Don Imus' firing Thursday was the result of a collision between mainstream popular culture and hip-hop culture. This generational and cultural debate has been fueled by the concept of "you people," whoever they — or we — are.
Imus testily used those words during his appearance on the Rev. Al Sharpton's radio show Monday. "You people" seemed directed at Sharpton and other activists more than African-Americans as a whole, unlike Ross Perot's use of that phrase during his 1992 presidential run.
Hip-hop has enjoyed tremendous crossover success. For better or worse, depending on one's tastes, it's unavoidable. And rap has, for years, been built on its street credibility, reflected in no small part in its slanguage. There are regional shorthands for cars, neighborhoods and other, more unsavory things. Hip-hop's impact explains how the phrase "nappy-headed hos" ever found its way to Imus' microphone.
"How can we ignore the problem that every 12-year-old in the country knows this phrase?" asks comedian-turned-gubernatorial candidate Kinky Friedman, who also has been accused of being a racist and sexist. "And we're giving Grammys to guys for using the same phrase that gets Imus fired."
Are some words simply the sole property for use only by certain (race-specific) people?
Can words or symbols be "owned" and repurposed? The theory that the rampant use of the n-word in hip-hop has removed its poison is faulty. Ask comedian Michael Richards. Or better yet, ask the black audience members at his comedy show that turned into an epithet-filled meltdown, complete with threats.
Salikoko S. Mufwene, a professor of linguistics at the University of Chicago, says, "It's a matter of who has authority in language. There are certain terms used in the African-American community that are not licensed to other people."
I'm looking forward to seeing where this goes. If you want the conservative talking point go read these comments.