Crucial Minutia
it's the little things...
Daniel May
What Imus Can Teach Us About Virginia Tech
3 Comments | posted April 18th, 2007 at 04:52 pm by Daniel May

So I was all set this week to keep up with my habit of writing about yesterday’s news several days past the due-date of my column by ranting about Don Imus. And then the incomprehensible occurred in Virginia, again (the incomprehensible seems to keep happening) and so now my vent about the trivial is all folded into my emotions facing the unimaginable (What if my sister were there? What if it was my child who was killed, who did the killing? Scenarios of horror played out in wandering minds around the country). So, here’s the product of a week’s thinking about Imus and two days considering the impossible.

First, on Imus: every few years our nation offers a sacrificial lamb to the gods of racial sensitivity. It makes us feel better, like we’ve come so far, like we can spot a bigot, call the bigot a bigot, and that bigot will pay for his sins, absolving us all the process. It’s a purification rite. I’m not sure if the first act of sacrifice was Jimmy the Greek, or if that’s just the first one I can recall, but in 1988 he said this gem: “During the slave period, the slave owner would breed his big black with his big woman so that he would have a big black kid—that’s where it all started,” and got summarily fired from NBC. And more recently, of course, we’ve had Michael Richards destroy his career via Youtube and a cell phone video. And now Imus joins the ranks of the slaughtered.

Now, Jimmy the Greek, Michael Richards, Don Imus: all assholes, all racists. But the fact that racism as a concept only reaches up into national conversation when someone famous says something insane speaks to a disturbing delusion and self-righteousness deep in our national culture. It speaks to our failure in engaging about our past, our history, our present reality, and our living obligations to one another. When we hang Imus by his own rope, we can tell ourselves that justice is done and that we are the justice-doers. In the killing all are cleansed.

Glenn Loury, an economist at Boston University, wrote an interesting book entitled “the Anatomy of Racial Inequality.” In it, he argues that the core factor in growing racial inequality is our inability to recognize that we all belong to the same common community – instead, we have come to believe that the black community is responsible primarily for itself, the Latino community for itself, etc. In this framework, high unemployment or drop-out rates in communities of color are meant to be addressed first and foremost by those communities. When those communities fail, the question we tend to ask is “what is wrong with them,” not “what is wrong with us.”

Loury argues that it is commonplace to hear white Americans ask “why can’t those kids learn,” in reference to students of color (and I’ve heard this language, over and over, from school teachers to the most progressive democrats in West Los Angeles) while the language of collective ownership, the “our” so essential to democracy, is secluded to realms where it is synonymous with white culture (“we need to protect the growth of our private sector).”

I was speaking to a friend yesterday, an Asian American, who told me, “I feel kind of sick to admit this, but, I was – god, is this the right word – disappointed to learn that it was an immigrant who did the killing.” This remark speaks to what Loury is getting at. In the midst of such horror Seung-Hui’s race gets us off the hook. Rather than talking about a carelessness deep in our culture, or the cheapening of human life that runs throughout our media, or the stigmas associated with mental health, or the culture of politeness that allows us to easily imagine living next to someone clearly mentally disturbed yet feeling like it wasn’t our place, or the ease of access to weapons made for mass murder, we can see a dispassionate Korean face and ask: “what’s wrong with them.”

I’m not sure if there is more focus on the killer in this case than on the boys in Columbine. Maybe not. It seems appropriate to be fascinated and curious and interested seriously in what could lead a person to do the unthinkable, hopefully in order to prevent it from happening again. But I do fear that reading “resident ALIEN” in nearly every article makes it easier for us to focus on the killer’s strangeness rather than the question my host-family in Spain asked to me after Columbine: “what is wrong in your country?”

The storm around Imus provides the same cover. We can point to the sinner, confuse bigotry with racism and callousness with injustice, rather than ask, what is wrong with us?

Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great Jewish theologian and civil rights leader put it well when trying to make sense of the Holocaust, “If a man has beheld evil, he may know that it was shown to him in order that he learn his own guilt and repent; for what is shown to him is also within him.”

This entry was posted on Wednesday, April 18th, 2007 at 4:52 pm and is filed under General. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

There are currently 3 responses

  1. Kate Torgovnick

    Awesome post, Daniel. I totally agree with what you said about jumping on some abhorrent racist making us all feel a little better. And I have to admit that my first thought when I read about the Virginia Tech shootings (after calling everyone I know in the area) was that of course it was some white guy from a suburb who’d convinced himself that his life was hell when really he was one of the luckiest people in history to have food on the table, medicine when he needs it, and to not be from some war-torn place where he’s constantly worrying about his and his family’s safety.

    When I was younger, I was into the second amendment. But with every case like this, I’m swinging farther and farther away from that. What a different country this would be if guns were hard to come by. —Kate

    April 19th, 2007 | 8:51 am
  2. Totally critical points Daniel. How can we possibly live in the same nation, be government by the same government, ride the same subway trains or drive the same highways, spend our money in the same corporations, and not see ourselves as utterly intertwined, even on the most pragmatic levels? I think we have to look to people’s everyday experiences of the world. How often did Imus interact with a young woman of color? Seriously. How often do those that hate “illegal aliens” actually speak with one?

    April 20th, 2007 | 10:25 am
  3. felice

    A major problem with conversations about racism is that we live in a country that denies racisim exists. Look at Oprah they say, I’m colorblind they say, etc. We also live in a country that was founded on the division of races. All men are created equal — except slaves and Native Americans and the Japanese, etc. When the dominant culture views all else as “other” and/or inferior and/or less than human it becomes nearly impossible to hold coversations about “us” and “our.” Which is unfortunate.

    April 21st, 2007 | 11:52 am

Leave a reply