Don Imus: Good-natured Racist?

Constance Rice,* a civil rights attorney in Los Angeles, has the smartest take I’ve yet seen on the Don Imus “nappy headed hos” controversy.

More to the point, Imus should only be fired when the black artists who make millions of dollars rapping about black bitches and hos lose their recording contracts. Black leaders should denounce Imus and boycott him and call for his head only after they do the same for the misogynist artists with whom they have shared stages, magazine covers and awards shows.

The truth is, Imus’ remarks mimic those of the original gurus of black female denigration: black men with no class. He is only repeating what he’s heard and being honest about the way many men — of all races — judge women.

Just as black comedians who make mean jokes about Asians and Latinos don’t see themselves as racists, I’m sure that Imus doesn’t see himself as a racist either. He reveres blues artists such as B.B. King and Ray Charles. He praises American icons such as Jackie Robinson and Martin Luther King Jr. He clearly likes former Tennessee Rep. Harold Ford and has interviewed Sharpton a few times. He treated Lani Guinier with uncharacteristic respect during her guest appearance to discuss her latest book.

His sympathy for the Katrina victims came through. And after the James Byrd dragging-lynching in Texas in 1998, Imus did not joke. In serious tones that couldn’t hide his sorrow or disgust, he quietly remarked that it was unwise for black people to ever trust whites.

After listening to him for 10 years, I’ve concluded that Imus is not a malevolent racist. He is a good-natured racist. And the streak of decency running down his self-centered, mean persona is sometimes pretty wide.

That captures Imus perfectly, I think.

I used to listen to the show a quite a bit during my morning commute and have seen the MSNBC simulcast a handful of times. My general take is that he’s a weird dude. He’s simultaneously a self-centered jerk who berates his staff and will ramble on for weeks on end about some perceived slight and a guy who devotes considerable time, energy, and money in trying to ease the suffering of kids with cancer and other debilitating diseases. He’s both a Neanderthal and a patron of the arts. He’s a naive rube and an incurable cynic. Most bright, talented folks are a bundle of contradictions, I guess, but Imus is much more so than most.

Some of the show’s humor, especially that by executive producer Bernard McGuirk, is undeniably racial but probably no more “racist” than that of Lenny Bruce or Red Foxx or Richard Pryor or Chris Rock or Dave Chapelle or Carlos Mencia. No doubt, we’ve learned time and again, it’s different when a member of an ethnic group makes a joke about his own kind than when an outsider does. Yet Rock, Chapelle, Mencia, and others make plenty of jokes about other races without getting nearly the condemnation of Imus.

And, unlike Imus, their material is all pre-scripted. With the exception of some recorded bits, Imus does four hours of off-the-cuff talk every morning.

Duncan Black, taking exception to similar comparisons made by Howard Kurtz on CNN, is dubious of the logic that, because “other people have used the word ho in other contexts” Imus shouldn’t be condemned for it. But Kevin Drum is right:

A slur aimed at specific people is obviously different than a generic slur in a rap song, but it’s not that different. If one is offensive, so is the other, and it’s hard to argue that the cesspool of misogyny in contemporary rap has no effect on the wider culture. It’s not that this excuses what Imus did. It’s just the opposite. If we’re justifiably outraged by what Imus said, shouldn’t we be just as outraged with anybody else who says the same thing, regardless of their skin color?

You’d think.

Imus has been, rightly so, condemned for using racial and gender slurs to describe some decent women whose only sin, apparently, was being less physically appealing to the Imus staff than their counterparts on the Lady Vols. But I don’t see why that’s much worse than rappers and comedians–who are much more influential with our young people than the geezerly Imus–constantly using that language to apply to women generally.

At the same time, though, effective humor is often edgy. Bruce, Pryor, Rock, and others used humor to positively impact the discussion of the incredibly sensitive issue of race. We don’t want to outlaw words that make people angry, nor put topics that make them uncomfortable off the table.

It’s perfectly reasonable for the corporation that pays Imus’ check to want to protect its image and avoid alienating its advertisers and audience. At the same time, it’s been clear for a quarter century or more that this is who Imus is. Firing him for something Rice correctly notes “doesn’t even come close to one of his meaner riffs” would be much more egregious than his remarks.

UPDATE: Calvin Cordozar Broadus, Jr., perhaps better known by his nom-de-rap “Snoop Dogg,” has weighed in on the controversy.

Snoop frequently refers to women as “b**ches” and “hos” in his music, but he insists Imus’ use of the term was unacceptable and the 66-year-old DJ should be taken off the air.

The Doggystyle star says, “It’s a completely different scenario.”

