[Robert Wright, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, runs the Web site]

There has to be an Imus event every once in a while. Ethnicity being the volatile thing it is, gratuitously inflammatory remarks have to be discouraged, so bounds of acceptable speech have to be clarified. Clarity comes when, inevitably, someone oversteps and gets slapped down.

Maybe this particular boundary could have been clarified with less punishment, given how abjectly Don Imus has apologized. Still, there had to be a price, and, compared with the prices paid in some multiethnic societies (remember Yugoslavia?), this is a bargain.

But is America’s machinery for stigmatizing bigotry really working coherently?

If social harmony is the goal, sanctions should be focused along the ethnic fault lines that are most precarious.

The black-white boundary is such a line, given both the history of oppression and ongoing economic disparities between blacks and whites. But what about the line between Muslim America and Judeo-Christian America?

Here, economics isn’t the issue. American Muslims are better educated and wealthier than Muslims in Western Europe — one reason homegrown terrorism has been a problem in Europe and not here. Still, given that jihadist leaders around the world would love to ignite American strife, and given how few radically aggrieved Americans it takes to commit terrorism, this ethnic boundary is dicey, and worth minding.

Which brings us to Ann Coulter. Full disclosure: Ms. Coulter once cited an Op-Ed essay I wrote for this newspaper about the Danish cartoon controversy as evidence that people like me had ”affection” for terrorists. Thus ended any claim I might have to evaluate her work objectively. If you want a subject on which I report and you decide, today’s not your day.

In a speech last year before the Conservative Political Action Conference, Ms. Coulter used the word “raghead.” This is a dual-use slur, applied to both Arabs and Muslims, but she was talking about an Iranian, so presumably she was focusing on the religious dimension (consistent with her post-9/11 advice that we ”invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.”) The word raghead — whose only function is to denigrate — seems as legitimately offensive to Muslims as Mr. Imus’s utterance was to blacks. The difference is that Ms. Coulter didn’t apologize.

Brace yourself for the seismic damage done to her career. The leaders of CPAC reassessed their relationship with her and invited her back to speak this year, an occasion she used to trot out the word ”faggot.” And Ms. Coulter continued to be interviewed respectfully on CNN and (again and again) on Fox News — treatment that presumably wouldn’t be accorded a pundit who used the ”n-word” without apology.

Why the Imus-Coulter disparity? Maybe part of it is that Ms. Coulter isn’t as structurally susceptible to sanction as Mr. Imus. She doesn’t have her own radio or TV show, so advertisers on CNN and Fox have two degrees of separation from bigotry. Still, there are pressure points big enough for an Al Sharpton to find. Ms. Coulter’s column appears in newspapers with major advertisers.

Maybe the problem is that Muslims don’t have an Al Sharpton. And, truthfully, I wouldn’t wish one on them. But couldn’t they at least have an NAACP?

Actually, they have something like that: the Council on American-Islamic Relations. But CAIR is tarred by such people as Daniel Pipes for alleged sympathy to terrorists. I don’t personally trust Mr. Pipes’s judgment in Muslim-related matters, but I haven’t done the dissertation it would take to get to the bottom of his indictment. What I do know is that if Muslims never achieve the kind of political organization that gets mainstream respect, and indeed feel that all attempts at political organization draw special scrutiny because Muslims are viewed with special suspicion —- well, that won’t help matters.


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