Sunday, April 15, 2007

Imus show was intentional assault on all black women*

America is once again wrestling with the fault lines of race, gender, class and free speech, courtesy of schlock jock Don Imus' stupidity, bigotry, and crassness.

Unless your unit has just returned from its third tour of duty in Iraq, you have surely heard the uproar over Imus' despicable remarks about members of Rutgers University's women's basketball team, which lost the NCAA Championship game here last week at Quicken Loans Arena. Imus made his remarks the next morning in a segment on his radio talk show where he and his producer discussed the Rutgers players.

In their exchange the two men referred to the young Rutgers women as looking "rough", being "hardcore ho's" and "wearing tattoos". It was an escalating conversation of ridicule that culminated in Imus' characterization of the women student athletes as "some nappy headed 'ho's".

Imus has a long track record of racist, sexist and ethnic crudity. His show once labeled tennis star Venus Williams an "animal" and he has routinely ridiculed and degraded people of color, especially women, as unattractive or otherwise "less than".

Imus first made only a brief and perfunctory half-apology on his show, but has shown increasing amounts of contrition in a vain attempt to keep pace with growing calls for his firing. The two-week suspensions imposed by his CBS radio network and its simulcast partner MSNBC have not ended calls for his dismissal.

Imus, who is 66, honed his insult-talk style here in Cleveland in 1970, where he developed both a large following and an assortment of critics who called for a boycott.

Holland Cooke, a news talk industry analyst with Cleveland-based McVay Media, recalls that in 1970, when Imus first left Cleveland, a newspaper headline blared "Garbagemouth Goes to Gotham".

Cooke, who says "there are half a dozen reasons why this guy ought to be fired", thinks the decision will ultimately be based on the money involved. "His employers are hoping that Americans' notoriously short attention spans will fade", he says. The highly profitable show has already taken a hit as several advertisers, including Procter & Gamble and Staples, have canceled.

Of all the issues ignited by Imus, race has been the easiest to discuss. Virtually everyone has denounced Imus for his racial and ethnic crudity but his denunciation of essentially all black women, especially those of richer hue, through his insult of the young Rutgers women, seems relatively glossed over.

This is no small matter, as it is symptomatic of the place accorded black women in American culture. It raises questions again about the effects of mostly male black rappers who routinely denigrate black women with language far worse than that employed by Imus. In fact, Imus himself, along with some of his more vocal supporters, claims that a double standard is being applied to his conduct.

(The extended nature of the rap industry makes it more difficult for civil rights advocates to target, but cable station BET might be a good place to start.)

Barbara Danforth, president and CEO of the Cleveland YWCA, condemns both the rappers and Imus. Her organization has the twin goals of eradicating racism and empowering women. Danforth and her daughter saw the Rutgers young women from courtside, and were enormously impressed with their poise, fortitude, and achievements.

Danforth says that she would have counseled the young women not to meet with Imus. "He does not deserve a meeting with the team." She would further advise the young scholar-athletes that "they have to stand up and be proud of who they are."

"Incredulous" that Imus received a mere two-week suspension, Danforth was also appalled to discover that Imus has the economic strength, built upon his following, to speak as he does. She sees him "standing on the racist, sexist foundation this country is built on".

Danforth agrees that "most folks go immediately to the racist nature" of Imus' remarks. This speaks, she says, "to the invisibility of gender-related issues in America. Most people don’t think there are gender issues in this country, that there is no glass ceiling anymore."

Danforth notes that "the meaning of a message can change depending on the messenger. Words are very hurtful, very powerful." She wishes that Imus had picked on somebody his own size, because black teens struggle against so many hurdles already."

But bullies are astute at picking their targets, and who is less powerful in America than young women of color? Where are their defenders?

When black men are as attuned to systemic attacks upon black women as women as they are to attacks upon themselves, attacks on all black people will diminish.
* originally published at Cleveland OH in The Eastside News, April 2007.

Councilwoman's outburst symptomatic of deeper issues*

It is hard to know what to make of Sabra Pierce Scott's verbal explosion last week at a city council caucus meeting. The Glenville area representative lambasted her white colleagues for not stepping up and sharing the blame she and her fellow black council members are receiving from constituents. Piling on are editorial writers at the Call and Post, the city's oldest black newspaper, now under the direction of George Forbes, editorial boss disguised as chief legal counsel.

The criticism revolves around the city's inability to stem the decay raging in many neighborhoods. The devastation has been wreaked by predatory criminals. Some wear oversized clothing and pack guns; others wear suits and offer easy mortgage money on impossible terms. When you add in a hostile justice system, a population marginalized by inferior educational opportunities, and the earliest and greatest vulnerability to the consequences of globalization, your local councilperson appears to be the closest official to assault in the face of so much indiscriminate and impersonal oppression.

Black city council people are perhaps too busy dodging these verbal brickbats to notice that over in Slavic Village the same systemic events are playing out. There the victims are older, white "ethnics" repeatedly burglarized, brutalized and ultimately exterminated by neighborhood thugs. It was charitable of Scott's white colleagues not to point out that neither she nor other black council people were heard to denounce Slavic Village terror.

But that is how we are organized in this town. Plain Dealer columnist Feagler is the designated mourner for the good old days when black people knew their place and hard working whites could harbor dreams of moving up and out. On alternate days, Plain Dealer columnist Fulwood is charged with deciphering what the black folks are doing and explaining that to the rest of us. And once a week, or whenever he deems it useful, Forbes directs the Call and Post to administer a race-based beat-down on whatever target he designates.

Meanwhile, the suburban puppet masters who still control all the key institutions sit around scratching their heads and contemplating whether regionalism or total abandonment is the answer.

Ladies and gentlemen, as a dear friend of mine likes to say, this is a "stuck fight": everybody is right, everybody wants to win, and nobody is willing to step aside and take a larger and more critical view. We have each become comfortable in our afflictions.

All of these public players -- whether officials, industry leaders, or opinion shapers -- are acting out roles in a disaster epic. Most are being paid handsomely for their roles in deflecting attention from the seriousness of the problems. Their collective pontification and caterwauling mask the giant sucking sound of a city, county and region headed down the drain amid a chorus of irrelevant accusations about who and what got us into this mess.

It is way past time to stop this nonsense. The finger pointing and moaning need to stop.

The city has a mayor in Frank Jackson who appears to understand this. He listens, analyzes, speaks softly and without exaggeration, and then acts. He is leading by example. Will we listen? Will we follow? Will he move fast enough? Are we ready to abandon our roles in this stuck-fight farce?
* originally published at Cleveland OH in The Eastside News, April 3-6, 2007.