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Commentary By John H. McWhorter

A Dangerous Detour

Culture, Culture Culture & Society, Race

You can count on about one a month. Last August it was Sen. George Allen's (R-Va.) "macaca" comment that led to the usual editorials about the "persistence of racism in America" and the duty of good-thinking people to police the country for "offensive language." Allen apologized.

We were barely past that episode when Michael Richards tossed off the N-word in a meltdown during a standup routine when some black men heckled him. More policing, more talk shows exploring the issue. Richards apologized, with the Rev. Jesse Jackson in tow.

Upon which Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) was dragged through the mud for calling Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) "articulate and bright and clean." Never mind that if you look at the actual transcript, he meant something different from what was reported. This was still water-cooler talk for a couple of weeks, complete with the Op-Eds and the requisite apology.

Not long ago, a radio host in Texas, making fun of Biden, called Obama a "clean darky." The local NAACP was up in arms.

Writing about this kind of thing a little while ago, I predicted that there would be a new episode the following week. I was off by seven days. Now it's Don Imus on the coals for saying that the women on Rutgers' basketball team are "nappy-headed ho's."

We know the drill. Reflective sorts have been tsk-tsking over Imus. Condemning him. Imus, just suspended, will be trotted out as one more example that on racism in America we've come a long way, but we have a ... (need I even finish?).

And what will the point be? What, really, is the goal of these monthly performances over something someone says in passing and usually in jest? If the goal is to stop people from ever uttering anything that can be construed as belittling to people of color, it doesn't appear to be working.

We have already succeeded in making the outright abusive wielding of racial slurs unacceptable in American society. Nicholas (Fat Nick) Minucci, the Howard Beach, Queens, twentysomething who assaulted a black man with a bat while shouting the N-word, deserved to go to prison.

However, the quest for an America where no one ever makes passing observations that are less than respectful of minority groups is futile. And why are so many of us so obsessed with chasing that rainbow anyway? The truth is that black people who go to pieces whenever anyone says a little something are revealing that they are not too sure about themselves.

Imus hosts a radio show and a lot of people listen to it. During a few seconds last week he said something tacky. The show went on, as did life. Black people continued to constitute most new AIDS cases, black men continued to come out of prison unsupervised. And we're supposed to be most interested in Imus saying "nappy-headed ho's"?

What creates that hypersensitivity is a poor racial self-image. Where, after all, did Imus pick up the very terminology he used? Rap music and the language young black people use themselves on the street to refer to one another.

What Imus said is lowdown indeed, but so is the way blacks refer to each other. And life goes on.

Street theater is not strength. It saps energy better put to other uses. The focus we'll be dedicating to the next gaffe sometime in (this time I'll give myself a little more wiggle room) May will mean that much less commitment to addressing black people's real problems.

This piece originally appeared in New York Daily News

This piece originally appeared in New York Daily News