Saturday, April 14, 2007

Change in My Lifetime: Why Imus Thinks He's Not Racist

Don Imus doesn't think he's a racist. He says, over and over again, that he's "a good person who said a bad thing." At times he has even seemed outraged that anyone could think he's a racist, and his defenders seem even more outraged. I heard Tony Blankley on NPR last night insist that anyone who knows Imus has no doubt that he's not a racist.

I believe them. Or at least I believe that they believe it themselves.

The endless rehashing of this issue in the media has, of course, paid a lot of attention to the race gap: A lot of whites don't get why blacks are so upset by Imus, and a lot of blacks don't get how whites could be so dense. But the under-reported and under-analyzed part of the Imus story isn't the race gap, it's how the race gap combines with the generation gap. If you're white and your definition of "racism" was formed and frozen in the Fifties or early Sixties -- like Imus and so many of the graying whites who defend him -- then charging Imus with racism seems incredible. Really.

To grasp how this is possible, consider another story reported last night: how close white baseball players came to striking rather than take the field with Jackie Robinson. Keith Olbermann covered this on Countdown. Apparently just before Opening Day in 1947, the other seven teams in the National League voted to walk out. On some teams, the report claimed, the vote was 25-0 against playing with Robinson. The walk-out didn't happen because of some fancy maneuvering by baseball executives and a strong stand against a walk-out by superstar Stan Musial.

That's what racism meant in 1947. Not insults, not tasteless remarks, but a willingness to risk your career in order to keep a black man out of your profession. If Imus was listening to this story, I have no doubt that in his own mind he identified with Musial, not with the players who wanted to keep baseball white. Those guys, to Imus, were racists. And he's not.

If you go back just a little further, you're in World War II. The Nazis were racists -- not because they told jokes about money-grubbing Jewish lawyers, but because they made a serious attempt to murder every Jew in Europe. In the face of Hitler, most Americans didn't think they were racists at all -- even as they rounded up Japanese Americans without cause and made blacks use separate public restrooms and drinking fountains.

I'm younger than Imus: He's 66 and I'm 50. But even when I was growing up in the Midwestern white working class, we told jokes we don't repeat any more. Because we don't repeat them, younger people have no idea what the atmosphere was like then. I'm going to repeat one now. I'm giving you warning so that you can stop reading if you don't want to be offended.

Q: How many niggers does it take to shingle a roof?
A: Only one if you slice him thin enough.

This kind of joke was common, and we thought they were funny. OK, I won't hide behind a pronoun: I thought they were funny. I didn't know any non-whites at the time, and so the actual person who was being sliced up wasn't real to me. Even people who did know blacks didn't make the connection. I remember hearing someone justify this kind of humor by saying: "We were telling them at work and then Leroy came in. He laughed at them. He told a couple himself." It's hard to imagine now, but scenes like that happened: The one black guy in the group wanted to fit in badly enough that he went along. And the whites all took that as confirmation that it was no big deal.

Notice the difference between that joke and jokes that are considered racist today. What's supposed to be funny about the joke isn't that blacks display some stereotypic negative behavior like being lazy or stupid or criminal. What's supposed to be funny is the image of hideously murdering someone for no other reason than being black.

I can't emphasize strongly enough how normal this was. And how disconnected from reality. We told them while we waited for the basketball court to come open. And if some black kid showed up wanting to play, we played with him. Because, why wouldn't you? Different parts of our culture and our behavior were wildly out of step with each other. But to us it all seemed normal.

For years, whenever I watched a baseball game on TV with my Dad, we had the same conversation. He'd say, as if it had just occurred to him for the first time, "Baseball players are pretty much all niggers these days." (Dark-skinned Hispanics like Roberto Clemente or Orlando Cepeda counted as niggers to Dad.) And, realizing the pointlessness of saying anything else, I'd respond, "Yeah, pretty much."

Dad would have been amazed if someone had thought he was a racist. From his point of view he was just observing a fact, not saying that something should be done about it. If I had responded by suggesting that Willie Mays and Frank Robinson and Hank Aaron should be thrown out of baseball, I'm sure he'd have scolded me. He raised me better than that.

And yet, he couldn't help being nostalgic for a time when sports heroes had looked like him. Ted Williams. Bob Feller. Joe DiMaggio.

And Stan Musial. Dad, as far as I know, still doesn't know the story of the walk-out to protest against Jackie Robinson. Like the nigger jokes, it's something nobody talks about. Olbermann brought it up to push the boundary of our denial. If I tell him the story the next time we talk on the phone, I'm sure Dad will say something positive about the kind of guy Stan Musial was. Everybody admired Stan, even then.

And even so, I'll bet (if you go back far enough into the past) Stan told jokes too. Jokes that Don Imus would never repeat today.

So what's the lesson here? Never be surprised when old white guys seem to have some incredibly strange definition of racist. To them, the word means someone who wants to take action to harm people of another race, for no reason other than race. If you call them racists, that's what they think you're accusing them of. And they'll be outraged, because they've never lynched anybody. They don't even consciously wish blacks harm.

Not even the nappy-headed ho's. What outrages Imus is that he knows he doesn't hate the Rutgers women's basketball team. How, he wonders, could anyone think that he does? He doesn't even know them.

And he doesn't hate people he doesn't know, just because of their skin color. That would be disgusting, he thinks. That would be racist.