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.

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