so that we can tackle the more complicated and less visible institutional discrimination that permeates our schools, employment, health-care, and criminal-juvenile justice systems. There is a national high school dropout crisis going on in our country that must be a part of every presidential debate. On the strength of draconian drug laws (see crack vs. cocaine), mandatory minimum sentencing, and the emergence of "prisons for profit" our criminal population has multiplied FIVE TIMES OVER in the last 30 years (after stability in the previous 50 years) on the disproportionate incarceration of African-American men while study after ignored study reveals major institutional biases[10]. Just exactly what has to happen for people “of their times” to know what time it is?

When my grandchild asks: “Why did so many Americans, media members and politicians support and enable Imus back in 2007?”, followed by “and why didn’t anyone do anything about the crisis in the school system and the prisons?”, I don’t want to get into intellectual discussions about the invisible workings of “institutional racism”, the phenomena of "white denial”, or the social history of “40/40 vision”. We must clean our house now. Our crystal ball could not be more crystal clear.