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We're Our Own Worst Imuses

We know this "thug" culture by its awful and extensive body tattoos; its denigrating language that sculpts every woman -- regardless of color -- into a sex object or a joke. We know it by its so-called urban fashion, which includes the butt-revealing pants, the flashy and often fake gold -- around the neck, on the arms, in the mouth. And yes, by the lyrics we hear and the videos we see. Nowadays, it has also spread into comedy, said Armah, who notes a rise in politically incorrect jokes and skits.

African Americans "have created the atmosphere where people feel comfortable making derogatory statements," said D.C. small-business owner Edwin Chin-Shue, who managed several record stores for years. "If we want to boycott Imus, then we have to boycott Warner Brothers and Sony. We have to boycott Spike Lee and radio stations that play rap music."

The Imus controversy was an extension of the battle over use of the N-word. African Americans can throw around the most demeaning terminology, seeking to cash in at major record companies, production studios or publishing houses (check out the chick-lit phenom, which in many cases is just blaxploitation movies put to print). But the moment certain whites walk into that world, blacks are insulted, deeply offended. Spike Lee can use the word "jiggaboo" in his movie "School Daze." Imus and his producer sidekick had better step back.

Who is caretaker of the authentic thug culture, including when and how to use the phrases "nappy head" or "bitches and hos"? That is the question.

The day after Imus was fired, rapper Snoop Dogg was quoted as saying that what Imus did and what rappers do "are two separate things." Rappers "have these songs coming from our minds and our souls that are relevant to what we feel," he said. "I will not let them [expletive] say we in the same league as him."

But as American society becomes more colorized, more reflective of its multicultural roots and features, blacks may be unable to retain sole rights of proprietorship, even through bullying and demonstrations. Expressions seep into mainstream culture and become universal property.

"People start thinking [a phrase] is cool," said Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University. "You use it because you have the feeling of being with it, being on the cutting edge. It's also about the youth culture" and "the allure associated with youth."

So we heard the aging Imus attempting to replicate the language of youthful African American thug culture. And we saw Bush adviser Karl Rove onstage at a recent radio correspondents' dinner, clumsily trying out the menacing gangsta pose and confrontational hand gestures as he shouted out the lame lyrics to a faux rap song. It was American street culture come to the White House.

And street culture's introduction into mainstream America, though incremental, is not accidental. It is orchestrated by image- and opinion-makers -- black and white -- and corporations champing at the bit for new markets and the cash they promise. The public aids and abets the process. It's less about being cool and more about the money. Ka-ching.

Each year rap/hip-hop brings more than $4 billion to the music industry. The urban apparel market racks up more than $2 billion in sales annually, according to various trade publications.

"In a capitalist environment, what is mainstream is what sells," said WAMU Radio talk show host Kojo Nnamdi. "The denigration of women has been a huge seller in the last 20 years. Black men do it and even black women do it."

And that denigration gets picked up and tossed around freely. "You should hear some of the things the young ladies I work with call themselves," said Janice Ferebee, president of Got It Goin' On, which provides self-esteem and life-skills services for girls and young women in the United States, South Africa and Ghana.

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