By Errol Louis
The Imus Mess
The sacking of Don Imus marks a welcome, high-profile victory for common sense and decency. After years of scattered efforts to hold Hollywood, Madison Avenue and the record business accountable for the negative images and messages they spew, the issue finally came to a head.
A key part of the equation that led to the firing of Imus is the presence of black execs at NBC, CBS and several of the biggest corporate advertisers on the networks. As the furor over Imus’ racist remarks increased, Ken Chennault, the CEO of American Express, announced that the company was pulling its ads. A few days later, Bruce Gordon, the NAACP president who sits on the board of CBS, said he thought Imus should be fired.
And the National Association of Black Journalists applied pressure on NBC and CBS to get rid of Imus.
Years of breaking down barriers and patiently building corporate careers has created a powerful and growing network of influence. As Imus discovered too late.
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The Wal-Mart Question
Wal-Mart’s recent announcement that it has given up on trying to open a store in Manhattan leaves open an important question: how do we get lower-priced goods to people in inner-city neighborhoods. Right now, the typical urban family is paying hundreds more than their suburban counterpart because the big retailers have a hard time getting a foothold in the city.
For years now, in every place Wal-Mart has looked for a home, labor unions, lobbyists and politicians have thrown up roadblocks, sometimes by passing zoning rules to exclude Wal-Mart’s trademark megastores.
The unions and politicians that worked so hard to keep Wal-Mart out of Gotham have a moral obligation to help low-income New Yorkers find another way to get low-cost goods.
The opposition to Wal-Mart by organized labor has been understandable, even commendable. The company is notorious for using union-busting tactics: In 2000, after a majority of butchers in a Jacksonville, Tex., Wal-Mart voted to unionize, the company simply stopped carrying fresh meat and fired all the butchers.
That hardknuckled approach goes hand in hand with offering lousy pay and skimpy benefits to employees. Many full-time Wal-Mart workers live near the poverty line and rely on government benefits or a spouse’s health benefits to get by.
So many women have complained about Wal-Mart’s job-assignment and promotion practices that more than 2 million women – current and former employees – have banded together in the largest sex-discrimination lawsuit in U.S. history.
But opposing Wal-Mart’s odious practices is only half the equation. The anti-Wal-Mart forces also need to face the fact that working families in our city, including union households, need price relief.
For decades, inner-city neighborhoods across America have watched supermarkets and retail stores vanish, leaving an impoverished captive audience with few choices of what to eat or wear.
Study after study has confirmed what inner-city residents already know all too well: It’s hard, and sometimes impossible, to find fresh, cheap produce in the ghetto. Some bodegas and small supermarkets carry organic and low-sodium foods, but not nearly enough.
Every serious discussion of the inner-city epidemic of chronic diseases like hypertension, obesity, diabetes and heart disease eventually bumps into the urgent need to make better and cheaper goods available.
Beyond the question of food is the simple, vital matter of helping poor people save money. A family that pays less for everything from diapers and baby food to coats, shoes and dresses can easily end up saving $400 to $500 a year – a significant amount for a household with $20,000 to $30,000 in income.
The unions and politicians who keep chasing Wal-Mart away should keep holding strategy meetings – this time, to work on ways to bring supermarkets, food co-ops, green markets and discount retailers to the city residents who need them most.
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Fight Back Against Gun Violence
More people die by gun violence in America than anywhere else in the civilized world – nearly 30,000 souls every year, an average of more than 80 deaths every day.
Recent casualties in New York City include Rowan Clarke, a restaurant owner killed during a recent home invasion robbery, and Courtney Atkinson, an airport skycap and father of six shot to death near his Queens home.
The death toll also includes Alfredo Romero, Eugene Marshalik and Nicholas Pekearo, all shot to death last month by a madman named David Garvin who had two illegal weapons and 100 rounds of ammunition. Police ended Garvin’s rampage by killing him.
In North Carolina, 40 kids under 18 were shot to death in 2005, a 50% jump from the year before. In Aurora, a suburb of Chicago, there have been 32 shooting incidents this year, triple the number last year. Four people have died so far. In Newark, a single 17-hour stretch last month saw nine people shot, one fatally.
And students at Public School 21 in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, had to run for their lives when gunfire erupted just outside the school’s gates at 4:15 in the afternoon. Two teenagers were arrested nearby with a .357 magnum.
A common thread in the epidemic of gun violence is criminals’ easy access to illegal weapons, supplied by a handful of corrupt dealers. According to federal statistics, an estimated 60% of guns used in crimes trace back to just 1% of merchants. They tend to operate from states like Florida, Virginia, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Indiana that have lax gun regulations.
Nine out of 10 guns used in crimes in New York City come from out of state, leading Mayor Bloomberg to sue 27 out-of-state dealers for selling weapons without using legally required background checks, waiting periods and recordkeeping.
Recognizing the profound spiritual crisis that lies behind the statistics, a group called God Not Guns is calling on people of faith to use prayer vigils, teach-ins and other campaigns to stir the nation to action.
The group’s Web site (www.godnotguns.org) has a quote from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who warned in 1963 that “by our readiness to allow arms to be purchased at will and fired at whim; by allowing our movies and television screens to teach our children that the hero is one who masters the art of shooting and the technique of killing . . . we have created an atmosphere in which violence and hatred have become popular pastimes.”
We have indeed. And there’s no better time to join the campaign to set things right.