So Don Imus just got his program yanked off the air, at least for the time being. And that will improve race relations and the overall quality of life in the US….how?
Well, I would suspect that, if anything, cashiering Imus will have almost entirely the opposite effect of what white liberals and some black activists claim to want — namely, to ensure that no one will be exposed to offensive speech, ever again. Worse still, banishing one of the bad boys of radio from the airwaves will tug tense relations even tighter and make him a folk hero in some quarters.
How’s that?, you ask. Well, let’s start with the attempt to stamp out racist rants. Here we can apply one lesson we all should have learned from the so-called War on Drugs: The supply may be cut off, but will remain so only momentarily. And no attempt to stop the flow of what people want will suppress their demand for it. Because the illegal economy follows basically the same laws of economics as officially sanctioned markets, cutting off supplies — or making people believe that they’ve been cut off — simply makes it possible for dealers to demand higher prices. Thus, prohibitions make meeting demands for whatever has been banned even more lucrative. (This is one of the reasons why I have long argued that the best friends of drug dealers and others who engage in organized crime are the so-called law-and-order conservatives like Reagan and Giuliani.) And, as we know, profits motivate resourceful people to be even more so. That is why the result of any major drug bust is the same: New narcomongers take the place of those who are arrested, and they simply use different routes and means to get the product to their customers.
To follow the War on Drugs analogy, even if the FCC itself were to ban Imus from doing radio broadcasts in the US and enough people wanted to hear him, someone would broadcast him from some offshore location: a ship, perhaps. And, if said broadcaster were smart, he or she would transmit the show over the Internet. That way, anyone who had a computer and absolutely had to have his fix of The Don with their morning coffee could be sated. A really shrewd broadcaster would somehow find a way to charge listeners for hearing what they want. And, if the government should make it so difficult for Imus’s insults to reach his loyal fans, they would want —and be willing to pay — even more to hear him.
That crowd does not include me. I listened to him for a few weeks when he first became popular, way back in the day. I quickly tired of him; somehow I just couldn’t cotton to a man on the verge of middle age who talked and otherwise behaved like a boy about to enter puberty.
During the time I listened to him, I realized that his attempts at titillating his core audience with racial, ethnic, gender and sexual stereotyping simply fell flat because they were so far off their marks. Such is the case with "nappy-headed ‘ho’s." Yes, the majority of the young women on the Rutgers basketball team were black, and some of them had nappy hair. So what? I have yet to hear any lucid explanation of how hairstyles relate to a team’s success, or lack thereof. Taking a cut at some athlete’s coiffure makes just about as much sense as criticizing a successful capitalist for wearing starched white collars and diamond cufflinks.
Imus’s use of “‘ho” is a thornier issue, to be sure. As someone who has experienced discrimination for being part of three different "minority" groups, I can understand why the Rutgers players would be offended and simply hurt: "’Ho" has never been used as anything but a derogatory term. I’ve heard the argument that because black hip-hoppers use it — as well as "Nigga" — and young black males emulate their example, excoriating Imus or any other white person for using it creates a double standard. Such an argument misses this essential point: “‘Ho” has a very different context and intention than "Nigga." The latter term started as a racists’ pejorative and was appropriated by young black males who believe that it’s an acknowledgment of solidarity. (I still don’t like and refuse to use the term.) In other words, as awful as its origins and intentions may be, it refers to racial identity. On the other hand, "’ho" — a contraction of "whore," — reflects the crudest and most unjust gender stereotype of all. Any man who uses it is not trying to affirm his kinship with members of his race; rather, he is echoing the misogyny that too many males have absorbed.
When a young woman works hard enough to become the valedictorian of her class, win a scholarship, keep her grades high enough to keep the scholarship and structure her days so she can practice well enough to become one of the best in her sport, one can hardly call her a u2018ho. In fact, what may be motivating such a young woman is her desire to escape being so labelled: She may have grown up hearing boys and men in her neighborhood say, "They’re all bitches and ‘ho’s." (How does one make the plural of "’ho?" "Hoes" are garden implements.) Or they may simply want to become confident, accomplished, self-sufficient professionals. That doesn’t sound like a description of a "’ho," at least not to me.
Of course, most of Imus’s listeners are probably not so attuned to the nuances of language. That is precisely the reason they listen to him: If they ever thought about remarks like "nappy headed ‘ho’s," they would realize that they are irrelevant to the subjects at hand and therefore simply don’t make any sense. As long as his listeners don’t have such a realization, or don’t pay attention to it, they will continue to want their dose of Don in the morning. And, if radio station executives shun him or the FCC bans him, such fans will see him as one of their own, excoriated by bloodthirsty rabble-rousers who can’t get over their history and are protected by government bureaucrats with too much time on their hands.
Do you think that the scenarios I’ve described will change or stop Imus’s mindless chatter or his audiences’ appetite for it? Do you think they will lead to greater understanding and mutual appreciation between whites and blacks or men and women? If you answered "yes" to either of these questions, let me bring you to Don Imus’s studio. It has a great view of the bridge I want to sell you.
Justine Nicholas [send her mail] teaches English at the City University of New York.