23 April 2007

Horses, Barn Doors, and Bolting

Hip hop magnate Russell Simmons has suddenly changed his tune and wants record companies to "voluntarily" remove the words "bitch," "ho," and "nigger" from rap records. Now, of course, that he's already made his mega-millions selling records replete with those words, he can in one fell swoop look civic-minded and severely handicap the competition.

Meanwhile in New York there's a mini-Imusgate inside the NYPD, with two separate incidents of police sergeants using the NHH epithet against female officers under their command. Of the four officers complaining of this abuse, three were African-American and one was Hispanic, and at least one of the offending sergeants was also Hispanic. Which lends credence to the idea that "bitches and hos" discourse is not so much about race as it is about culture. And when I say "culture," I mean specifically hip hop culture, which long ago transcended all racial and ethnic boundaries.

So when the offended police officers' attorney claims that "The Imus virus [has] spread and infected the New York City police department," she's not being quite accurate. Imus may have been a carrier of the virus, and been guilty of spreading it, but it originated in the African-American community and was transmitted worldwide by hip hop culture. All Imus did - unwittingly and stupidly, of course - was to hold up to a mirror to how that culture has helped debase and vulgarize the way we all communicate.


Anonymous said...

I don't know why people are trying to tie this issue in with censorship of rap lyrics. They're totally distinct issues. Artists using such terminology in the context of their art and armed officers who are sworn to uphold the law using such racist and/or sexist terminology at the workplace are different circumstances which merit different approaches.

Rappers also sing about threatening to committing crimes and shoot people who interfere with them. Does this mean police officers can declare the same intentions, simply because rappers have done so in the context of their art?

Now, if those officers want to use such terminology at home or in their private lives, so long as they are not physically threatening anyone, then no problem. In fact, I wholeheartedly defend their right to use such terminology in those contexts. But to do so at the workplace, or while on the job, is improper, and probably constitutes some form of illegal workplace harassment.

Larry Livermore said...

Nobody, at least not here, is defending the use of this language by the police officers, even if, as is likely, it was used only in a joking manner toward other police officers in the privacy of the station.

My point was rather that this sort of language has become almost universal, and it didn't originate with Don Imus or the police officers in question here. Hip hop music is relevant to this issue not because it needs to be censored (at least I don't think it should be), but because it and its partisans need to take responsibility for creating and popularizing the racially and sexually abusive language that bozos like Don Imus or these police officers unwisely chose to use.

Amy said...

You can also think of it this way, anonymous. If someone came into my workplace and started playing rap music that included racist/sexist terminology, they would be treated to the same disciplinary actions as a person who actually said those things would.

I'm not into censorship but that stuff should be kept out of work because people get offended easily.

Anonymous said...


In your view, is what makes Imus' comments so objectionable the fact that he used those specific words, or the fact that those words express underlying racist and sexist intent?

Your analysis suggests you believe the specific words ("nappy-headed hos") are the issue. They're not. The issue is the underlying racism (and sexism) that those terms express, especially when coming from a middle-aged white man (after all, when a black person calls another black person "nappy-headed," it is ridiculous and meaningless to assert that he is making a "racist" comment against his own race).

If rappers hadn't popularized terminology like "nappy-headed hos"),presumably people like Don Imus wouldn't be any less racist, any less sexist, or any less prone to use offensive terminology of the sort common among shock-jock radio DJs. If those specific words didn't exist, they'd just use other words to express those same sentiments (namely, that black women are ghetto, losers, sexually deviant, etc.).

So the word choice - and the cultural origins therefor - are not what is key here. It's the fact that a mainstream broadcaster is using deeply racist terminology to describe innocent young ladies who happen to play for the Rutgers basketball team, simply because they are black.

Attempts to transform this into a debate on the cursing that occurs in rap music, is a red herring advanced by the right wing media, to distract attention from the issue, and to blame blacks for the fact that whites use racist terms against them.

Larry Livermore said...

