A Few Thoughts About Don Imus

Unless you’ve had your head under a rock you have heard about Don Imus’s incredibly insensitive comments made about the Rutgers Women’s Basketball Team.  Last Wednesday Imus described the predominantly black team as "nappy-headed hos."  The issue came up this morning in my Women’s History course.  Keep in mind that my students are all females, but I was asked what I thought should happen to Imus.  As a teacher my first instinct is to throw the question back and ask the students what they think, which I promptly did.  There were a number of questions and suggestions, but I was finally asked again to weigh in.  First, I reminded my female students that this is as much a gender as it is a racial issue.  Would Don Imus have said the same thing about a male team?  In terms of punishment, however, I expressed more concern about the way in which the question has been framed and discussed in the mainstream media.  As a society we have little patience in dealing with racial issues and fewer people even know how to honestly engage in dialog.  I don’t know what kind of punishment Don Imus should get because I find the question itself confusing.

What I don’t understand is why as a society we continue to tolerate this kind of language. Don Imus has one of the most popular radio talk shows (broadcasted live on MSNBC) and is a regular stop for politicians on the campaign trail, well-regarded journalists, and other popular figures.  What I have difficulty understanding is the fact that he apparently felt comfortable enough to say those things at all.  There was no hesitation in sharing these thoughts over the airwaves owned by NBC. The same can be said in regards to the comedian Michael Richards who also let loose a barrage of racial invectives on his black audience a few months ago.  I don’t believe for a minute that either Imus or Richards are rotten to the core, but they are clearly racially insensitive.  Their actions speak for themselves.  If as a society we believe that this language should not be countenanced in any way shape or form than we have to ask what consequences reflect those values.  In the end I’m not really concerned about Imus’s feelings of regret and the possibility of redemption.  I am much more concerned about the members of the Rutgers basketball team who didn’t do anything wrong apart from the fact that they are predominantly black and women.

This kind of racist-sexist language has a long history in this country  There are times when we slide into oversensitivity, but I don’t believe that this is an example.  To those people whose first instinct it to throw out the old "PC" arguments I think it is necessary to ask at what point a certain kind of language becomes unacceptable in the public discourse.

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14 comments… add one

  • Rob Wick Apr 10, 2007

    Kevin,
    This kind of mirrors what I had said earlier about what our society seems to go through in instances like this. Imus’s comments were abhorrent but reflective of the kind of program he presents. Why anyone is surprised that he said this surprises me. What I wonder, however, is in a free society, does one have a right to be racist, sexist or generally an a***ole, and be able to live that way freely and without fear of recrimination? In our private lives, we all hold views of some sort that if publicly known would be hard to justify to someone. But if we are in a position where our voice will be heard by millions, does that somehow muzzle what we have a right to think and say? Like most things, in the end the almighty dollar will win out. If Imus’s advertisers began to bail, his bosses will pull the plug. One more point I want to make so as hopefully to not be misconstrued. Using derogatory terms about anyone is childish and shows much about the person who uses them. But forcing someone who says these things to jump through so many hoops just to keep the payments on their Rolls current is just as bothersome to me. Don Imus hasn’t apologized because suddenly on the road to Damascus he has seen the light. Don Imus just wants to save his swimming pool. If he truly believes what he says, let him say it. Then put someone else on the air who believes the opposite and let them talk. Oliver Wendell Holmes had it right when he talked about the marketplace of ideas. How have we gotten so far away from that?

    Best
    Rob

  • Itsmeagain Apr 10, 2007

    The fact that Imus (and every other news station) is trying to compare his comments to rap lyrics. The two aren’t even comprable. Imus is broadcasted live on MSNBC everyday, he should have enough tact and intelligence to know what is appropriate to say and what is not. Later this evening I watched Glen Beck (literally defend Imus) and he stated that “If Chris Rock had have made the comment he would have recived a good laugh”. That’s the most idiotic thing I’ve heard. Chris Rock (or any other comidian, rapper, mature adult) would direct such comments to a group of young women (black or white) doing positive things and being respectable ladies. So I don’t want to hear this “It’s a double standard sh*t”!

  • Charles Bowery Apr 11, 2007

    Kevin,
    This whole episode, IMO, is one more example of the serious underlying problem of race in our country. And it’s especially ironic that you have been surveying Chandra Manning’s book for the past few days. Unless I missed it, Imus didn’t really apologize, he did the usual public mea culpa that includes something to the effect of, “I’m sorry if what I said offended someone,” as if that constitutes a true apology.
    Keep up the great work.
    Charles

  • Ken Noe Apr 11, 2007

    Kevin:

    I’m not a conservative politically, and maybe it’s a function of pushing fifty, but I have to agree with those on the right who complain about much of what gets on the air these days. I’m consistently amazed at what has become acceptable on television over the last five years–when did “ass” become a polite word–and TV is nothing compared to the world of shock jocks and talk radio. Of course the right is just as bad as the left on that score, probably more, as witnessed for example by Rush Limbaugh’s description of Barack Obama as “Halfrican.” But the real problems are the folks who eat it up, the ones who proudly proclaim that they are “politically incorrect” and think it almost a political duty (or excuse) to say or repeat racist, sexist, or just downright hateful things. For me, the truly scary part is this, how many people laughed at Imus’s “joke” and repeated it all day?

