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This is What Democracy Looks Like
Friday-Sunday, April 13-15, 2007
In this issue:
WAS IMUS FIRED?
by Victoria A. Brownworth
Copyright c 2007 Journal-Register Newspapers, Inc.
It’s all over but the pontificating and the hand-wringing.
I refer, of course, to the scandal du jour: Don Imus, the notorious shock jock to the rich and famous, has been fired.
Two weeks ago Imus, along with his cohort and producer on the show, Bernard McGuirk (whose name has curiously been left out of the scandal), were discussing the Rutger’s University women’s basketball team, who had just lost to Tennessee. McGuirk made the first comment, referring to the girls–stellar athletes in the Final Four–as “hard core hos” and Imus followed, referring to them as “nappy-headed hos.” Other comments were made–the Tennessee girls were referred to as “cute,” but what led to the outrage were the racist/sexist comments.
The furor engendered over Imus is tantamount to people being outraged because they tuned in to the Playboy channel and saw naked women. For close to 40 years Imus has been using the airwaves to promote himself and his conservative agenda. If his words are to be taken at face value, his political stance is that African Americans are either all thugs/drug dealers or that they are Amos ’n’ Andy stereotypes. In addition, Imus has never missed an opportunity to refer to women as bitches and “lesbos,” among other things. He has also made anti-gay and anti-Semitic comments. He and McGuirk also employ a stereotyping dialogue routine on the show. The comments about the Rutgers girls are unsurprising: It’s what Imus and McGuirk do.
Every day. Not just this one time.
So why the fuss? Why would anyone expect anything else from Imus and McGuirk?
The fuss is because these are kids–college girls doing their best to make their college and their team proud. And they did a fine job. These aren’t politicians or celebrities hardened to the outrageous comments of folks like Imus or Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter. These were a group of our daughters, being slurred by two old white guys who should know better.
The world of radio is a curious thing. Every morning shock jocks say things that are so outrageous, many parents wish they had a V-chip for radio the way they do for TV. Imus is only different in that his show has also catered to the elite: politicians and celebrities, journalists and authors all regularly appear on Imus in the Morning.
So in between the Howard Stern-type scatology, there is also serious discourse on politics and society.
Which is, of course, how Imus has gotten a pass all these years when he should have been slapped soundly by the FCC for hate speech. In fact (just to prove once more how out of touch Republicans are with the general population), immediately after the controversy began, presidential contender Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) was the first politician to announce he would definitely go on Imus’s show again.
As a woman and one who has worked for racial equity in America for decades, I have always been appalled by Imus. But as a journalist, I am keenly aware of the fine line between hate speech and free speech and that at times they are one and the same.
But the marketplace, not the marketplace of social acceptance, is where decisions like the one to fire Imus are made. CBS and MSNBC, both of which carried the Imus show, on radio and simulcast TV, fired him April 12th. Imus made the comments on his April 4th show and apologized on his April 6th show.
Why was Imus fired? Because the visibility and volubility of protests, coupled with the graceful presentations by the Rutgers team, team captain Essence Carson and team coach Vivian Stringer who all made Imus look even more like the bully he has so often been, led to sponsors pulling their advertising. Once the advertising base eroded, the networks decided to cut their public relations losses and cut Imus, too.
The actions of CBS and MSNBC are rather disingenuous, however. As were the protests by the Rev. Al Sharpton and Rev. Jesse Jackson. Sharpton and Jackson will forever be associated with their own racist comments. Sharpton, who led the racist hunt in the infamous Tawana Brawley hoax, and Jackson, for referring to New York City, with its large Jewish population, as “Hymie town.” The networks weren’t concerned with the defamation of the Rutgers girls, they were concerned with the bottom line. And while Sharpton and Jackson may have been concerned about the Rutgers girls, they have shown little concern for the very same language being used against black and white women daily on radio shows all over America where the disc jockeys are African American.
And neither the networks nor Sharpton and Jackson complained about either of the following exchanges on the Imus show:
On the March 6th show, McGuirk declared that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton [D-NY] was "trying to sound black in front of a black audience" when she gave a speech on March 4th in Selma, Alabama, to commemorate the 1965 "Bloody Sunday" civil rights march. McGuirk said Clinton "will have cornrows and gold teeth before this fight with [Sen. Barack] Obama [D-IL] is over." McGuirk had said earlier, "Bitch is gonna be wearing cornrows."
