On December 5, 1955, Martin Luther King Jr. took to the pulpit at the Holt Street Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, and thanked the Lord for Rosa Parks. “And, since it had to happen, I’m happy it happened to a person like Mrs. Parks,” he said. “For nobody can doubt the boundless outreach of her integrity. Nobody can doubt the height of her character, nobody can doubt the depth of her Christian commitment and devotion to the teachings of Jesus.”
The truth is, it didn’t have to happen to Mrs. Parks. Nine months earlier it had already happened to Claudette Colvin, a 15-year-old activist who was ejected from the city’s buses in almost identical circumstances. But the local civil rights leadership felt Colvin was too dark, too poor and, once she fell pregnant, too compromised to spearhead the kind of struggle they had in mind. And so they dropped her and waited for a better test case.
“Mrs. Parks was a married woman,” said Ed Nixon, a civil rights leader in Montgomery. “She was morally clean…. If there was ever a person we would’ve been able to [use to] break the situation that existed on the Montgomery city line, Rosa L. Parks was the woman to use.”
There are few things as corrosive as the notion of the worthy victim. With the indecency of the crime established, the emphasis shifts to the relative decency of those who suffered as a result of it. A rape is qualified by the behavior and attire of the woman; the human rights abuses at Guantánamo are deemed worse if the prisoner is innocent.
Consciously or not, activists frequently make strategic calculations regarding which victim best exemplifies the full extent of the injustice. In the short term, the tactic might occasionally be justified. “They picked the right person,” Colvin once told me. “They needed someone who could bring together all the classes. They wouldn’t have followed me.” But the sacrifice of the unworthy nearly always compromises the ultimate principle–that women have the right to wear what they want free of harassment; that even terrorists deserve a fair trial; that working-class, single-parent, dark-skinned black women are entitled to civil rights.
Which brings us to the Don Imus affair and his racist, misogynistic branding of the Rutgers women’s basketball team as a group of “nappy-headed ho’s.” For all the column inches spent on it, Imus’s demise never really demanded much great philosophical reflection. He thrived on his right to offend; others exercised their right to be offended. For the first time in a long time the balance of forces was against him. He prided himself on being inflammatory; finally he got burned.
But in the stampede to remove him from the airwaves, some crucial principles were crushed underfoot. For the consensus soon emerged that the problem with his comments was not that they were said at all but that they were said about the wrong people.
“Imus lost his job not when he leveled his double-barreled slur at the Rutgers team, but when the team held its press conference,” argued Newsweek. “The image of the self-possessed young women encouraged employees at NBC to rise up and call for Imus’s firing; their poise may also have persuaded advertisers to begin pulling their sponsorships of Imus’s show.”
If these women had less poise maybe Imus would still be on the air. But they suffered as only black people are supposed to suffer–with dignity. This is not a criticism of the team or even a description so much as a statement of fact. The crowning of the worthy victim has very little to do with the actual victims, and everything to do with how those with more power or less principle or both seek to cast them in a broader morality play of their own crafting.
These women were doing what they do best. “These young ladies are valedictorians,” said their coach, Vivian Stringer. “Future doctors, musical prodigies and, yes, even Girl Scouts. They are all young ladies of class. They are distinctive, articulate.” Articulate like Barack Obama? Apparently, to be worthy of white America’s sympathy, they had to be. For corporate America to weigh its profits against their dignity and decide in their favor, nothing less than perfection would have done.
The trouble with all this is that black women’s lives are far from perfect. Almost two-thirds of black women between 18 and 24 don’t go to college. They are, however, three and a half times more likely to go to prison and three times more likely to be killed with a firearm than white women. They earn 52 percent of white men’s wages, and 27 percent live below the poverty line.
It took Snoop Dogg to break it down. When asked about the difference between Imus’s comments and rap lyrics he answered, “It’s a completely different scenario…. [Rappers] are not talking about collegiate basketball girls who have made it to the next level in education and sports. We’re talking about ho’s that’s in the ‘hood that ain’t doing shit.”
Two days later Kenya Franklin wrote to the Chicago Tribune with an almost identical argument. “If another person uses rap music to defend Imus’s comments, I will scream! Those women were NOT video ‘ho’s’ shaking their asses; they are athletes and college students that are working hard to make something of themselves.”
With these green lights, what was to stop Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post from abandoning the Imus story and plastering a huge photograph of Crystal Gail Mangum–the stripper whose rape case against the Duke lacrosse players had just collapsed–across its front page. Now America Can See Her Face, barked the headline. The Duke Liar–Sex Case Dropped.
either worthy nor apparently a victim, Mangum became fair game. If Imus had held his tongue for just a week he could have said the same thing. There would have been no outcry. It would have been just another day in America.