I have no problem with NBC’s decision to cancel Don Imus’ show, and frankly I could care less if CBS follows suit and takes his program off the radio. Any defense of Imus’ “First Amendment rights” is laughable given that corporate news and shock jock radio have never been venues of “free speech.” NBC News President Steve Capus claimed on Countdown with Keith Olbermann that firing Imus flew in the face of good business practices, but let’s be clear, canning Imus made perfect business sense. Not only had Staples, Procter & Gamble, General Motors, GlaxoSmithKline and Sprint Nextel all pulled their advertisements, but NBC’s own employees were threatening open revolt. In the context of corporate media — where profitability and good ratings depend upon shifting cultural norms — repudiating Imus is savvy management, intended first and foremost to preserve “brand integrity” and “company morale.”
But I do bristle at the self-congratulatory, self-righteous air that has accompanied the whole Imus flap. Does anyone really believe that firing Imus restores “decency” to our “national conversation on race”? Instead of one man (Imus, Michael Richards, Mel Gibson) enduring the cross-cultural tete-a-tetes and ritual apologies and emerging sufficiently rehabilitated to be profitable “talent” once again, now we have a whole network. Good for NBC for taking the bullet. But when it comes to race in America, we don’t need decency. We need honesty. And good luck finding that on MSNBC or CBS Radio.
Let’s take Imus’ notorious slur as an example. When Imus called the Rutgers women’s basketball team “nappy-headed hos” (in comparison to Tennessee’s “cute,” white team) he was not just making “some idiot comment meant to be amusing” (as he now claims) or even furthering “a climate of degradation” (as Jesse Jackson puts it), he was engaging in the old, American, racist project of abjecting and regulating black woman’s sexuality. “Racist slur” or “stereotype” does not quite cover it, for this ideology is not just a matter of sports banter or drive time radio, it’s intrinsic to US history and public policy.
The expression, “nappy-headed hos,” probably does not appear in antebellum defenses of slavery, and it certainly doesn’t come up in Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 report on the “Negro Family,” or Bill Clinton’s welfare reform act of 1996, or Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America or even the myriad conservative briefs on the “culture of poverty,” but such state policies and decorous studies represent the genealogy of Imus’ notorious comment.
Slave owners considered black women’s bodies property and their sexuality the source of future capital. Moynihan thought single black mothers a kind of “pathology,” responsible not just for “inner city” cultural decline but also for urban economic malaise. Reagan labeled a class of black woman “welfare queens” who bought “welfare Cadillacs” on the state’s dime. And so on…to Clinton’s “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act,” which ushered in marriage promotion (indirectly targeted at black, single mothers), to the Bush administration’s bolstering of marriage promotion policies as a panacea to poverty. As the scholar Wahneema Lubiano points out in her brilliant essay on the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings, the intense speculation, denigration and regulation of black woman’s bodies and sexualities far exceeds the contours of racial slur or stereotype. It constitutes “ideological war by narrative means.”
And so it is no accident that Imus’ “nappy-headed hos” comment was directed not just at black women, but at young, black women and their bodies, their sexuality — at that particularly visible and yet mystified entity that is at the center of America’s “conversation” on race, sex and class. And it is likewise no accident that the controversy around Imus’ comment centers around his own, individual racism, or lack thereof. For in repudiating — or absolving — Imus, America forgets its own past and denies its present. So is Imus’ firing a restoration of “decency” or merely a sign of cultural and political amnesia?
Let Imus be scorned, repentant, forgotten. I’m still waiting for Moynihan’s apology.