Harjo: Why the Imus story still matters


I was going to give the Imus story a pass until the Pew Research Center reported that 62 percent of white Americans think it's been covered too much. By contrast, Pew's weekly News Interest Index found that 44 percent of African-American respondents said the amount of coverage was right and 18 percent said there was too little coverage.

If most white folks want everyone to stop talking about something a white man said about African-American women, the rest of us might do well to chat it up a while longer, on general principle and in self-defense.

The Imus story - for the benefit of those who've sworn off mainstream media - is about what longtime broadcaster Don Imus and his cohort of middle-aged white guys said on his April 4 ''Imus in the Morning'' program on MSNBC television and CBS radio. He called Rutgers University's women basketball players ''rough girls'' and ''nappy-headed hos.'' A week later, both networks fired him.

With a remarkable economy of words for the normally verbose Imus, he objectified a whole team of college athletes - eight black and two white women - attacking them on the basis of race, gender and class.

Pew also found that most of those polled - 61 percent of blacks and 53 percent of whites - thought Imus' punishment was about right. While 35 percent of whites said the punishment was too tough, only 18 percent of blacks said it was; and 17 percent of blacks, but only 6 percent of whites, said it was not tough enough.

The National Association of Black Journalists took the tough position. In an April 6 statement, NABJ said, ''Imus has had a history of racial insults on his program, having called award-winning journalist Gwen Ifill of PBS a 'cleaning lady' and referring to columnist William Rhoden of the New York Times as 'a quota hire.'''

''As journalists, we firmly believe in the First Amendment and free speech,'' said NABJ President Bryan Monroe. ''But free speech comes with responsibility, and sometimes with consequences. His removal must be that consequence.''

Imus apologized repeatedly, but he also ducked behind a weak defense that black rappers and hip hop artists say the same thing and get away with it. The Rutgers women accepted his apology and said they were working on forgiveness, and Deirdre Imus called on her husband's fans to stop sending the players hate mail.

If you believed the cover of Time magazine - which you almost never should do - you would think that the Imus story is about his free speech being curtailed. Time's Imus has a yellow Post-It square across his mouth with the words ''Who Can Say What?'' printed in black.

First, this is not a freedom of speech issue. Second, Imus was fired for his slur, not because anyone else's slur was first or bigger or worse. Third, Imus was fired for disrespecting young women who were not celebrities and did not have his access to the public airwaves. Fourth, this is not the most repulsive statement in Imus' long career of repulsive statements, but that does not mean he should be absolved now or should not have been fired long ago. And fifth, just because a bunch of guys yuk it up at the expense of others doesn't mean it's good, clean fun or funny, and they don't get to hide behind the excuse that they're just doing a humor show.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People responded in an April 9 press release that it ''believes that racism is taught'' and that media, ''particularly television, has proven to be a powerful teacher.'' The organization's interim president, Dennis Hayes, called it ''sad'' that ''America has not overcome those racist beliefs that grew out of the myth of white supremacy and black inferiority.''

Imus has a public record of having insulted many peoples, including Americans Indians, from a position of white privilege and perceived superiority.

I remember Imus using disparaging terms for Native people; claiming Navajo men prefer men and sheep to Navajo women; questioning Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell's Indianness; alleging that Taos Pueblo's legal rights are bogus; and characterizing tribal casinos as illegitimate.

I wrote and called him about these things and asked others to contact him, too. His anti-Indian chatter tapered off and, after the Mohegan Sun Casino entered into a business arrangement with Imus, I never heard the Imus crew make any other crude remarks about Native peoples.

The Mohegan Sun was not among the advertising heavy-hitters that expressed their disapproval of the Imus slurs by withdrawing sponsorship from the program. American Express, Sprint Nextel and the others that pulled their business are to be congratulated, along with African-American journalists and leaders, for pressuring the networks to cancel ''Imus in the Morning.''

''One thing is for certain: This is about a lot more than Imus,'' said CBS President/CEO Les Moonves in an April 12 statement on Imus' firing:

''As has been widely pointed out, Imus has been visited by presidents, senators, important authors and journalists from across the political spectrum. He has flourished in a culture that permits a certain level of objectionable expression that hurts and demeans a wide range of people. In taking him off the air, I believe we take an important and necessary step not just in solving a unique problem, but in changing that culture, which extends far beyond the walls of our company.''

The week before Imus slurred the Rutgers' women, a Houston councilman and mayor pro tempore, Michael Berry, made gratuitous, insulting, ignorant remarks against Native peoples on his Mar. 27 ''Michael Berry Show'' on KPRC-AM radio. Native people reacted and he issued one of those non-apology apologies, but not until April 6, after the Imus story erupted.

Berry tried to make it about a fine legal point and his magnanimity: ''When I'm wrong, I'm big enough to admit it. ... I intended to challenge policies, and not to demean or insult any group of people. ... I do have two law degrees, but I lacked a good understanding of the Constitutional law on Indian treaties and Congressional action on the matter. I was simply wrong.'' Berry still is a Houston official and broadcast personality.

As long as people like Imus and Berry can use the public airwaves to slime others and escape unscathed for even a month, the Imus story will continue to matter.

The Imus story still matters as long as the language of war remains the language of the United States' side of the Indian wars. When American soldiers in Iraq go into ''Indian country,'' it means they are going into enemy territory. When they're ''off the reservation,'' it means they've broken rules or they're traitors. Words matter. Imagine how these words matter to American Indian soldiers in Iraq today.

The Imus story still matters as long as there are ''Indian'' names, mascots and other references in American sports, and as long as comedians and talk show hosts continue to make fun of Native peoples who are trying to do something to get rid of them.

The Imus story still matters.

Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, is president of the Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C., and a columnist for Indian Country Today.