Of Obama and Clinton, Imus and McGuirk had this exchange: “the whole nation is talking about" reports of a "young colored fellah pretty much deckin' the old bag from New York and takin' away some of her money." McGuirk continued: "I'm speaking, of course, about [Sens.] Barack Obama [D-IL] and Hillary Clinton [D-NY]."
You know–the white “bag” being held up for her money by the black “thug.”
In my nearly 30-year experience as a journalist, people only appreciate free speech when it’s their own. Nobody likes to hear that the KKK or any other fascist, racist, homophobic or anti-Semitic group can say what it likes. Yet free speech as codified in our Constitution is what has kept our democracy together. It is what makes the U.S. different from every other country, because we have that right and it is the law of the land.
But when one is on the other side of someone else’s free speech, it often feels hurtful, if not hateful. Certainly every woman in America has experienced it, as have most people of color. Not too many people like Don Imus–white, wealthy, privileged–have, however.
And that is really what lies at the heart of the Imus controversy: Who has the right to say what about whom in America?
Before he was fired, I raised the question in one of my college classrooms: Should Imus be fired? It was a difficult question for budding young writers to answer. They know about free speech, but they know about hate speech, too, many of them having been on the receiving end of it.
Yet my students also know how precious that First Amendment is. Without it, for example, Sharpton and Jackson would not have been able to protest Imus. I would not be able to write this column every week, nor discuss these issues with my students. You would not be able to write letters to the editor protesting what I write.
Free speech is both the apex and the nadir of American liberty.
While the Imus debacle was going on, a different scandal was nearing closure in North Carolina. Charges were dropped against the Duke UniversitylLacrosse players who were accused of rape by a stripper they hired for a fraternity party in March 2006. The District Attorney who prosecuted the case may face disbarment.
What do Imus and the Duke lacrosse players have to do with each other? Both cases involve rich, privileged white guys and African American women with no privilege. The woman in the Duke case withdrew her complaint of rape, although the hospital report did show genital injury and the second stripper did acknowledge that there was roughness with a broomstick on the part of the Duke lacrosse players.
But where I make the connection is here: In the days since Imus’s firing and the Duke guys being exonerated, I have heard the Duke boys being referred to as “poor innocents” and Imus referred to a a scapegoat for political correctness.
The Duke players may not be rapists, but innocent they are not. They hired two black women to insult and have sexual play with. When the women did not perform to the standard the boys expected, they were called “niggers” and “hos” and the treatment they received was, by all accounts, including the boys’ own videotaping of the event, appalling.
Imus was no victim. He knew what he was doing. He has pushed the shock-jock envelope for years. He might have thought his wealth and privilege had immunized him against rebuke or repercussions for being vulgar and racist and sexist, but when he chose to pick on kids, he crossed some informal line in the airwaves.
But here’s a question I posed to my students, which was later asked by Juan Williams on NPR, the day after Imus was fired: If a black DJ had said what Imus did, would there have been any outrage at all?
Williams, my students and I all had the same response: No.
Every day all across America, black women and women in general are described as “hos” and “bitches” and “pussy.” Apparently, however, as with using the word “nigger,” we are more concerned with *who* says it, than *that* it is being said.
Incivility has become a basic tenet of American society. Sexism, racism, all the other isms, are reflections of that. Each shock jock must go further to shock an America already virtually unshockable. Howard Stern has people defecate on his program. It’s hard to top that. Rush Limbaugh accuses Michael J. Fox, dying from Parkinson’s disease, of “exaggerating” his symptoms for “effect.” It’s still harder to top that. Imus and McGuirk call a group of talented student athletes “nappy-headed hos.” And yet even that is topped every day.
Turn on your radio and listen to what your children are listening to.
These are also the consumers of shock jock radio. Every morning as your sons get ready for school, they are learning to think of their sisters as walking genitalia. Not young women with as much to offer the world as they, but “pussy” and “hos” (remember that “ho” is black slang for *whore*). If women don’t behave the way men want, they are “bitches” to be tamed. Often by forcible sex acts.
Imus didn’t get his language from the street, he got it from the airwaves. Like so many white guys over 60, he was trying to be hip and cool by referring to young black women (there are also white girls on the Rutgers team, however) as “hos.” “Nappy-headed” is a pejorative that blacks use with other blacks. But it means stupid and dull-witted and ugly. Like “nigger,” it’s a term that should never be used.
