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If Your Imus Obituary Suggests That He Only Stepped Over The Line Once, You Got It Wrong

If you're going to write an obituary of Don Imus, do a better job than AP did.
If Your Imus Obituary Suggests That He Only Stepped Over The Line Once, You Got It Wrong
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I returned from the holidays to obituaries of a man who's been the subject of many posts here over the years. If you're going to write an obituary of Don Imus, do a better job than AP did:

Disc jockey Don Imus, whose career was made and then undone by his acid tongue during a decades-long rise to radio stardom and an abrupt public plunge after a nationally broadcast racial slur, has died. He was 79....

Imus survived drug and alcohol woes, a raunchy appearance before President Clinton and several firings during his long career behind the microphone. But he was vilified and eventually fired after describing a women's college basketball team as "nappy headed hos."

His April 2007 racist and misogynist crack about the mostly black Rutgers squad, an oft-replayed 10-second snippet, crossed a line that Imus had long straddled as his rants catapulted him to prominence.

No, Imus hadn't previously "straddled" a line that he then, in a weak moment, crossed once. He'd crossed that line habitually. When he said "nappy-headed hos," the public finally responded with an appropriate level of disgust.

On April 4, 2007, the morning after the Rutgers women's basketball team played for the national college championship, Imus and his in-studio crew discussed the game.

“That’s some rough girls from Rutgers,” Mr. Imus said on Wednesday. “Man, they got tattoos ...” The program’s executive producer, Bernard McGuirk, agreed: “Some hardcore ho’s,” he said. Imus continued, “That’s some nappy-headed ho’s there, I’m going to tell you that.”

Apologists tried to blame rap music for Imus's comments. Here was Earl Ofari Hutchinson in The Philadelphia Inquirer:

... gangster rappers, some black filmmakers, and comedians routinely reduce young black women to "stuff," "bitches" and "hoes." Their contempt reinforces the slut image of black women and sends the message that violence, mistreatment and verbal abuse of black women are socially acceptable.

...Now enter shock-jock Don Imus, the latest white guy to be transformed into a racially and gender-incorrect punching bag.... He, of course, has been verbally mugged, battered and abused....

But again, Imus is the softest of soft targets. The same can't be said for the black rap shock-jocks. They made Imus possible. They gave him the rapper's bad-housekeeping seal of approval to bash and trash black women....

Except that -- as I noted at the time -- Imus had been talking like this for years. I wrote about an Imus comedy album released in 1974, more than a decade before the rise of gangsta rap.

A sample joke:

... Newark mayor Kenneth "King Kong" Gibson has announced the nomination of the city's first Hispanic municipal court judge and the first black woman to fill a second vacancy on the court. Judge Guillermo Alfredo Espanata Ortega Ortez Astellego Jijuete Chingao will assume his duties as quickly as he can get his car started and get to court. The other new judge, thirty-year-old Rebecca Golin Johnson Lincoln Jefferson, will assume her duties as soon as she, in her own words, "gets damn good and fuckin' ready, honky!"

... Elsewhere on the album, blacks inevitably drive Cadillac Eldorados and make lots of noise during sex; Jews sell jewelry and cheat people (but Jewish women are good at oral sex); Poles are stupid and inordinately fond of bowling. ("Polish jokes" were a staple of Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In a few years earlier, but they fell out of favor; Imus was apparently the last person on the planet doing them.) White people are uptight, and white women in particular don't enjoy sex very much. No, it's not quite as nasty as some of his subsequent work, but it's ethnicity-obsessed.Frank Rich, who was a frequent guest on Imus's show, said in '07 that Imu wasn't really a racist because -- at least prior to the Rutgers incident -- he'd generally limited his attacks to famous people who could take it:

But as a listener and sometime guest, I didn't judge Imus to be a bigot.... Perhaps I gave Imus a pass because the insults were almost always aimed at people in the public eye, whether politicians, celebrities or journalists -- targets with the forums to defend themselves.

