Message to the People: Issues after Imus, Part 1

Word has it that Al Sharpton is under police protection. Apparently, some people are so upset about his role in the Don Imus firing that Sharpton has received several death threats. That’s unfortunate. I’m not a great Sharpton fan. That’s not to say he doesn’t serve a purpose, because he does. I’m just not too big on local or national celebrity “professional activists” who approach advocacy as a profession —
often not maintaining employment outside of it.

On one hand, some regard these people as so utterly dedicated to solving the problems of their communities that they cannot pursue traditional careers. Others see them as little more than money-grubbing, exploitative hustlers who prey on black suffering. It is activism as business, and it pays. No matter where you come down on the issue, I hope some yahoo doesn’t actually try to take a potshot at Al. In the wake of Virginia Tech, haven’t we all had our fill of violence for a while? Beyond Sharpton, the Imus situation has raised a number of points for discussion.

I must say that those who support Imus need to remember he wasn’t fired for just calling the children on the Rutgers basketball team “nappy-headed hos.” Oh, no — his list of offenses is long. He referred to respected black journalist, author and sports critic William Rhoden as a “quota hire.” He admitted to Mike Wallace on “60 Minutes” that he said he picked a particular producer to do “nigger jokes” on air. He called political analyst and television personality Gwen Iffil a “cleaning lady” and has referred to other blacks as “monkeys” and “knuckle draggers.” In fact, John Leo commented in The Wall Street Journal that these references went so far that in 2001, black journalist and commentator Clarence Page extracted a public pledge from Imus that he would “cease all simian references to black athletes” and ban “all references to non-criminal blacks as thugs, pimps, muggers and Colt 45 drinkers.”

So, those who support Imus need to own what they are supporting. Not free speech, not humor, not artistic license — they are supporting a history of mean-spiritedness and bigotry. His plight is not the product of black hypocrisy or hyper-sensitivity. His comments should not be framed as light-hearted with non-offensive, humorous intent. He is not the victim — he has been the long-time aggressor. His bill just came due.

Many have tried to defend Imus with the argument that black America is submerged in a culture that normalizes, and even embraces, language far worse than what Imus used. So why crucify him for something that goes on in black America every day without incident? Here are answers. First, no one has the right to offend people and then tell them whether they should be offended. Second, all racial and ethnic groups have “in-group language” that is inappropriate for others to use. Let me state this clearly for my non-black brothers and sisters still grappling with this — for good or ill, black folk can call one another “nigger,” but you can’t. Maybe words such as that should be laid to rest, but it’s up to each ethnic or racial group to decide when and why. So get over it.

Finally, people are now casting aspersions on hip-hop culture left and right. Make no mistake, those who deploy these condemnations to defend Don Imus are dead wrong. However, those who argue that a dialogue on hip-hop culture and its consequences needs to expand have a point. Forget Imus! This is definitely necessary within and beyond the black community. I fear it doesn’t bode well for unapologetic hip-hop advocates.

In the 1980s, then-budding hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons directed his employees not to sell rap/hip hop as music, but a culture. Even a cursory look at Simmons’ empire — from Def Jam Music, to the Def Comedy Jam and Def Poetry TV shows to his immensely lucrative “Phat Farm” clothing line — proves his strategy was successful. But at what cost? To be sure, Simmons’ hedging when confronted with questions about hip hop’s underbelly is troubling. While the music/culture, at its best, may have endless potential as a positive politicizing force, the current dominance of its gangsta rap variant forces us to ask the serious question, “As it stands, is hip hop really helping or hurting?” I’ll offer my take on that next month.

Remember, then, until next time — have no fear, stay strong, stand on truth, do justice and do not leave the people in the hands of fools.

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