White parents don’t listen because they think rap and hip hop are the purview of “the ghetto”–forgetting that the largest consumers of rap and hip hop in America are white boys under the age of 18. Black parents don’t listen because they have decided that rap and hip-hop are expressions of black culture. The few complainants–the Tipper Gores and C. Dolores Tuckers–are presented as anti-First Amendment.
But part of the responsibility of Free Speech is just that: responsibility. We have determined that we cannot yell “fire” in a crowded theatre when there is no fire. But does that mean everything else is okay?
Is there another perspective on black women in America that *isn’t* sex-based? Certainly the Duke lacrosse team–and these were 19 and 20 year olds--thought that whatever they did with the black women they hired to strip for them was acceptable, up to, if not including, rape.
And why would Imus think that what he said about Essence Carson and her teammates was over the top? He’s been saying worse for decades and yet John McCain and Barack Obama have been on his program. What’s more, he didn’t have to spin the dial very far to hear similar statements about black and white women being made by other shock jocks or just disc spinners.
The entire culture embraces the idea that women of all colors can always be reduced to the sum of their parts. The fact that references to women of any color as “bitches,” “hos” and “pussy” can be said anywhere, anytime, is far more problematic than what Imus said because it is the predicate for what he said: He thought it was okay. His surprise at the outrage was like the classic retort every mother has heard from her child: “But everyone else is doing it!”
And everyone else *is* doing it. Imus just happens to be the rich white guy who got caught by the sponsors.
Imus is gone from the airwaves, now. And for five minutes we will all be talking about racism and sexism. Then we will stop. Someone else will do the same shtick Imus and McGuirk did on some other show and no one will protest because they’ll stick to ordinary women and celebrities. Rosie O’Donnell *is* a fat lesbian, so no one can really complain when shock jocks or Donald Trump refer to her as such as if “fat lesbian” is her profession.
But I’m not worried about the Rosies and the Hillarys–they are public personae and therefore have to roll with the punches, no matter how far below the belt they strike.
I am worried about the Essence Carsons and the other boys at Duke. I am worried about black girls growing up to think they are nothing but “hos” in the making and white boys growing up thinking that trying to stick a broomstick into a black woman’s vagina–even if she is a stripper–is their right because she is a “ho.”
Free speech carries some responsibility. You cannot cry fire in a crowded theatre. And perhaps it would be best if you stopped crying “ho” every time you saw a woman, of color or not. What Imus said was free speech and he should not have been fired for it–and wasn’t–but what he said about the Rutgers team and so many others over the years isn’t truly free speech, because someone always paid for it.
Now Imus is on the receiving end of what he’s dished out for years–he’s feeling the pain. Perhaps he will be chastened, perhaps not. But Imus himself isn’t the issue. The issue is, are we using the First Amendment as it was intended or are we using it as protection for our bigotry and hatred?
It’s a question we might do well to ask ourselves. And when we do so, we might think about Essence Carson, rather than Don Imus. Because speech is inevitably about power, who has it and who doesn’t.
Back a few years ago, I started a new job with a company where I would be the only Jewish employee. During an impromptu meeting with my manager and another employee - one who has been there for quite some time - a customer in New York City, and their situation came up. Other things came up as well.
The customer's ethnicity.
You see, this customer, and a majority of his employees happened to be Jewish. Let me put it another way, they were "Visibly Jewish". Some wear long black coats, black hats, yamicahs, tallis' and such. They speak Yiddish as just as well as they speak English and study Torah for their entire lives.
I, on the other hand, am not "Visibly Jewish".
During this meeting, the owner of the company came up and the other employee said, "I'd like to wring that skinny Jew's neck."
My manager, knowing that I was Jewish, said nothing. I said nothing - for the moment. After the short meeting broke up, I went into my manager's office and said that I'd take care of this situation. I walked over to the other employee, sat him down and said, "By the way, I'm Jewish." Then I walked away and waited.
A few minutes later he came to me to apologize. I accepted. I certainly would have been in my rights to have asked for his job. I could have sued had my boss (the owner, not my manager) not granted my request. But that's not me. Instead, the other employee and I talked. As it turned out, he had never had a Jewish friend, worked with a Jew or even had a casual relationship with a Jew. In other words, he was ignorant about Jews with the exception of one, surly customer.
(Note: In a separate incident, another Jewish employee who was hired after me, said that he was subject to "you people" remarks by the owner of my company. Although innuendo creeps out of him every once-in-awhile, no overtly prejudiced remark was ever thrown my way by him.)
