YOU CAN'T APPRECIATE the raw racism of Don Imus' hateful characterization of the Rutgers women's basketball team until you know what they did to him.

Nothing!

They became "nappy-headed hos" not because of anything they said. It wasn't anything they had done.

The offense that prompted this giant of our industry - who was belatedly, and not sufficiently, punished with a two-week suspension yesterday - to wheel out his big guns was that they looked like black women.

That's it.

They played hard on a basketball court for two hours and their hair got "nappy." They were guilty of driving the lane while black.

That is quintessential racism. Looking black is all it took to line themselves up in his crosshairs. They became objects of derision for being who they are.

What did he know about them? He knew that they had managed to maintain a grade-point average high enough to remain eligible under NCAA rules. He knew they were one of the two best women's basketball teams in America.

But, while they should have been enjoying their well-earned plaudits, they become the topics of a conversation that is not about them at all.

Even more offensive is that, in Imus' warped thinking, looking like a young black woman is prima facie evidence of a character deficiency. Hence, they become "hos" because their hair is nappy.

It doesn't get any more raw than that. Put in the context of some of his past sins, we learn a lot more about Don Imus than he knows about these women.

We know that when Gwen Ifill, a national correspondent with the Public Broadcasting System, says something he doesn't like, he calls her "the cleaning lady." Author and New York Times sports columnist Bill Rhoden gets uppity and he is reduced to an "affirmative-action hire."

So, we know what Don Imus is.

But what does it say about the people who beat a path to his microphone? What it says to me is they don't mind being associated with repeated racism.

That's the way I will view any candidate who would seek my vote after appearing on his show. That's the way I will view any product that advertises on his show. It's the way I will view MSNBC and WFAN and all of the stations in the network that enable him.

If I break bread with someone who tells the world that people who look like me are ugly, then I'm a fool. If I vote for or patronize anyone who thinks that's all right, I'm complicit in my own degradation.

I'm not willing to shrug off an insult that goes to my very core just because, as one respected colleague told me, that's the way it is in talk radio today.

He's right. It's the new American discoarse. The airwaves are crawling with commentators whose stock in trade is characterizing opponents in the most dehumanizing and strident terms they can belch up.

Object and you're dismissed as just being "politically correct." The way to deal with him, our well-meaning friends tell us, is to ignore him. Otherwise, they say, you just draw more attention to him.

I'm willing to risk it. Anyone more likely to listen to Don Imus after hearing about his racist diatribes is not someone that I care about. He's welcome to them.

The people I write to can distinguish between the primal grunts of "commentators" like Don Imus or Howard Stern and those of us whose ideas are rooted in research.

I won't ignore it. When we ignore it we end up with elected officials like state Rep. Michael McGeehan, who got re-elected after he described black people as "niggers, jungle bunnies and jigaboos."

We let it slip our minds at the Daily News after a few years. Our editorial board ended up endorsing a man we would never have endorsed if we had just remembered.

I'll never forget, and I'm not worthy of this space if I ever let people like that forget it, either. *

Send e-mail to smithel@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2512. For recent columns: http://go.philly.com/smith