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Tim Wise On Don Imus

Tim Wise has finally put out a long awaited column, and as usual he doesn't disappoint. He pretty much hits the nail on the head early on in the essay, an observation that is typically missing from the usual commentary:

One thing has been made clear by the Imus incident: namely, white folks are incapable of blaming other whites for white racism and racist behavior. Despite all the demands by whites that blacks take "personal responsibility" for their lives, their behaviors, and the problems that often beset their communities--and especially that they stop blaming whites for their station in life--the fact is, we can't wait to blame someone else when we, or one of ours, screws up. So please note, from virtually every corner of the white media (and from black conservatives who are quick to let whites off the hook no matter what we do), the conversation has shifted from Imus's racism to a full-scale assault on rap music and hip-hop. In other words, it's those black people's fault when one of ours calls them a name. After all, they do it themselves, and Imus can't be expected not to say "ho" if Ice Cube has done it. At this point, I'm halfway expecting to hear Bill O'Reilly say that white folks wouldn't have even heard words like nigger if it weren't for 50 Cent.

Yep. We always hear about how blacks as a group can't take personal responsibility for their violent booty-shaking hip-hop jungle music, but Don Imus is treated as a special case and not a product of a white-owned media empire that fails to be sensitive to racism.

Tim Wise also says something that I have been meaning to say for a while about this controversy:

But blaming rap is not only conveniently opportunistic, and intellectually dishonest, given all the pandering about personal responsibility. It also ignores the reasons why rap music sometimes--though not as uniformly as some seem to believe--peddles images of violence, or lyrics that are sexist. After all, if eighty percent of all rap music purchases are made by whites (and that is the conventional wisdom), then white consumers must be responding, via their purchases, to an already held impression of black people. Without such a pre-existing mental schema firmly in place, the images of blacks as gangstas, pimps, dealers and "hos" wouldn't resonate nearly so much as to make possible billions of dollars of sales annually. In other words, perhaps whites need to consider the possibility that the thug image has been marketable, and thus created a financial incentive for black artists to play to that trope because these images comport with the negative things that much of white America believes about blacks in the first place. Things which they believed, it should be noted, long before Cool Herc threw his first house party in the Bronx.

If white folks were interested in buying CDs by rap artists who sang about radical social transformation and community uplift--and yes there are many, many such artists out there--then that's the music that would be churned out in larger numbers. But white consumers aren't, by and large, looking to buy songs about overthrowing the system from which we benefit. White boys in the stale and lifeless 'burbs would rather listen to songs about guns and drugs, and being a thug, through which music they can live a more exciting life, if only in their fantasies. So in the ultimate irony, it is white buyers who make that kind of rap profitable, but instead of asking for any responsibility from them, we blame the artists for doing what they're supposed to do in a capitalist system, which is respond to market demand, no matter the social consequences. Naturally, of course, it isn't capitalism that gets the blame--a thoroughly European creation that has brought misery to millions, as did state socialism (another issue from the womb of Europe)--but rather, the black folks who have taken the bait offered by the market system. Even better is to read Cal Thomas's column from this week, in which he blamed liberal values and permissiveness for the coarseness of rap music, rather than the values trumpeted by the right, like profit-making.

Actually, the data shows that the percentage of those who buy rap albums are as high as 75 percent or as low as 60 percent. But the fact of the matter is that whites still maintain the singular power to influence the hip-hop market, and the result is the prevalence of violent, mysoginistic music that is laced in greedy opulence. I recently saw a documentary on PBS where hundreds of aspiring rap artists are lined up outside a recording company competing for a deal. Nearly all of them are spitting the same old "hard" lyrics that is the staple of today's hip-hop, but when asked by the interviewer why they can't be more positive, all were unanimous in saying that the suits refuse to hear anything other than gangsta violence, money and hos. Which brings us to the lesson that the same media companies that have brought us Don Imus are the exact same media companies that gave us today's rap music. The fact that the black community is to blame for that phenomenon is absurd. At worst, some have entirely internalized the trash they hear and see.