For those of you not familiar with Don Imus and the controversy that he's been embroiled in, he's a long-time radio announcer with a large nationally syndicated audience, who some would consider a "shock jock". He is certainly extremely irreverent -- about just about everything, but he also features a number of national political figures and top journalists as occasional guests and thus is taken quite seriously by some people on some things. A few days ago he used the words "nappy-
hairedheaded ho's" in a referernce to players on the Rutgers University women's basketball team, which had just lost in the national championship match. It was lame and not funny, but obviously intended to be funny. I'm not a regular Imus listener these days, though I have been on various occasions during the past 30ish years, but you don't need to be a regular or even occasional Imus listener to discern that the remark was intended to be a comic aside. (Just listen to the tape.) As humor, it failed badly, and there's no question that it was an offensive race-based remark, made worse by the fact that it was directed against a very specific small group of young ladies who did absolutely nothing to deserve being the target of an offensive label, and who in fact did nothing to deserve being the target of humor.
Before the most recent news on this, which is that Imus' show is being suspended for two weeks by the networks, I had heard some commentators today questioning why Imus should "get a pass" on this, when people like Senator Trent Lott and George Allen have been taken to the proverbial woodshed over their racially insensitive remarks. It's a double standard, right!?
My immediate reaction to that is that Imus is an entertainer, and he isn't holding any office, running for anything, and was never likely to run for anything, so there's no comparison to make there at all. It is a double standard, because Imus operates in a different sphere than politicians and two different standards do apply.
On the other hand, the processes by which the separate standards of the political and entertainment spheres are applied are very similar. Neither Lott nor Allen paid a predetermined price. In both cases, they might have survived relatively unscathed, but there would have been a cost and neither had sufficient political capital to pay with in order survive in the short term. Lott, however, has started to make a significant comeback, and Allen only lost his election by a slim margin and someday may come back. Similarly, like fellow entertainer Michael Richards, Imus's survival or doom is not predetermined. It will depend on what capital he has in the entertainment world. It seems doubtful that Richards has the captial to survive. He'll need an awful lot given the utter lack of appearance of a legitimate attempt at comedy in his tirade. Imus will pay whatever price the entertainment industry exacts of him, starting with the two week suspension and ending who knows where, but he's built up a lot of capital and if he spends it wisely he should survive. That's as it should be, and Imus' politically-oriented guests, should they continue to associate with him, may have to spend some of their own capital as a result, which is also as it should be.
A different apparent double standard, however, is of much more interest to me. I know why Imus is (rightly) getting so much flack over "nappy-headed ho's"; but I want to know why none of the commentators I've heard so far are throwing any flack at hip hop culture and it's young (mostly) black (mostly) male rapper leaders, who routinely glorify the labeling of black women as "ho's" and "bitches". I would not say the same about "the N word" as used by Richards, but IMHO there's been significant desensitization with respect to the terms "ho's" and "bitches", and Imus is by far not the first person outside of the hip-hop world to use them humorously -- or to attempt to. I'm sure that desensitization of those terms over the past twenty or so years bears significant responsibility for the fact that Imus mistakenly thought (to the extent that an attempt at a comic ad lib represents actual thought) that it would be hip, funny and acceptable for an old white guy in a cowboy hat to make jokes with them. If he had just used the term "nappy-headed ho's" in some off-hand joke that wasn't referring to anyone in particular, I'll bet nobody would have even noticed. If anyone did notice, I'll bet nobody would have complained. I'll bet if anyone did complain, nobody would have taken the complaint seriously. But that's part of the problem, isn't it? Nobody particularly cares any more if nameless/faceless abstract images of young urban black women are referred to as "ho's", but we should care. Not caring about it in the nameless/faceless abstract leads to some people not instinctively realizing how truly wrong it is to say that about specific young black women. Whether urban or not, and whether professional, working class, student, student-athlete, or unemployed, and with or without the "nappy-headed" prefix, it's a wrong-headed, insulting label.
Update: The Today Show on NBC is addressing the hip-hop culture double standard question this morning.
Update two: Well... the Today Show didn't really take up the topic. They had Imus and Rev. Al Sharpton on as guests, and as part of their non-debate Imus tried to bring up the point and Sharpton tried to not not let him.
1. Chris Whisonant04/11/2007 08:42:57 AM
Great commentary on this! Thanks. For years people have commented on the same double standard you mentioned in your last paragraph. Even when someone like Bill Cosby tries to address some of those issues he is fallen upon with deaf ears. It's really sad that people like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson won't try to work on that problem. Forgive me, but I heard a guest on O'Reilly last night say that since Sharpton can't actually affect real change in his community that he takes up cases like these to give him a perception of a victory.
I can't say whether that's true, but like you said everyone thinks this statement by Imus was uncalled for and just plain stupid. No matter who the target. It just so happened that Sharpton can bring race into the picture now and that expounds the situation.
2. Richard Schwartz04/11/2007 10:11:04 AM
Despite the source (someone on O'Reilly... not a jab at you personally), I won't disagree with that assertion about Sharpton. My daughter asked me who he was yesterday, and I told her to look up the word "demagogue" in the dictionary.
I should add that on the Today Show this morning, one of the young ladies from the Rutgers team spoke eloquently about exactly this problem, even using the same word that I did, "desensitize", to describe the effect that hip hop culture has had in general, and she specifically acknowledged that Imus' thought processes would have been influenced by this. I was impressed by her composure and her ability to look at this situation very objectively, despite having been the target of a personalized slur.
I should also add that I grew up less than 5 miles from the Rutgers campus, and was a big fan of their men's basketball team in the late 1970's -- a time when they were a strong NCAA contender and made the Final Four at least once that I remember. And since then I've been well aware that the Rutgers women's team has been a very consistent contender, and I still root for them when I get the chance to see them play.
3. Chris Whisonant04/11/2007 10:24:40 AM
Man! I was taking a sip of a soda when I read the part about the "demagogue" and about sprayed my monitor with Pepsi One!!
I couldn't remember his name earlier, but it was Bernard Goldberg who was on the factor last night and said what I posted earlier. I'm used to being "jabbed" about Fox Snooze or Faux News or whatever!
4. Errol04/13/2007 11:44:44 AM
I would disagree. I for one, have heard Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson attack the "hip-hop" culture for its use of such language to
its own the black community. I changed its own because hip-hop is no longer black. I don't think the punishment fits the crime but I think that there was a crime. I think it was racially insensitive, negative, crude, and stupid! Especially since many of the kids on that team are excelling students. The apology along with a donation to the charity of choice of the members of the team and maybe some time off air, but not firing the guy.
So, let's not beat up on Al and Jesse when the true culprit is Don Imus.
PS. @1 Al Sharpton's community is OUR community. Why is it that we only hear Sharpton when dealing with these issues in the black areas or community, where is everyone else? That is the real problem! Don't forget, communities have no borders.
5. Richard Schwartz04/13/2007 12:38:18 PM
@4 Errol, Thanks for your view on this. I don't hear everything that Sharpton or Jackson say, so perhaps they have been appropriately harsh on hip-hop culture and I've just never heard of it. Perhaps they have called for people to be fired, and for advertisers to boycott, etc. If they have, I applaud them.
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