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Imus Isn't the Only Problem

By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON-And now, as Mick Jagger might say, let's hear a little sympathy for the devil:

Don Imus famously lost his national CBS Radio show, simulcast on MSNBC, after describing the Rutgers women's basketball team as "nappy-headed hos."

"Ho," as everyone must know by now, is an Ebonic word for "whore."

He also has stirred up the sort of intriguing national argument that this country has from time to time about hip-hop, free speech, second chances and how men treat women-especially black women.

The most unusual contribution to this spirited debate comes from Margo St. James, who advocates prostitutes' rights and started COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) in the 1970s.

Now 69, St. James, a self-described "sex-positive feminist" who claims to have turned tricks briefly in her youth, caused quite a stir when she raised money and organized to assist San Francisco prostitutes with bail, shelters, health care and legal reforms.

She's also a fan of Don Imus, she told me in telephone interviews from her home on Orcas Island in Puget Sound.

She agrees that Imus' words were reprehensible, she said, but also thinks it is "horrible" that "everybody's dealing with the 'nappy' question, not the 'ho' question."

Instead of making Imus a scapegoat for larger sins that the hateful word "ho" represents, St. James says, we should do something to reverse the extent to which "drug and prostitution prohibitions institutionalized racism" in America. "We've got to get down to what it does to women to call them whores," she said. "We've got to go after the big problem, not one big mouth!"

In her own exotic way, St. James touches on a major reason why Imus's "ho" comment touched off the biggest firestorm of his 35 years of trash-talk radio. No other word packs so much wallop with so few letters along our society's fault lines of race, sex and privilege.

Imus' defenders argue that he shouldn't be punished while countless rap stars get away with using that word and much worse. That's a pretty feeble diversion from the question of why Imus felt compelled to use it against what he now admits is a thoroughly "inappropriate" target, to whom he has profusely apologized.

What many of them do not know is how deeply "ho" already divides black America. It's a bum rap to say, as some of my e-mailing readers have claimed, that black people haven't protested sexism, racism and gangsterism in rap music.

Students at Spelman College, an historically black women's liberal arts college for women, forced the rapper Nelly to cancel a charity fundraising visit to the school a few years ago in protest over one of his sexist music videos. Queen Latifah, in one famous example, won the 1994 Grammy for best solo rap performance with "U.N.I.T.Y," in which she tells women, "You got to let him know. You ain't a bitch or a ho." The late C. Delores Tucker, before she died in 2005, crusaded for a decade against "gangster rap" pollution, including buying stock in major record companies in order to protest at stockholders meetings.

But positive efforts like that have sadly little impact in the mainstream media or mainstream white culture. As a result, when black listeners, among others, hear the words coming back at them on the lips of a couple of white fellows like Imus and his producer, it's like rubbing salt in our cultural wounds.

As for Imus, reports of the death of his career are undoubtedly exaggerated. He's been fired before. In the late 1970s he returned to Cleveland radio, which he left a few years earlier with a Plain Dealer headline reading, "Garbage mouth goes to Gotham." He worked his way back up the food chain at least once and can do it again, perhaps on censor-free satellite radio.

And the young Rutgers women have given us all an excellent example of how to stand up with grace, courage and intelligence.

And the Rev. Al Sharpton says he will widen his crusade to go after other pollution on the airwaves, including hip-hop pollution. I hope he delivers.

Imus has ignited a useful national conversation. Let's keep it going. We have a lot to teach each other.

Page is a Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist specializing in urban issues. He is based in Washington, D.C. E-mail:

(c) Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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