Do Racial Apologies Matter?

Don Imus has apologized publicly for racially charged comments about the Rutgers women's basketball team. But is an apology ever enough after racist remarks? Farah Jasmine Griffin, professor of English and comparative literature, and African-American Studies at Columbia University, discusses the value of public apologies with Farai Chideya.

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Farai Chideya, host:

So will Imus go forward with next Tuesday's meeting between himself and the Rutgers women's basketball team?

He's apologized already repeatedly and publicly. But in a case like this, is his apology enough? To explore what makes apologies heal or fail, I talked to Farah Jasmine Griffin. She is professor of English and comparative literature, and of African-American Studies, at Columbia University. Griffin said Imus should not let MSNBC's decision keep him from meeting with the Rutgers basketball team.

Professor FARAH JASMINE GRIFFIN (English and Comparative Literature and African-American Studies, Columbia University): Well, I think it's very important that he apologize for his outrageous comments. But it's really up to the young women to decide whether or not they want to accept an apology. There's always a responsibility to apologize, but one doesn't necessarily have to accept that apology.

CHIDEYA: Now the question becomes sincerity. Don Imus has not just sort of fallen off the racial turnip truck, he has hurled himself off many times with slurs and insults and rebukes and apologies. So how much sincerity is there when he's facing pressure from his employers and from corporate sponsors?

Prof. GRIFFIN: Well, that's the true question in all of this. I mean it really does devalue the sense of an apology. We live in an age when apologies really don't carry very much weight anymore because they seem to actually clear the way for people to continue saying the most vile, vicious kinds of things as long as they apologize. They seem much more like public relations strategies than they do any sincere effort to really try to understand what's at root.

CHIDEYA: You've got - on issues of race and ethnicity and religion - comedian Michael Richards using the N-word, Mel Gibson apologizing for anti-Semitic remarks to a police officer, and now Don Imus. But not everybody who's spouted insensitive remarks is white.

You've got actor Isaiah Washington apologizing for homophobic remarks and Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan was criticized for what many saw is anti-Semitic remarks. So when you think about this trend of apologizing publicly, how does race play into who is doing the apologizing and who's receiving it? Is there a difference in any way?

Prof. GRIFFIN: Well, I think the primary difference is that, for the most part, African-Americans are a people who don't necessarily has access to the kind of resources that are available to the media or even kinds of financial resources, so that there's very little in terms of the ways that they can respond to these apologies or, for the most part, choose not to respond to these apologies.

But I don't think there's a real risk to the career of people who say vile and vicious things about black people as long as they apologize. The costs aren't as high; I mean, there are moral costs. But the cost to a career, the kind of financial cost, are not as high unless there's a real organized strategy on the part of the community.

CHIDEYA: Now, how has this country traditionally seen people making public apologies? One thing that comes to mind is that it took years before America apologized to Japanese-Americans who were interned during World War II. That came with a financial payment. And it took even longer for an apology for slavery, which only came during the Clinton years. How is America as a nation dealt with this issue?

Prof. GRIFFIN: Well, it's only recently that African-Americans have been seen as a community to whom one should apologize. But an apology without some kind of either sort of political concession or, you know, something that backs it up tends to be rather meaningless.

CHIDEYA: Now, I want to play a portion of the conversation that preceded Imus's calling the women's team, nappy-headed hos.

Mr. DON IMUS (Host, "Imus in the Morning"): So I watched the basketball game last night between a little bit of Rutgers and Tennessee, the women's final.

Unidentified Man: Yeah, Tennessee won last night, seventh championship for Pat Summitt, (unintelligible) beat Rutgers by 13 points.

Mr. IMUS: That's some rough girls from Rutgers. Man, they got tattoos and

Unidentified Man: Some hardcore hos…

Mr. IMUS: That's…

CHIDEYA: So is what he said about these young women a contradiction?

Prof. GRIFFIN: Of course in many ways, it is a contradiction. On the one hand, there is an emphasis on almost a kind of masculinity. On the other hand, with the comment nappy-headed hos, there is an emphasis on sexual availability. Because, after all, you know, long before the kind of popular culture connotation of that word, that's what it meant.

It's a contradiction unless you look at the historical ways people have spoken about black women from as far back as slavery. To talk about them as sexually promiscuous and at the same time to claim that they are not as feminine and they are more like men allows for both an exploitation of their labor as well as sexual exploitation.

So it has this history that brings those two seemingly contradictory statements together when one is talking about black women, the stereotypes that have haunted us throughout our history certainly in this hemisphere.

CHIDEYA: Well, Professor Griffin, thank you so much for joining us.

Prof. GRIFFIN: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: And we'll be talking a bit more about this later on our Roundtable. Farah Jasmine Griffin is professor of English and comparative literature, and of African-American Studies, at Columbia University. She's also the author of "If You Can't Be Free, Be a Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday."

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: Just ahead, more on the reaction to Don Imus and what it says about black folks' hair issues. Plus your letters and the latest from Washington on Political Corner.

This is NPR News.

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