Monday, April 16, 2007

Ludicris is not the same as Imus; he may be worse.

I've been thinking a bit more about Imus and hip-hop, spurred by some of the comments to my earlier posts.

Some folks have argued that the equation of Imus' remarks with the use of misogynist and what would otherwise be racially offensive language in "hip-hop" is simplistic and ignores context.

I am not "equating" the two as much as I am conceding that they are different and that, in 2007, hip-hop is the larger problem. A racist remark will destroy a career. Although I think there is something artificial and overwrought about our reaction to Imus and similar offenders, I can understand the need for social enforcement of what are now our norms regarding race. We know our history in this area and we want to move away from it, not back toward it.

But the avalanche that befell Imus suggests that, today, there are few worse things that one can be accused of than racial insensitivity. Imus certainly insulted the Rutgers basketball team, but his remarks - and, for that matter, the public expression or endorsement of white racism - hardly represent a serious threat to the African-American community in 2007. (This is not quite the same thing as saying that "racism" no longer exists. I don't believe that, but it's another topic.)

But the expression of hostility toward black women and the glamorization of amoral and destructive behaviors is pervasive in hip-hop and often presented in a very attractive way. (Unlike many conservatives, I readily concede that some of these guys are quite talented and that the songs can be quite clever.) This not only affects black culture but it affects white perceptions of black culture.

I understand that one can spin a whole intellectual rationale for the expression of an outlaw culture developed in response to repression and seeking the only authenticity permitted young men otherwise frustrated by oppression, blah, blah, blah. But few people outside the faculty lounge hear it that way and that is what is important.


Anonymous said...

I wouldn't presume to understand hip hop; don't know much about it, its history, its context, or its lingo. I am not one for whom written and performed. I am simply in no position to dictate what its about.

And, I am leary of white yuppies making all sorts of serious judgments and declarations about the meaning and intent of hip hop.

I mean, I am also well aware of all the the sexual content of rock n' roll. While I can offer no deep intellectual defense of it, I don't think that popular music should be held to the same standard as a 6th grade class curriculuum or a newscast.

The bottom line is that Imus said something that enough of his listeners deemed awful enough to lead CBS to make the business decision to dump him. No doubt it Ludacris disgusted his consumer base to the same degree, his label would dump him.

In the end, I think this sudden focus on hip hop is little more than a bunch of white folks feeling defensive over this imus nonsense.

Anonymous said...

Let's face it, this Imus thing didn't have anything to do with what was said as much as it had to do with who said it.

They now want to treat Imus as if he were some highly respectable, influential person that others bow down to his everyword. Imus was none of those things, he simply was an entertainer.

If this is the only thing they could hang Imus on in all the years that he has been around, then it was grossly exaggerated by people starving for a symbolic victory that makes most people think that at best is hollow and who cares.

Anonymous said...

"Racial insensitivity" is a cute way to describe Imus's long history of racism and misogyny. And "accused of racial insensitivity" is a cute way of claiming that Imus isn't even racially insensitive without being explicit about it.

And yes, there are few worse things than white racism and misogyny.

Black feminists, black lesbians and gay men, black intellectuals (even those in the "faculty lounge"), black writers, and black politicians (including most recently, in today's NYT, Bob Herbert) have been critiquing the misogyny in hip hop (curious you don't include homophobia) for years now. Even your target du jure Obama has been speaking out against sexist hip hop. A whole wave of hip hop artists also critique the bigotries of their more mainstream counterparts in cities from Brooklyn to Oakland. That you haven't been aware of a conversation taking place largely among African Americans and in African American media no doubt says more about your interests and media habits than anything else.

And finally, white racism isn't just a problem because it harms African Americans, it's a problem because it harms us all--and whites in particular. Imus was part of what James Baldwin called the "moral erosion" of America and white leadership.

Conservatives used to defend racism by denying its general or particular manifestations. Now they're squirming into a new defense: "if it exists, and only if, then it has no effects."

Rick Esenberg said...

Toodd - You are reading way too much into my comments. I am certainly aware of the "black critique" of hip hop. I have shilled for people like Shelby Steele and John McWhorter on this blog and I know that there are many black liberals who have criticized this stuff. But you cannot seriously contend that there is the same energy and political capital expended there as there is whenever someone like Imus or Michael Richards spews some more traditional epithet. Obama met with, and conferred dignity upon Ludicris. Would he do that with Imus?

Anon-1: You may not think that popular music ought to be held to the same standard as a newscast and there are many ways in which I agree. But it also can have far more reaching effects than a newscast. There may be some white defensiveness in raising hip hop, although I think there is also white defensiveness in the rush to denounce Imus as beneath contempt.

Anonymous said...

You are reading way too much into my comments.

I'm reading merely what's on the page. You've written painstaking and elaborate sentences to avoid describing Imus's show and his comments as what they are: racism plain and simple.

I merely stated this fact. Anyone can verify it by reading your posts on this topic -- which all take a rare moment of media attention toward white racism, jerkily pivot, and then criticize assorted black people. (This criticism includes gross, unfounded generalizations along the lines of claiming that 98% of hip hop is sexist.)

But you cannot seriously contend that there is the same energy and political capital expended there as there is whenever someone like Imus or Michael Richards spews some more traditional epithet.

Energy, absolutely. Political capital, no. This is a result of the distribution of cultural and political capital in this country. Living in a racist culture means that critics acquire more cultural capital when they inveigh against the evils of powerful white figures than they do when they do the same against powerful black figures.

And it's an effect of misogyny and homophobia that African American liberals, feminists, academics, lesbians, and gay men -- often those making the most sustained critiques of hip hop's bigotry -- have very little political capital to begin with. No matter how much energy they expend, they'll never get the same media attention that a more traditional Sharpton-v-Imus sort of show down will.

Kanye West spoke out against homophobic and sexist excesses in hip hop. Even he was largely ignored by most nonblack, nongay, and nonfeminist media outlets.

But energy? Absolutely. To name just one example: Bamboozled, one of Spike Lee's best films, forwards a devastating critique of the so-called gangster variety of hip hop as a modern-day minstrel show (the same tradition in which Imus was participating).

Obama met with, and conferred dignity upon Ludicris [sic]. Would he do that with Imus?

(Sidenote: if you're enough of an expert on hip hop to make a claim about 98% of its lyrics, one expects you at least to accurately spell the name of one of its most popular stars.)

I don't know what kind of trade-off Obama felt was justified. I do know that, in his shoes, given an opportunity to use a man who reaches millions of young African Americans and to have a real opportunity to decrease unwanted pregnancies and STDs, I might have made the same decision. And I think Ludacris is a vile, dangerous man.

The question about Imus is just bizarre: My guess is that, if Obama met with Imus, nobody would benefit but Imus.