    Ken

  • Cash Apr 11, 2007

    Kevin,

    It seems to me that the radio network that carries his show, including MSNBC, needs to decide if they want to be associated with someone who has shown himself to be a repeat offender on this (he once called the respected journalist Gwen Ifill a “cleaning lady”). The advertisers need to decide if they want to be associated with this. Consumers need to decide if they want to reward this behavior by listening to him and by buying the products he advertises. Personally, I’m not one of his listeners, having never liked him from the beginning. It would be nice, though, if all those groups spoke up and said they were withdrawing their support for him as well. What he did was more than just racism and more than just misogyny. It was putting down a group of young women who had achieved a great deal, including performing well enough academically to maintain NCAA eligibility, and basically consigning their hard work and achievement to the trash heap.

    Regards,
    Cash

  • Kevin Levin Apr 11, 2007

    Thanks everyone for chiming in. It looks like a few of his sponsors have already chosen to pull their endorsements which is perhaps the decisive factor in all of this. Ultimately it does come down to whether we choose to support this kind of behavior and the best way to show this is by refusing to buy products from the sponsors of his show. If Imus looses his job over the pulling of sponsors than he can have no one to blame but himself.

  • Rey Smith Apr 11, 2007

    So the conclusion by this group is that Imus should be crucified but Fifty Cent gets a pass? That’s IT?

    Think for a moment. Where did Imus hear the repugnant phrase he used? At a KKK meeting? Or from a black colleague or rapper?

    The sexism and racism implicit in these hurtful words is as much a product of black self-loathing and exploitation as the meanderings of a silly old man in a cowboy hat…

  • Kevin Levin Apr 11, 2007

    Rey, — I would say crucify is a bit too strong. In the end it may come down to the decision of sponsors to pull their ads from Imus’s show. I agree with you that the rap world does need to take a close look at the way language is used to degrade women and specifically African-American women. That said, degrading language used for racist reasons has an incredibly rich history in this country. You oversimplify it.

  • mark bey Apr 12, 2007

    @ rey

    ” So the conclusion by this group is that Imus should be crucified but Fifty Cent gets a pass? That’s IT?”

    mark bey: Number one the difference between 50 cent and Imus is that does a show that is broadcast throughtout the entire world, everyday also on that show Imus interviews very thoughtful, powerful and influential people on his show.

    Lastly Imus directed his remarks specifically at a group of college students who had just accomplished the greatest achievement of thier young lives.

  • Jim Apr 13, 2007

    Clearly certain corporate and political leaders and portions of the public have grossly over-reacted to the insensitive words of a shock jock. I can’t describe the level of stupidity and INCONSISTENCY the masses can reach under certain scenarios. Like the witch hunts of New England, our capacity for scapegoating and manufacturing over-proportional fervor is nothing short of frightening.

    Ridicule Imus, fine him, pull his sponsorship, but firing him and suggesting that we don’t buy products from his sponsors is nothing short of irrational and is another attempt of today’s “progressive” movement to govern freedom of thought and speech. Personally, I could care less about a stupid old man on a silly radio show, but the broader implications of individual liberties is a subject of concern for us all.

  • Kevin Levin Apr 13, 2007

    Jim, — Once again you’ve managed to go off the deep end. To call Imus a “shock jock” is to forget that he is one of the most influential voices on the radio. His show was a routine stop on the campaign trail. I don’t see John McCain, John Kerry, etc. stopping by the Howard Stern Show.

    Whose individual liberties have been violated? The sponsors have the right to pull their advertisements and NBC and CBS can hire and fire whom they choose. Imus’s free speech rights have in no way been violated. If anything this is a confirmation of free speech at work.

    This is all quite silly!

  • Jim Apr 15, 2007

    You’ve completely missed the point and failed to catch the meaning of my post. I’m fine with lost sponsorship, etc., but the amount of media coverage and sensationalism on this ONE account is evidence of an inconsistent policy on free speech. Who is next? Who decides what is appropriate? Is it okay that some get away with similar comments or worse, but Imus doesn’t? Are you arguing that there should be a sliding scale of what is considered to be offensive and what punitive measures should be taken to be based on audience coverage? If so, then what is the cut off? Where do you draw the line? Silly indeed.

    It also falls into my suspicions about how fairly you select and frame the information you put up here. If one group or region receives scrutiny, then it should be consistently applied across all groups and regions.

    Lastly, you mention that people should make their purchasing decisions based on a social policy implications. This flies in the face of economic law and actually gives the poorest the least voice in the process of guiding corporate policy – that is some don’t have a choice but to use price as determining factor in their purchasing decisions.

  • Charles Bowery Apr 17, 2007

    Kevin,
    I recommend for your reading this column from the ESPN website:
    http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/page2/story?page=boyd/070416

    A thoughtful, intelligent assessment of this issue.
    Charles

  • Jim Apr 18, 2007

    I read the espn link and like the caveman in the Geico commercial, all I can say is, “What?!”. You can slice it any way you want and the Imus fiasco is still one of the most inconsistent applications of censorship we’ve ever witnessed.

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