... What Imus said about the Rutgers team landed differently.... The spectacle of a media star verbally assaulting them, and with a creepy, dismissive laugh, as if the whole thing were merely a disposable joke, was ugly.... So while I still don't know whether Imus is a bigot, there was an inhuman contempt in the moment that sounded like hate to me.

I guess Rich was unaware of one of Imus's most notorious bits, "Black Beatles," which wasn't aimed at famous people at all, but included every stereotype of ordinary black people Imus could squeeze into it. I won't link to it -- you can find it on YouTube -- but I posted a partial transcript a few days after the Rutgers incident:

IMUS: Some of you may know, who listen to the Imus in the Morning program on a regular basis, there is a new group being formed called the Black Beatles.

BLACK BEATLES MEMBER (in a stereotypical black accent): That's right, Don. My name is Tyrone McCartney...

IMUS: Uh-huh.

TYRONE McCARTNEY: ... bass player for the fabulous Black Beatles, and me and my friends Leroy Lennon, George Jellybean Darnell Rashad Mustafa Muhammad Harrison, and Bingo Starr, we have a new album out of our very famous #1 hits called Beat the Meatles.
IMUS: What's that?

TYRONE McCARTNEY: Beat the Meatles. We wanted y'all to get it 'cause it's got some of our famous #1 hits, like this one: (singing) "When I find myself in times of trouble, mother Mary come to me and speak those woids of wisdom, 'What it be.'"

And how 'bout this one? (singing) "I shoulda known better with a bitch like you." "Jo Jo was a man who only had three inches, but he knew it wouldn't last, Jo Jo never had much luck with all the bitches, but I said, 'Hey, Jo, get black. Get black, get black, get black and watch your johnson grow.'" "Lucy in the sky with a lot of jewelry on." "Strawberry-flavored malt liquor." "Here come my son, he play football. Here come my son, and I say, 'He bad.'" "I'm back on the old FDR." "Yesterday, my parole came through just yesterday." "Hey dude, lend me a dollar." "I can play center, I can play forward, I be six foot four."

And, of course, my personal favorite: (singing) "We all live in a yellow Coupe de Ville, a yellow Coupe de Ville, a yellow Coupe de Ville. And my friends is all aboard, many more of them is in the trunk, vinyl tires with wire wheels, in my yellow Coupe de Ville."

Imus didn't think he limited his racist attacks to famous people. In May 2000, he and Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page mocked his racism:

CLARENCE PAGE: Are you raising your hand, right?

DON IMUS: I have it up.

CLARENCE PAGE: Okay. Okay, number one -- I, Don Imus--

DON IMUS: I, Don Imus--

CLARENCE PAGE: -- do solemnly swear--

DON IMUS: Do solemnly swear--

CLARENCE PAGE: -- that I will promise to cease all simian references black athletes--

DON IMUS: That I will promise to cease all simian references to back--black athletes--

CLARENCE PAGE: -- a ban on all references to non-criminal blacks as thugs, pimps, muggers and Colt 45 drinkers--

DON IMUS: I promise to do that.

CLARENCE PAGE: Very good! How about an end to Amos 'n Andy cuts, comparison of New York City to Mogadishu, and all parodies of black voices unless they are done by a black person, cause you're really not very good at it.

Imus knew he was doing this, so it was fine, right?

Politicians and journalists appeared on his show despite all this. Regular guests included Rudy Giuliani and John McCain. They seemed to believe that there was a perceptible wall between his racist remarks and his political talk.

So I'll leave you with something a commenter of mine, PlusDistance, wrote around the time of the Rutgers incident, when I was posting these examples of Imus's racism:

Could we just ask McCain and all the other politicians who go on his show if they'd like to do a few bars of "Jo Jo was a man who only had three inches"? We could give them the lyrics for it, so they get it right.

I mean, politicians go on Letterman and do top tens, don't they? If Imus is such a great, funny guy, they have nothing to be ashamed about, right?

Published with permission from No More Mr. Nice Blog

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