“(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 hos that’s in the ‘hood that ain’t doing s**t, that’s trying to get a n**ga for his money. These are two separate things.”

“First of all, we ain’t no old-ass white men that sit up on MSNBC going hard on black girls. We are rappers that have these songs coming from our minds and our souls that are relevant to what we feel. I will not let them muthaf**kas say we are in the same league as him.

Kick him off the air forever.”

Via Steven Taylor, who observes, “To be honest, Snoop’s right—he and Imus aren’t in the same league. Snoop and his ilk are worse in terms of propagating racist and sexist stereotypes and attitudes in our culture.” As if to prove this, the AP provides “Snoop Dogg Hit With Gun and Drug Charges.”

You can’t make this stuff up.
*As an aside, Drum reports that Constance Rice is a second cousin to Condoleeza Rice, who she admires personally even though she doesn’t share her politics. I suspect they’d agree on this particular issue, though.

Crossposted to Gone Hollywood

FILED UNDER: Blogosphere, Media, Race and Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. It’s like affirmative action for a liberal. What would be called bigoted and racist if the skin color was reversed is seen as progressive and caring. Evil is evil.

  2. Snoop Dogg says:

    Shizzle my nizzle.

  3. legion says:

    At the same time, though, effective humor is often edgy. Bruce, Pryor, Rock, and others used humor to positively impact the discussion of the incredibly sensitive issue of race. We don’t want to outlaw words that make people angry, nor put topics that make them uncomfortable off the table.

    Yes, but Imus isn’t a comedian. Nor was he being at all funny – though he may have been (extremely lamely) trying. The fact Rice defends him by calling him a ‘good-natured racist’ is every bit as insulting and degrading as Imus’ comments. Moreso even, because she specifically tags Imus as a member of some broad, undefined group of people who can be ‘allowed’ to be racist.

    And that’s exactly why Imus is still making racist comments after all these years – because his buddies in the media never call him on it or tell him to know that shit off.

  4. floyd says:

    The thin skinned are the first to preach tolerance!What irony!

  5. laura says:

    MSNBC, ABC, CBS, PBC, and all the outlets we call the MSM, are considered respectable, normal. The things that personalities say on those kinds of venues get legitimized by the venue itself.

    Somethings shouldn’t be legitimized. That’s the issue.

    I hate the stuff Snoop raps and I don’t buy his rationalizations. Also, when I taught high school I often had to deal with African American kids who thought nothing of calling each other hos or bitches. However none of that justifies the presence, on a supposedly respectable MSM media outlet, of a man who says racist things. Either the man who says racist things has to go or the media outlet’s reputation should.

  6. carpeicthus says:

    That Snoop quote is real? Why do we need parody?

  7. anjin-san says:

    So, its OK for Imas to be a racist because there are others out there who use even uglier language?

    I am trying to imagine a scenario where some nice, white bread female athletes who are competing at an elite level take the floor and an announcer refers to them as ugly prostitutes, then has his job for more then 24 hours. Don’t see it happening…

  8. Frankly, we are fast becoming the epitome of a Jerry Springer society. It seems to have become more important to have an audience and notoriety when confronting conflict than it is to attain resolve and mutual respect. That model seems to serve the needs of the exploited and those who seek to exploit; reinforcing all that relegates objectivity to the outhouse while making the frailty and imperfection of the human condition a spectacle that harkens back to the Coliseum.

    This situation isn’t and shouldn’t be about whether liberals or conservatives, this race or that race, hip hop or honky-tonk, one group or another, are more offensive and therefore more responsible for all that is wrong with America. I am not capable of judging the whole of Don Imus nor am I capable of crafting a recipe to fix all of America…and neither are the countless pundits and partisans who have sought to frame it so.

    I’m not a religious person…but I often find kinship with the imagery surrounding the portrayal of one called Jesus and his teachings of understanding and forgiveness. For all the banter I hear about the Bible and Christian values, it certainly seems to me that we are fast abandoning what many view as the sacred “tablets” in favor of the sacrosanct tabloids. If I’m right, all I can say is heaven help us.

    Read more about the dynamics that lead a situation to become larger than the sum of its parts…here:

  9. G.A.Phillips says:

    No he is a bad natured liberal, but gee you think he was responsible for the murder of 45 million babies or something.

  10. Bandit says:

    I am trying to imagine a scenario where some nice, white bread female athletes

    Fight ignorant racism with more ignorant racism!

  11. Marianne says:

    Powerful white men — that is the group that Imus most often insulted and offended, and the group the most needs to be insulted and offended still. Imus insulted everyone.