Beyond Imus

The exile of Dom Imus from the airwaves would be significant if his professional punishment for remarks leveled at the Rutgers Women’s basketball team ended all such racist and sexist degradation.

But sending the white sexagenarian talk radio host out to the pasture of his Connecticut estate or to his ranch in New Mexico doesn’t really solve the problem of the continued exploitation of women in popular American culture.

It’s time to challenge the black and white moguls of the music industry to stop raking in billions of dollars a year marketing rap lyrics where women, particularly young, African-American women, are routinely referred to as hos and bitches and cast as willing victims of male domination.

It’s not all rap music that’s offensive and the negative stereotypes are found in the lyrics performed by both white and black artists.

As an African-American woman, I am outraged when corporate decision makers turn a deaf ear to sexist lyrics which degrade women, demean the positions of responsibility men should be filling in family life and deny young people their rights to positive role models. All too often, the counter claims about free speech and cultural expression are just thinly veiled codes for justifying profits.

As a mother, I can tell you that my attempt to challenge the lyrics of favored performing artists was never a real popular topic around our family dinner table. Though my daughter was not inclined toward rap music, my son defended the free expression of his favored music. I’d listen, but in the end, I still imposed a household ban on rap that employed foul language or degrading references to women.

My parental ban on offensive music might have been force-feeding respect for women, and for men too, but, at the time, I took the heat and told my son it was why parents got the big bucks. Something must have sunk in with my two children because now – years later –I have yet to hear a disparaging remark about girls from any of my five grandchildren.

Though I advise parents to monitor what music their children play in their rooms, I recognize the limits of such hands-on intervention by Mom and Dad, especially now in this era of i-pods. In the end, corporate America is a formidable foe and change will only come if there is a concerted threat made to its bottom line.

Sadly, the remarks of Don Imus led to his firing only after his advertisers saw him as too hot to handle. But their ugly impact was rebuffed by the articulation, the intelligence and the eloquence of the Rutgers women and their coach, C. Vivian Stringer. The Rutgers women proved they never needed anyone to step in and stand up to Don Imus on their behalf. They did just fine on their own.

As a state senator, Chair of the Senate Education Committee and holder of the Senate leadership position of Senate President Pro Tempore, I will always defend the free speech rights guaranteed under the First Amendment of our Constitution, whether they are invoked by performing artists or by the leaders of the music industry.

But I also believe strongly that it is wrong to sit by in silence while women are described in vile terms as sexual objects by representatives of an entertainment industry that is reaping large sums of money while perpetuating hatred, verbal abuse toward women and blatant sexism.

Like all revolutionaries for change are fond of saying, I agree there is complicity wherever there’s a failure to react to injustices, real and perceived.

On the consumer side, I believe the majority concurs that abuse toward women shouldn’t sell so the best and fastest way to express this conviction to corporate profiteers is not to buy.

The women of Rutgers were forced to respond to Imus and they did so with dignity and calm resolve. They demonstrated to young people across the nation why sexist and racist remarks are always intolerable even when it might be easy to ignore them as failed humor.

One positive development to emanate from this controversy is the heightened awareness that changes can, in fact, be made in the way people refer to each other. At some point, everyone’s probably concluded that they’ve acted a certain way toward perceived oppressors because, well, that’s the way they’ve always acted.

In furthering the benefits of open dialogue, I commend the efforts of certain leaders in the communications and media industries like Oprah Winfrey for creating forums where constructive criticism and self examination can be advanced.

What’s long overdue now is a collective commitment by young people and adults to force changes wherever corporate leaders persist in putting profits ahead of respect and dignity for women.

Senator Shirley K. Turner represents the 15th Legislative District in Mercer County. She is the Senate President Pro Tempore and Chair of the Senate Education Committee.