- The Washington Times - Friday, April 13, 2007

Now will they listen?

A host of black social critics and commentators, in addition to prominent figures from the popular arts such as actor Bill Cosby, director Spike Lee and jazz musician Wynton Marsalis have in recent years implored black entertainers and their fans to quit using the n-word and rap slang associated with prostitution.

Maybe a racial slur against the Rutgers University women’s basketball team by a 67-year-old white shock jock will, oddly enough, help drive the point home.

Don Imus’ now-notorious “nappy-headed hos” remark is a “teachable moment,” says syndicated columnist Jabiri Asim, who recently published “The N Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn’t, and Why,” a historical study of the slur.

“Imus was wrong, and Imus should be punished. But he’s in no way the only public figure who engages in this kind of dialogue,” Mr. Asim observes, referring to the rampant disparagement of women in the lyrics of rap music.

Conservative writer Michelle Malkin yesterday posted on her Web site several videos from artists currently on the Billboard Hot Rap Tracks chart, including Mims, R. Kelly and Bow Wow.

Language resembling that used by Mr. Imus figured in each clip, prompting Mrs. Malkin to ask whether Imus critics such as the Rev. Al Sharpton — who himself has a checkered history of stoking racial flames — are “truly committed to cleaning up cultural pollution that demeans women and perpetuates racial epithets.”

For Cynthia Neal Spence, an associate professor of sociology at Spelman College, a historically black women’s school in Atlanta, the Imus controversy has literally been a teachable moment.

“My students have been so hurt by all of this — and particularly their own role in it,” she says.

Ms. Spence was hardly shocked to learn that all of her female students recall having been called by the same noun that Mr. Imus used. What surprised her is that many of them acknowledged having themselves used the word.

“There’s been a desensitization process that’s had a profound effect on our choices of language, especially for our young people, who are so influenced by media culture,” Ms. Spence says. “These young people are growing up in a generation where everything goes.

“They now understand better the need to begin a new discourse,” she continues. “They say that they are prepared to take a stand when they hear others use this language. How can they protest [rapper] Nelly or Don Imus when they don’t protest within their own community?”

Defending the use of such language in an interview published yesterday on MTV.com, hip-hop star Snoop Dogg said, “We are rappers that have these songs coming from our minds and our souls that are relevant to what we feel.”

Moreover, there is a difference, insisted Snoop Dogg, between “collegiate basketball girls who have made it to the next level in education and sports” and what he characterized as shiftless women who are merely “after [men’s] money.”

“That’s ridiculous,” parried Ms. Spence.

“You can’t control who’s going to have access to that language,” she says. “We have to be better guardians of the language we use to describe and characterize each other. Just because we hear it doesn’t make it right. And we have to change the script.”

Mr. Asim calls his book “a lamentation over the loss of civility in our culture” — a culture in which, until recently, Mr. Imus has succeeded in walking a fine line between gutter comedy and political commentary.

In response to the furor, CBS Radio yesterday announced the cancellation of “Imus in the Morning,” a day after the MSNBC cable network cut ties with Mr. Imus — a decision that Harvard University professor Charles Ogletree applauds.

“Don Imus has every right to say whatever he wants to say at any time. I embrace his right to free and unfettered speech,” he says. “At the same time, his employer has the right to determine its marketing mission and vision — and whether utterances and behavior are consistent with their image and brand.”

Mr. Ogletree, too, says he thinks that the Imus uproar is a timely object lesson for black Americans.

“It’s going to cause much reflection in the African-American community on what we must do to both educate and change behavior that is demeaning, destructive and counterproductive,” he says.

For his part, Mr. Asim allows that “people need freedom in the language to negotiate, to express themselves.”

But, ultimately, he insists, the Imus uproar has highlighted a broader problem of cultural immaturity.

“We ought to grow up,” he says. “We ought to be able to say, ‘We’re not going there.’ ”

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