Thursday, July 19, 2007

Equal Protection For All, Even Those We Don't Like

It goes without saying: I disagree with Don Imus' sad generalization of a group of women that have contributed to the fabric of American culture. His comments labeling the members of the Rutgers women's basketball team as "nappy-headed 'hos" insult the very essence of Black women, myself included, who strive to set themselves apart academically, professionally, athletically, and socially. The comments are, as the Rutgers players charged, "insensitive and hurtful."

Yet I'm going to step beyond my personal outrage and, even further, beyond Imus' all-too-apparent ignorance to look at these comments from a larger perspective. The very core of Imus' job as a shock-jock requires him to say things that get under people's skin and push the envelope of traditional media. His comments are no different than those of some of the more celebrated media personalities, such as Howard Stern. Yet, the veils that these people wear offer us little insight into the people they really are. It's hard to tell how much of their commentary is for job purposes and how much of it truly reflects who they are.

Therefore, I'll be the first to say that Imus' racist comment, standing alone, does not necessarily make him a fire-breathing racist. It's more his history of making comments against races, religions, and women that have led him to such scrutiny. I agree that Imus' comments were in extremely bad taste. They were an unfair judgment on a group of women who had otherwise had an impeccable sports season, bringing their team to the NCAA championship game after a 17-year absence. But, unlike many others, I do not call for Imus to be fired, shot by a firing squad, or stoned, all of which suggestions I've heard. Our democracy thrives on the power of free press and free speech. And this is also inclusive of speech with which we may not necessarily agree.

This is the part of practicing law that goes uncelebrated. We often cheer and applaud when someone in our own likeness champions a cause. But it is the inclusion of rights for people who speak against our interests that truly embodies "equal protection under the law." If we are not happy with a person's right to their expression, there are many more ways that we can express our dissatisfaction. Boycotts and letter-writing campaigns - which have been employed in the wake of this spectacle - are some possible alternatives. Just as we choose not to listen when extremist groups buy airtime to relay their views, we also have an option here to take the simplest remedy of all: Don't listen. Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion, and we also have the option of participating in their expression. After all, these comments came from a television personality, not an elected leader, religious figure, or community activist. His job is to entertain, and if you find yourself not laughing, move on! The networks that pay him will get the hint, and they can decide whether they want him as a representation of their network.

But Don Imus' comment also brings to light a larger issue that is waiting to be tackled by the Black community. While Imus' comments were hugely disappointing, they are no more disparaging than some of the latest rap lyrics in mainstream rotation or the latest entry thereof. In short, it amazes me that our communities' self-appointed spokesperson, Al Sharpton, can jump into the spotlight to chastise Imus when people in his own community are disrespecting Black women on a daily basis-and making money and fans as they do so! This incident transports me back six years to a Jennifer Lopez remix in which she used the N-word to cement her role in being "down" with minority audiences.

This incident also drew the ire of Black leaders, who immediately called for her apology but failed to go against the leagues of other performers who, in the same context, used the word freely. This draws into focus the key to resolving these incendiary issues. There is a double standard that makes people of other groups feel it is OK to use these terms. But they're not getting these ideas out of the blue; they come directly from the source. We cannot expect respect from larger groups of others when it is not a mainstay within our own inner circles. As long as we continue to use these terms loosely in our community, we cannot be surprised when we hear them thrown back at us.

Therefore, my proposed resolution is simple: Don't call anyone by a name that you wouldn't want bounced back at you. It sounds simple, I know. Perhaps too simple. But sometimes the easiest resolution to a problem is right in front of us-it starts at home.

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