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Kevin Powell

Don Imus, Race, and Sex in America

by Kevin Powell

I attended Rutgers University in the 1980s, I am a native of Jersey City, and I've always been proud of any accomplishments that have come from that state. So you can imagine my pride as the school's women's basketball team made its march through the recent NCAA tournament. Proud because Rutgers' coach, C. Vivian Stringer, one of the sport's great mentors, has had so many tragedies in her life, yet she has withstood them with grace, dignity, and a complete dedication to these young women, all underclass students. Proud because I noted the backgrounds of RU's players (the majority of them African American), many of them from inner city environments similar to mine; yet they had managed to avoid those minefields and had become, with their brilliant run to the championship game against the mighty University of Tennessee, an example for women and girls nationwide. Focus and persevere, their play seem to say, and you can achieve anything.

Yes, I was disappointed that the Lady Knights lost to Tennessee. But far more disappointing was radio personality Don Imus' "nappy-headed hos" remark the next day, Wednesday, April 4th-coincidentally the 39th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He and his producer, Bernard McGuirk, engaged in the following exchange:

Imus: "That's some rough girls from Rutgers. Man, they got tattoos..."

"Some hardcore hos," McGuirk quipped. "That's some nappy-headed hos there, I'm going to tell you that," Imus added.

We know we live in a world of shock value humor and media commentary. We know that terms like "civility" have long gone the way of short basketball shorts. But there comes a time when an individual or an institution crosses the line, and that is precisely what Mr. Imus did. And no matter how much he apologizes, proclaims that he is "a good man," details his charitable efforts that include African American children, what cannot be ignored, nor erased, is the fact that his views are typical of American males who continue to view women, and particularly Black women, as objects to be mocked, scorned, and beaten down, even when they do good, as the RU women clearly had done. This is nothing new, unfortunately. America has a long and terrible history, dating back to slavery, of disrespecting, degrading, and disregarding Black women. Of reducing Black women to sexual favor, to cook, cleaner (recall that Mr. Imus once referred to renowned Black journalist Gwen Ifill as "the cleaning lady" as she covered the White House), mammy, anything, really, except as whole human beings, as whole women. Little wonder, then, right into the twenty-first century, that we still have millions of Black American women and girls who feel inadequate, less than, who battle with identity issues, because this country's standard of beauty often does not include their body types, their skin colors, their hair textures. Mr. Imus' dis' is not some mere isolated incident. It is part of the American racial sickness that habitually views Black women and girls as unattractive, as ugly.

Add to this reality the present-day fact that mainstream corporate conglomerates have signed off on a popular culture-namely the hiphop industry-which has, for at least the past decade and a half, and without fail, portrayed Black and other women of color as vixens, strippers, and, yes, "hos." Where do we think Mr. Imus got the term, if not from the vernacular of our times, put forth via record labels, radio stations, and video networks, and, yes, from far too many ignorant Black male hiphoppers, to describe women? Thus what we have is the crash collision of racism and sexism in the person of Don Imus.

Now, is Don Imus the problem by himself? Of course not, which is why I think calls for his dismissal are rooted purely in emotionalism and miss the larger issues here. Bigger problem number one is a federal government and a corporate hierarchy that have allowed destructive and despicable images and words regarding women to be transmitted, without any real regulation, for far too long, to the point where someone like Don Imus believes it okay to refer to women as "hos" on a nationally syndicated radio show heard by millions. Bigger problem number two is the American society we've become where, for the sake of profit and audience size, personalities, commentators, and pundits are allowed to spew all manner of hateful rhetoric, even as such language unwittingly reinforces negative stereotypes, perpetuates individual and mass bigotry, and wounds the self-esteem of the targeted recipients.

Imagine, for a moment, what those young ladies at Rutgers University must be feeling right about now. They lost the championship on national television, and then, the very next day, they are referred to as "hos" on national television and national radio. These are young women, in the formative stages of their lives, in a world, as I am sure Coach Stringer has told them time and again, which is already aligned against women in so many ways. You are a teenager, early twenties, at the most, and you have already been referred to as "hos" by a very powerful man with three-decades plus in the media. What do they have to look forward to from us men, regardless of what we do or say we are about, if this is as good as it gets? Sexism, clearly, knows no bounds and takes no prisoners.

Do I believe in freedom of speech? No doubt. Do I believe in irresponsible speech, regardless of the context, that could bring serious injury to others? No, I do not, not any longer, because I've certainly been on both sides in my own life journey. It is not right to project hate and abuse toward others, nor is it fair to be on the receiving end of it, either.

So where do we go from here? Don Imus should be fired. If he is not fired, he should be suspended for six months, not the two-week vacation he has been given by both CBS and NBC. That is a slap on the wrist and a disingenuous way of saying "We hope this blows over soon." Mr. Imus needs to understand, during that real suspension, that there is a difference between charity and justice. What he does for children with cancer, including those Black ones he keeps mentioning, is charity. Justice means he understands in his bones that his actions and words have got to be consistent, otherwise all that wonderful work he and his wife do are for naught.

Next, CBS and NBC, Mr. Imus' employers, should each make a significant donation to Rutgers in support of a program selected by the women's basketball team, which means it wouldn't be limited to an athletic thing. And CBS and NBC should each immediately hire Blacks and other people of color and women as hosts or lead hosts for programming that parallels Mr. Imus' time slot in terms of importance, because we cannot ignore the on going problem of diversity, or the lack of it, in mainstream American media. Moreover, Mr. Imus' termination or suspension should constitute a two-strikes-you're-out policy regarding such vile remarks going forward for all radio personalities. In other words, the Federal Communications Commission needs to start doing its job, better, on all fronts and in protection of all Americans. If it could come after Janet Jackson and CBS for the infamous Super Bowl "wardrobe malfunction," then it should be monitoring and penalizing all radio speech, all television images, that can really hurt people in some way. Again, justice needs to be about consistency.

At the end of the day, this is not about political correctness. Nor is this about eliminating freedom of speech. We want diverse views and we want our humor, our commentary, and, yes, our rants. We are simply sick and tired of American humor, commentary, and rants that do not foster real dialogue, real thought, and that, when all is said and done, burn and destroy more bridges than they build.


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