Don Imus said a horrible thing on his radio show. He abused the privilege of his position and he deserves his two-week suspension. Maybe he deserves worse; that's up to others to decide.
But it is a mistake to focus merely on Imus (or Michael Richards or Mel Gibson or Isaiah Washington or Ann Coulter or any other of the nation's famous purported racists, anti-Semites and homophobes). All such malignants deserve their comeuppance, but it should be clear by now that something more than individual obnoxiousness is at work here. It's time to start looking higher up the corporate ladder, where someone has figured out that bigotry equals big bucks.
Indeed, the likes of Imus, Coulter and others have set such a base standard for discourse and dishonesty that they have helped clear the way for people like Richards, Gibson and Washington to believe they can unleash their torrents of vituperation without risk of penalty.
How is it that these people make a virtue of cruelty? How does a phrase like "nappy headed hos" escape Imus' lips in talking about the Rutgers University women's basketball team? What allows Coulter to feel free to call presidential candidate John Edwards a "faggot?" What induces Rush Limbaugh to liken the then 13-year-old Chelsea Clinton to a dog? Here's what: money. These people make scads of money from intentional cruelty and their employers and publishers put up with it -- probably love it -- because they're raking it in, too.
This is a slippery slope, as John Bloom, a.k.a. Joe Bob Briggs, was among the first to find out. Writing a put-on (perhaps) of a good-ol-boy column for the Dallas Times Herald, Bloom's bosses unshackled him from the normal standards of journalism. Then, in 1985, he wrote a column that, among other things, referred to the United Negro College Fund as devoted to educating "stupid Negroes." African-Americans complained, Times Herald editors (who approved the piece) killed the column altogether and Bloom quit the paper, which later folded.
There's not a lot of difference between the Briggs piece and Imus' idiotic observation, except that this kind of commentary has become more common and Imus' cruelty was even more blatant. There is also a special place in American life for those whose cruelty is aimed at African-Americans -- this country's racial history puts bigotry against blacks in a different category. That's a fact anyone should be able to understand, and if Imus, Richards and others haven't figured that out yet, well . . . they're expendable.
This is also, of course, a place for forgiveness. That's a quality that has benefited two of Imus' most prominent critics. Jesse Jackson referred to Jews as "Hymies" and New York City as "Hymietown" during his 1984 presidential campaign. He asked and received forgiveness. Al Sharpton, meanwhile, tried to ruin a Dutchess County prosecutor with wild, unsubstantiated and untrue allegations of rape in the 1987 Tawana Brawley case. Sharpton never asked forgiveness, never admitted his role in a terrible mangling of justice. He has prospered, anyway.
Here's hoping Imus follows Jackson's lead. Americans don't expect perfection in anyone and they respond to honest contrition. More than that, though, here's hoping that sense of contrition also starts creeping up the corporate ladder. How much better it would have been if Imus knew from the start that a phrase like "nappy headed hos" would cost him his job.