On Imus and Crossing the Line


April 12, 2007 — -- In the chorus of critics calling for the hide of radio talk show host Don Imus, there is a persistent refrain.

"He's crossed the line," former NAACP chief and CBS Corp. board member Bruce Gordon told The Associated Press. "He's violated our community."

"He didn't just cross the line," Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., told ABC News. "He fed into some of the worst stereotypes."

The popular drive-time shock jock not only strayed where he didn't belong, when he got there, he behaved badly.

An apologetic Imus admits to passing into dangerous territory when he described the Rutgers University women's basketball team as "nappy-headed hos"on air last week. "[I] went too far," he said.

The language being used to describe and decry the offensive speech by the 66-year-old suggests that boundaries outline the minefield of hate speech and that they are recognizable and perilous to cross.

But some observers argue those borders may not be clearly marked, in part, because there are those who appear to set up shop on the dangerous ground without consequence. Take for example the use of the N-word in popular -- and lucrative -- rap or hip-hop music, or the frequent portrayal and characterization of black women as hos in music videos.

"If you want to be upset -- and I am upset with what Don Imus said -- then let's have our moratorium on black women being [portrayed as] whores in music videos," said John Ridley, author and a National Public Radio commentator.

Ridley, who is black, continued. "You can't get upset at a white guy saying it when we will turn around [and] pimp that same stuff to ourselves. If you are going [to] get upset, get upset all the way around. When we allow these lines to get blurred, I think it's a little difficult under all circumstances to say we are the victims, because we victimize ourselves as well."

The Rutgers players are aware of the dichotomy. "I know that rap, hip-hop and any of the music of that genre has desensitized America. I understand that," said Rutgers team captain Essence Carson during Tuesday's news conference, "but that doesn't make it any more right for anyone to say it."

The comparisons of his art form with Imus' characterization of a group of black female athletes has angered one of the seminal artists of rap music Calvin Broadus aka Snoop Dogg.

"It's a completely different scenario," Snoop Dogg told MTV News. "First of all, we ain't no old-a-- 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 mother--s say we in the same league."

Part of the confusion may lie in the use of offensive speech outside an artistic context. The list is long of comedians and actors who defiantly thrust U.S. racerelations into the glare of a hot stage light.

Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, Dick Gregory, George Carlin, Sarah Silverman, Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock and Carlos Mencia are among comedians, past and present, who have taken dead aim at the provocative issues of gender and race.

"Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock have all traded on demystifying the N-word. And in doing so they have advanced the racial debate further than 1,000 round-table discussions populated [with] the best Ivy League minds," wrote John Ridley in an essay denouncing efforts to ban the N-word.

"All in the Family," "In Living Color," "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "Boondocks" are among critically acclaimed and often popular television shows that also pushed the envelope.

Themes of racial diversity, and how Americans view it and live with its challenges are tackled with a wink, a grin and a point.

In its heyday, "Saturday Night Live" showcased the talents of two remarkable comedians Richard Pryor and Chevy Chase in a classic sketchexploring race relations on the job.

NPR's Ridley recalled the comic power of the scene: "Chase is the white human resource executive. Pryor, the black job applicant. What begins with Chase: 'White.' Pryor, 'Black.' Devolves through Chase: 'Negro.' Pryor: 'Whitey.' Chase: 'Colored.' Pryor: 'Redneck.' Chase: 'Jungle Bunny.' Pryor: 'Honky!' Chase: "N-word.' Pryor: 'Dead honky!' "

Silverman, a comedian, routinely takes racial political correctness by the throat in her stand-up routines. Her new cable show reportedly features a religious vision in which she takes a black God as her lover. She grabbed headlines when she confessed to talk show host Conan O'Brien that one way to get out of jury duty was to claim "I hate Chinks."

Reacting to the N-word tirade displayed by fellow comic actor Michael Richards during a stand-up set at a Hollywood club in the fall, Silverman suggested the key to effectively satirizing race rested in never losing your cool.

"He [Michael Richards] had a breakdown. At least the racist things I say are well thought out and planned in advance. It is not like I am truly getting angry,"said Silverman in an interview with the Village Voice earlier this year. "The audience has to know you're in control."

"When Richard Pryor use to say it, very clearly he was a comedian. Lenny Bruce, he's a satirist. Chris Rock in the comedy club or a venue is a comedian. Sarah Silverman, she's a comedienne," Ridley said. "But when it starts to bleed into news programs where people have set themselves up as providers of news and real commentary. … Well then the line has been blurred."

Author and satirist Marty Beckerman describes Imus and others -- Richards and conservative commentator Ann Coulter who used a homophobic slur in public recently -- as having "landed on their faces even though Americans love to laugh at bigotry."

"These entertainers poured salt into centuries-old wounds with cheap punch lines; simple, worthless slurs; spiteful, desperate pleas for attention -- instead ofthrowing our collective ridiculousness back into our faces," wrote Beckerman for the Web site for Reason magazine.

"Not only does speech matter, but the person who says it matters," said University of Southern California law professor Daria Roithmayr.

"We need to know who says something to evaluate the credibility," said Roithmayr, who specializes in legal issues of gender and race. "We are familiar with the idea that I can talk about my family, but you can't. The way in which an insult is judged is as much on the basis of identity of the person who says it, as on what it is they say."

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