My "issue" was neither the specific words Imus used nor the supposed racism and sexism some people think they represent. I was glad to see Imus off the air not because I believe he's a racist or sexist but because his show was boring and useless. I'm not saying he is or isn't a racist or sexist, because I don't know enough about him to have an opinion on the subject, and, I would suggest, neither do you.

But if you're willing to infer, based on his use of those words, that Imus is indeed a racist and a sexist, what would you call a rapper who used expressions like "Oriental one-penny-counting motherfuckers" or "your little chop suey ass" followed by a threat to "burn your store right down to a crisp"? Why, you'd call him a multi-millionaire named Ice Cube, of course.

I'm also curious what being a "middle-aged white man" has to do with Imus' case. Should we view things differently were he a young white woman? An elderly Latino? In any event, in your eagerness to grind your identity politics ax, you continue to miss the primary point I'm making here: that if African-Americans, particularly those in the hip hop community, introduce and popularize hateful and violent language, they haven't got much room to complain when the "wrong" sorts of people start using it.

Your argument is circular at best: you state as a given that Imus et al. are "racist and sexist," yet the only evidence you give of that racism and sexism is his use of "deeply racist terminology." Yet what makes this terminology - almost ubiquitous in the black community - "deeply racist," according to you? Why, the fact that it was used by a shock jock DJ whom you've decided is racist and sexist. You'd never slip that one past a high school logic instructor.

Anonymous said...

Let us presume that Ice Cube is also a racist. So what? Does that make Mr. Imus not racist? Does that have any relevance whatsoever to the evaluation of whether or not Imus' comments were improper in that they were intended to mock the race and sex of the subjects of the comments? Of course not.

Unlike your immaterial reference to Ice Cube, Imus being a "middle-aged white man," is relevant to the analysis of whether he is a racist (or that he at least made a comment with racist intent on that particular occasion).

Putting aside *your own* identity-politics sensitivies towards those asserting any wrongdoing on the part of any white male, isn't the identity of the person making facially racist comments relevant in determining his intent?

I mean, if Imus were a black female named Imecia, who made an identical reference to the Rutgers women's basketball team, don't you suppose reasonable people would interpret the underlying intent of those same comments in a much different way? It would be a case of mere mockery, and not racism, if the speaker were a black female. It would be a case of sexism, and not racism, if the speaker were a black male. But if the speaker is neither black nor female, then one cannot discount the likelihood that the person's intent is racist. So that's what the identity of the speaker is relevant (although, of course, it is by not means determinative or conclusive evidence).

Larry Livermore said...

You still haven't offered any proof that Imus was a racist apart from his uttering some words that you simultaneously argue wouldn't be racist if someone else uttered them.

Personally, I have no idea of whether Imus is a racist or not. In my opinion, he's a boring twat who showed poor judgment and was never interesting enough to be on the radio in the first place, but that's neither here nor there.

My point continues to be this: Imus was, probably in a misguided attempt to be "with it" and "down," using language that is common among all races and strata of contemporary American society. To then claim that the use of this language by one person ipso facto makes that person a racist while its use by another person is perfectly acceptable, or at least tolerable, and making that determination based on nothing more than, well, race, is itself racist. Not to mention retarded.

Anonymous said...

I think it is an open question as to whether Imus "is," in his heart of hearts, a racist. I agree with you that more evidence needs to be evaluated before we can reach such a conclusion about him. However, I do not think it is necessary to resolve that question at this time, because the analysis doesn't really turn on that.

The key issue is Imus' intent in making those comments at that time. Was he simply trying to be "with it," and, in other words, employing this terminology simply as a race-neutral, medium for *satire*? Or did he have any underlying racist intent, or, in other words, was he employing that terminology in order to *parody* and imitate black people so as to ridicule both the subjects of the discussion (who are black), and the originators of those terms (who are also black)?

To me, this issue turns on his intent, and the distinction between *satirical use* (of what has genuinely become an artistic or even literary device), and *parody* intended to ridicule black people.

If he intended to ridicule black people with those remarks (which I believe he clearly did), then he deserves the backlash he's getting for doing so on the air. And that's whether or not he "is" a racist, in his heart of hearts.