We talked some more. In fact, during a trip to a customer in Massachusetts, we had three days to talk, ten hours of which were spent on the road. he asked me many questions about my religion and I answered as best as my four years in Hebrew school would allow.
Today, I don't think of my co-worker as a friend. However, we work well together and seem to enjoy each others company. (I forgive, but never forget.)
What would have changed had I asked for him to be fired? Would it have served any purpose other than my own, personal satisfaction? How would the other employees at my company have reacted had he been fired? There is no doubt in my mind that my co-worker now has a different frame of mind. And, I like to believe, that when he meets with his like-minded friends that his take on Jews has changed and that he could help change them. His firing would have served no purpose other than my personal satisfaction.
And that would have been just a selfish act on my part. There is no doubt in my mind, nearly five years later, that I did the right thing.
There is someone out there who could tell a story about me and the
mistake I made. how many of you have similar stories you have told and
told about you?
My Last Word on
Imus - A Missed Opportunity
The firing of Don Imus from CBS and MSNBC will not solve race relations in this nation. In fact, much like other knee-jerk reactions we've practiced here in the name of expediency, it will end up hurting them.
I advocated a "wait-and-see" attitude until after Imus and the Rutgers Lady Knights basketball team met. I wanted to hear what those on the front line had to say, and what they felt might have been an appropriate punishment for, who some consider to be, one of the first "shock-jocks". His immediate firing to placate the likes of Rev. Al Sharpton (who has never apologized for his race-baiting in the Twana Brawley affair nor the fire-bombing of a white-Jewish owned store in an African American neighborhood) or Rev. Jesse Jackson (who did apologize for his "Hymies" in "Hymietown remarks - referring to New York City - even though he offered up his contrition in New Hampshire) is galling to those of us with a sense of fair play.
I listened to the calls for Imus' head from all sides of this race debate. The sense I got from it all was that most people wanted retribution in the form of his firing. Too many of those on the other side attempted to say that it was no worse than what they hear every day from the likes of Rap music stations around the country.
You all simply don't get it.
After the meeting with the Imus and the Lady Knights, Coach C. Vivian Stringer stated that the meeting was "productive". Imus met with the team even after his firing because it was the right thing to do. According to Stringer's pastor, the Reverend DeForest Sories, Imus left with the remark, "I just didn't know."
He now knows. And what are we going to do with that knowledge?
In a time when a real dialogue in race relations could have taken place, we chose to cut it off by cutting off the head of someone who might have been "that" voice from the "other side"; a voice who now would advocate for the equality which, I'd like to think, most of us are looking for. Instead of using Imus' voice, radio talk show, connections to big business (remember that his ranch for children with cancer's mess hall is sponsored by the New York Stock Exchange) and overall influence as a tool for healing, it will be not be used and is now silenced.
Watching the morning shows, other than the substitute MSNBC show which was talking about the Imus firing, I saw their attempt at ending the debate. What they did was to say "Okay. Imus is gone. It's over and everything's okay."
It isn't okay.
After Rev. Sharpton's victory lap, what are we left with? Are we better off without the voice of a Don Imus who has seen the light? The short-sightedness of not taking advantage of this situation as we could have might feel good in the short run, but it is a wasted opportunity in the long run.
By Monday, we may be back to normal with the exception of "Imus in the Morning". Is "normal" what we really wanted?
In response to, "Don Imus is in the middle of
his annual fundraiser for SID's," Dorothy Schwartz writes:
I shed no tears for Don Imus. And he is just the tip of the iceberg. The others have to go too, such as Michael Savage, O'Reilly, Limbaugh, and of course our very own Jersey Guys, Carton (sp?) and Rossi. They are the race-baiters, not Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, as your contributor claims.
And Eddie Konczal writes:
How does the writer know what's on the MP3 players of the students
protesting Don Imus? He's painting them with the same broad brushes that
Imus himself uses.
It's not what goes in your ears that matters, it's what comes out of your mouth (as Christ himself said). What came out of Don Imus' mouth is what's at issue here.
And Bob Driscoll opines:
Political Correctness drives me nuts. There's nothing PC about Jackson or Sharpton. The very fact that they're referred to as "Rev." is an insult to honest Christians. You did it justice
In response to President Bush's, "I made a decision to remove a
dictator, a tyrant who was a threat to the United States, a threat to
the free world, and a threat to the Iraq people -- and the world is
better off without Saddam Hussein in power," Robert Scardapane
A threat to the Unites States? Give it a rest. The world will be better off when the tryant named George W. Bush is removed from power.