Maybe. Just maybe, the Don Imus firestorm will finally provide some clarity as to how our culture treats black women.,p> On yesterday's "Meet the Press," host Tim Russert mentioned how he and other journalists appeared on the Imus program for years knowing it used over-the-top humor. He also noted that rapper Snoop Dogg degrades women and yet is hired by Chrysler to sell its cars. In response, PBS's Gwen Ifill, herself an early victim of Mr. Imus's degrading rants, was refreshingly candid. "So we're all hypocrites, Tim. Let's see what we can do to get past it."
If Mr. Imus deserved to be fired, then some scrutiny also needs to be applied to the $10 billion hip-hop music industry. Many rap songs have positive messages, but record labels still put out "gangsta rap" songs that frankly would have no recognizable lyrics at all if words as bad as or worse than what Mr. Imus used were excised.
The pollution also affects television. Last year, as Mr. Russert noted, MTV aired a cartoon that featured a Snoop Dogg-like character who is accompanied by two bikini-clad black women wearing dog collars and leashes--just as Mr. Dogg himself did at the 2003 Video Music Awards. In the cartoon, the rapper orders one of the women to "hand me my latte" as she crouches on all fours and scratches herself like a canine. It ends with a scatological scene too vile to describe here.
But many in the rap business continue to defend such filth. "Comparing Don Imus' language with hip-hop artists' poetic expression is misguided and inaccurate and feeds into a mind-set that can be a catalyst for unwarranted, rampant censorship," rap mogul Russell Simmons said in a statement Friday. Busdriver, a West Coast rapper, claimed that " 'bitch' or 'ho' can be terms of endearment." Snoop Dogg himself explained that gangsta rappers "are not talking about no collegiate basketball girls who have made it to the next level in education and sports. We're talking about ho's that's in the 'hood that ain't doing sh--. . . . These are two separate things."
But some rap artists are now finally urging restraint. Luther Campbell, the Miami rapper who pioneered the use of nasty rhymes as a member of 2 Live Crew in the 1980s, concedes that rap "sometimes goes too far and we need to do a better job of filtering to make sure the music is not offensive."
Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a syndicated columnist, points out that "Imus is the softest of soft targets" and says scrutiny should now be directed at the "black rap shock jocks who made Imus possible. They gave him the rapper's bad-housekeeping seal of approval to bash and trash black women." Mr. Hutchinson says that while it's understandable that blacks are hypersensitive to racism from whites, they must also recognize that the failure to speak out against all who commercialize misogyny and ugly racial stereotypes "fuels the suspicion that blacks, and especially black leaders, are more than willing to play the race card, and call white people bigots, when it serves their interests but will circle the wagons and defend any black who comes under fire for bigotry."
It's certainly true that many black leaders, ranging from Calvin Butts of New York's Abyssinian Baptist Church to Queen Latifah to the editors of Essence magazine have spoken out against offensive rap lyrics. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton have also raised their voices against them. On Friday Barack Obama told a black South Carolina audience that offensive rappers "are degrading our sisters." It's about time he stepped forward, since it was Mr. Obama who helped legitimize the rapper Ludicrus, whose oeuvre includes such songs as "Ho," "You'z a Ho" and "I Got Hos," by inviting him to his Chicago office last year to talk about, as the Associated Press put it, "lighting the way for the nation's youth."
But there have been almost no calls demanding that any "gangsta rap" artists be driven from the airwaves as Mr. Imus was or that the record companies promoting "gangsta rap" be boycotted. Pepsi did drop Ludicrus from its ad campaign after his lyrics angered Oprah Winfrey and also became the subject of a pointed campaign by Fox News's Bill O'Reilly, one of the few media figures who has been willing to take on hate rap foursquare.
But many liberals would do just about anything rather than credit Mr. O'Reilly with any positive role in the culture. Too many of them were until this month busy scrambling for invitations to appear on "Imus in the Morning." Some are now honestly admitting chagrin at their desire to share Imus' microphone: Ana Marie Cox of Time magazine admits she went on the show only "to earn my media-elite merit badge."
As for Mr. Sharpton, while he points out that he has attacked abusive rap music lyrics, he is careful not to advocate doing too much about them. When CNN's Glenn Beck asked him when he would be "trying to get these guys fired from their record contracts as much as you're trying to get Don Imus thrown off the radio," Mr. Sharpton was evasive. "These record companies ought to be hit so that we will take the profit our of [gangsta rap]," he said. But when Mr. Beck asked him specifically about the artists themselves, Mr. Sharpton said the Imus case was different because he was "on a federally regulated radio station and television. If those [artists] were talk show hosts, I'd be marching." Is Mr. Sharpton unaware that gangsta rap has also been played on radio and TV?
Not that those broadcast outlets don't have some standards. When MTV aired the Kanye West's "All Falls Down" video, it bleeped out the words "white man" in the following lines: "Drug dealer buy Jordans, crackhead buy crack. And the white man get paid off of all of that." Radio stations in Canada bleeped out the words "white girl" from the lyrics of Mr. West's "Gold Digger," a song that included the line: "Leave your ass for a white girl." When Lisa Fager, the head of IndustryEars.com, a group promoting restraint in rap music, asked MTV why it would edit out such references to whites she was told "they didn't want to offend anyone."
Ms. Fager, who has herself worked in the recording industry, is opposed to censorship, but says the Federal Communications Commission should enforce existing laws that ban, for example, broadcast radio stations from playing the most outrageous material before 10 p.m. "I do not believe we are supposed to sit still while young women are dehumanized, infected with HIV and abused by young men programmed to think of women as nothing but sex toys," she told New York's Daily News. "That's immoral and cowardly."
Here's hoping the whole Imus affair spurs not just more clarity but less cowardice when it comes to other aspects of what Mr. Obama calls our "coarsening of the culture." Mr. Imus is history for now. But the most offensive rap artists are still growing strong. Accountability for misogynistic and racist remarks should apply equally to Don Imus and Snoop Dogg.