The flap over radio icon Don Imus’ “nappy-headed hos” comment didn’t just cost the man his job but also started up a dialog about race and (in)appropriate language. As with any time in a controversial issue like this, there was a lot of breast-beating and idiotic punditry along with some sage thoughts.
Start with Newsweek’s The Power That Was. As part of the cover story came this gem:
He once called Washington Post reporter Howard Kurtz, a regular on the show, a “boner-nosed, beanie-wearing Jew boy.” Kurtz considered it part of the game. “I wasn’t thrilled, but I just shrugged it off as Imus’s insult shtik,” says Kurtz, who has said that Imus helped make one of his books a best seller. “I don’t believe for a second that he doesn’t like Jewish people.”
...which is to say “I’m get insulted and have anti-semitic crap slung at me and give up my dignity if it’ll help me sell books.” It’s also to say that Imus’ race and culture baiting has its own history that some media figures (including some of his guests on the show) suddenly seem to be realizing.
What it’s also meant is that along with Imus himself, other scapegoats are getting dragged into the mess. Reflecting a recent tirade by the British Prime Minister against black culture for society’s ills, rap music has also turned up as a target since some of the same language or worse is used in some lyrics. A more thoughtful discussion of this came from Earl Ofari Hutchinson in Imus Is Snoop’s Frankenstein Monster but the usual stance is that rap music IN GENERAL is to blame, as if to say all rap music promotes sexism and degradation of black culture itself, which is a lie but not a total falsehood. Davey D’s Is Hip Hop Really the Blame for this Don Imus Thing? provides some historical perspective, noting that hip hip has long been under fire for being a corrupting force and that the salty language about race and sex long preceded rap too. The Imus scandal also lent itself to become an excuse to bash Al Sharpton and his perceived influence in bringing down Imus (forgetting ad dollars that made the bigger influence or the fact that Imus volunteered to be on Sharpton’s program): Some talk radio hosts angered by Imus’ firing. It’s ironic because Sharpton himself is not only looking to expand the targets of his controversy (including some rappers) but also to the general coarsening of dialog in popular culture.
On a related note, the two wisest articles about the controversy were the ones that dug into the semantics of it. Julia Keller’s So when did this coarse term become mainstream? (Chicago Tribune) notes that Imus compounded the insult by attacking the basketball team in terms of both race and sex. And though the term “ho” is sadly ubiquitous in culture otherwise, that doesn’t let him off the hook:
“It’s true that mainstream white culture has appropriated the use of “ho,” just as it has swiped clothes, gestures and other lingo from the rap and hip-hop worlds. Imus was indulging in just that sort of cultural larceny when he uttered his ghastly, revolting crack about the Rutgers athletes. That’s why it sounded not only stupid and callous, but slightly pathetic: Behold a doddering old white man, trying to sound hip.”
In the same vein, Steven Winn’s Offensive language—where to draw the line (SF Gate) argues that context is important but even in the shock-jock game, there are lines that socially can or can’t be crossed no matter who’s appropriating the particular words and terms.
But maybe the most startling exchange about the controversy came from Meet the Press where the entire roundtable section was devoted to this topic. David Brooks (New York Times), Gwen Ifill (PBS’s The News Hour), John Harwood (CNBC/Wall Street Journal), and Eugene Robinson (Washington Post) joined host Tim Russert as part of the discussion. Ifill had some of the best points noting that “we’re (in the media) all hypocrites but can we get beyond that.” She also nails other media for being silent on the topic before and after the incident (including some on the roundtable like Russet and Brooks) in helping Imus become the powerful force that he was. “He’s not really a racist,” she chided some of her colleagues as coming up with as a justification but she also pointed out that his actions have that effect and his words have that effect. Robinson correctly noted that because “there are other issues (economic) that face Black Americas, their existence is not a reason to refrain from addressing (this).” Brooks weakly admitted that he wasn’t familiar with Imus’ show before he went on there but also noted now the detrimental effect of Imus’ hate-speech: ” it’s a pollution that makes it easier (for racists).” Q: who made Sharpton and Jackson spokesmen for African Americans? Ifill: “the media did.” Russet ended by saying “we were supposed to talk about Alberto Gonzalez and 2008 president race but this is a lot more important.” I’d like to think so too but I can’t help but thinking this was also his way to make amends for sucking up to Imus before. The transcript of the whole conversation is worth reading in detail.
One final note. I myself (a nice Jewish boy originally from New Jersey) constantly use a hip-hop term for my girlfriend but it’s definitely not ‘ho.’ I call her “boo” as in ‘beautiful’- a term of respect and affection, both of which she deserves. Context does count for a lot, you see…
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times. Thanks everyone.