For a guy who makes his living as a professional talker, the topic of race seems to leave Don Imus oddly tongue-tied.
In case you haven't kept up, the pioneer "shock jock" has been broadcasting a new morning show on WABC-AM since last fall, months after he was fired from MSNBC and CBS Radio for proclaiming that the Rutgers University women's basketball team looked like "nappy-headed hos."
He returned to work with profuse on-air apologies and a pledge to foster an open dialogue on race relations on his new show. On Monday he fostered the sort of dialogue he had not counted on.
Or maybe he did. Listening to the on-air chatter that has stirred up another racial eruption, I had to wonder whether it was just another bonehead mistake or a brilliant publicity stunt.
On Monday's show, sportscaster Warner Wolf was talking about how the Dallas Cowboys football player formerly known as Adam "Pacman" Jones no longer wants to be called "Pacman." Jones is turning over a new leaf after having been suspended for a season and arrested six times.
Then Imus inexplicably injected race into the conversation:
"What color is he?" asked Imus.
"He's African-American," said Wolf, sounding a bit bemused.
"Well, there you go," said Imus. "Now we know."
Huh? That's it? You might ask, "Now we know what?" Imus did not say. The omission left the rest of us to wonder whether Imus was expressing some sort of soft bigotry of criminal expectations in regard to black athletes.
It didn't take all day for Rev. Al Sharpton to call the remarks "very disturbing" and say, "We are looking into this." Sharpton led the campaign to have Imus fired last year from his national CBS Radio show and its simulcast on MSNBC.
Jones said he was upset by the remarks and would "pray" for the radio star.
But Imus insisted that those of us who heard something racist in his remarks heard him wrong. He said he actually was defending Jones, whom Imus thought was being picked on because of his race.
On his radio show the next day, Imus said he was trying to "make a sarcastic point" about the unfair treatment of blacks in the criminal justice system but had been misunderstood.
"What people should be outraged about is that they arrest blacks for no reason," Imus said Tuesday. "I mean, there's no reason to arrest this kid six times. Maybe he did something once, but everyone does something once."
Calling the criticism "ridiculous," Imus pointed out how his program's cast is now more diverse than ever. It includes a black producer and two black co-hosts one male and one female. Still, after his troubles last year, you might think he'd be extra careful about clarifying his sentiments the first time, especially on topics having anything to do with race, instead of letting his insinuations ("well, there you go; now we know") hang heavily in the air.
Instead, he finds himself trying to explain why what he meant to say was different from what we may have heard him say.
If he was looking for attention and what entertainer isn't? he could hardly have dreamed up a more slippery way to do it. Even the remarks that he said he intended to say exposed some of our society's deepest racial wounds.
For example, just as it is offensive to imply that blacks are more criminal than whites, it is also offensive to imply that blacks are arrested "for no reason," if you don't back up the assertion. If "there's no reason to arrest this kid six times," that, too, begs for an explanation. Otherwise, Imus seemed to be committing the same offense of which Sharpton is often accused: exploiting serious issues like race, crime and overpampered athletes and shedding more heat than light.
Ironically, if Imus wants to put his edgy humor to the cause of fostering a helpful dialogue on race, he needs to get serious. He could take some valuable tips from George Carlin, a master of the art of humor who died Sunday at age 71. The envelope-pushing Carlin will be sorely missed by those of us who appreciate humor that also makes you think. Whether you agreed with him or not, you knew where Carlin stood. Imus, by contrast, has a self-defeating habit of shooting from the lip and firing blanks.