RADIO TALK show host Don Imus couldn't have chosen a more unlikely group of young women to insult with his racist and sexist comments. In a press conference Tuesday, the Rutgers University women basketball players, the Scarlet Knights, were smart, mature and dignified. Dignified. Looking at the way they handled themselves, Imus should have been so ashamed of his own crass vulgarity that he resigned from his show.

Of course he didn't. He doesn't have that much class. MSNBC, responding to a growing firestorm of outrage about his remarks, announced Wednesday it had dropped his show. Today, CBS fired him.

This story has taken some fascinating turns in the week since Imus and his producer, Bernard McGuirk, called the young women "hardcore hos" and "nappy-headed hos" the morning after they placed second in the NCAA championships.

The comments were shocking. Personally, I tried to place them in the context of the tasteless banter of shock jocks. But the words kept coming back to me, making me alternately furious and sad. These accomplished young women,

five of them are freshmen, none are seniors, these gorgeous young African-American women who had defied the odds and made it to the final championship game — the first time in their school's history — had been insulted in such hurtful and degrading terms. And so casually.

I didn't know anything about Imus, but it was quickly revealed he and his co-hosts had a pattern of racist and sexist humor. One sidekick was fired for calling tennis player Venus Williams an animal, saying she and her sister Serena would more likely appear in National Geographic than Playboy. He later was rehired.

Some years ago, Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page led Imus in a pledge not to make racist remarks. Clearly he didn't keep it. Published reports quoted Imus as saying, "It's nice the New York Times hired the cleaning lady to cover the White House," referring to the highly respected journalist Gwen Ifill. Ifill is African American. He first said he made the remark while playing the character of avowed racist David Duke, then he denied he said it.

His pattern of racist remarks is shocking, but it was even more disturbing to learn of the media and political leaders who frequented the show as guests. Frank Rich and Maureen Dowd of the New York Times. Evan Thomas, editor of Newsweek.

A number of prominent people denounced his comments but defended him as a person, including Democratic political strategist James Carville. Imus's sexist and racist remarks had been rationalized for years by many in the media and political establishment. After all, he had a large audience and attracted millions of dollars in advertising to the station.

In fact, many believe he would have withstood even this firestorm if advertisers hadn't started pulling their ads. First Staples Inc. and Bigelow Teas. Then Proctor & Gamble, General Motors and American Express. That's when MSNBC management decided he had to go because of the station's concerns about values. Read: the value of the advertising dollar.

The tawdry episode shines light on the crude, tasteless world of talk radio that prides itself in its lack of civility. It's all about ratings and money. But why is such drivel popular? Some suggest the sexist, racist and culturally insensitive banter expresses what its largely white male audience thinks but is afraid to say. It certainly doesn't do anything for understanding and coexistence.

It also brings up the popular culture's pervasive sexually demeaning portrayal of young African-American women in particular and young women in general. Defenders of Imus said rap songs are full of even worse words referring to women. It was a pathetic defense. Imus, a 66-year-old white man, is hardly a rap star.

However, the incident offers an opportunity for people, women and men, to finally stand up in protest of the degradation of women in songs and videos. It could be a defining moment. In fact, a recent survey found the vast majority of young African Americans who say they listen to rap music every day disapprove of the rampant misogyny.

But it goes beyond young African American women and rap. Young women in general are presented as sex objects throughout popular culture. It's everywhere you look. In just one example, a magazine article about the social scene at Duke University reported the women are described as lacrosstitutes (those who sleep with the lacrosse players) or frat sluts.

In response to the Imus insults, local publicist Sandra Varner has organized a group of East Bay women to speak up against the degradation of young women at a press conference Monday , 5:30 p.m. at Allen Temple Baptist church, 8501 International Blvd., Oakland, in the sanctuary.

"It's a call to action. Sometimes it takes something as explosive as this to make us accountable for what we have been allowing to happen. How can I look at my goddaughters and nieces and sit by and not do something? We have to say no. We have to," she said, passionately.

Back to those impressive young women at Rutgers, denied their shining moment of accomplishment and dragged into the grimy muck of racism and sexism. The poised Essence Carson, spokeswoman for the Scarlet Knights, said it all.

"It's not only African-American women who were attacked. It's all women. We have to speak up for women. The equality that we hope for is not there. It brings us to the harsh reality that these things (racism and sexism) aren't over," she said.

Columnist Brenda Payton can be reached at bpayton@angnewspapers.com.