Is Imus the Product of a Ghetto Mindset?

Cora Daniels has problems with the cultural legacy of the hood. In her new book, "GhettoNation: A Journey Into The Land of Bling and The Home of The Shameless," the journalist and writer examines how the hip-hop lifestyle and behaviors attributed to inner-city neighborhoods—celebrating gangsters and violence, revering fancy cars and bling, flaunting women's bodies—has permeated American culture and created a widespread “ghetto” mentality. From soda-filled baby bottles to black men calling each other the “n” word to MTV’s “Pimp My Ride,” Daniels chronicles the pervasiveness of “ghetto” thinking and shows how people from all walks of life engage in and celebrate ideas, language and behavior they should find repulsive. In a cable-news climate dominated by fallout from Don Imus’s comments about the Rutgers women's basketball team, NEWSWEEK’s Julie Scelfo spoke with Daniels about why she thinks it’s wrong to celebrate the bad behavior of the underclass. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What do you think of Don Imus’s calling the Rutgers women’s basketball team “nappy headed hos”?
Cora Daniels:
Of course Imus’s comments are outrageous. But it’s also an illustration of the “ghetto” mindset that it was so easy for Imus to say that. That’s an indication  of how deep [the ghetto mindset] is in all of our thinking. “Ho,” unfortunately, has become synonymous with black women and it slips into conversation. I wasn’t surprised—it’s the language we hear on corners every day. It doesn’t make it any better, but I wasn’t surprised.

Last week Newt Gingrich was under fire for equating bilinguilism with “the language of the ghetto.”
Yes, that just shows his insensitivity and lack of understanding about poor people and the real problems that they face.

Your book contains many examples of how “ghetto” culture permeates the mainstream—from music, to language, to jewelry, to infant “pimp and ho” Halloween costumes sold online. Was it hard to find examples?
No, these things are everywhere. Ghetto culture is so mainstream, we sort of gloss over these things, we don’t see them any more. On her show, Martha Stewart once said she can “get ghetto when she needs to.” I think it’s easier for folks to see these behaviors in certain communities rather than recognize it’s all over.

Wait, are you equating Martha Stewart talking smack with the behaviors you chronicle on the street corners of your Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, neighborhood?
Ghetto has become chic. “Ghetto” is no longer where you live. It’s how you live. It’s a mindset that embraces and celebrates the worst—not only what we listen to and what we watch but what we accept in our relationships and how we’re raising our children, or not raising our children. In San Diego recently, a group of middle-class white boys were caught pimping out their 12-year-old classmates—with their agreement—and using the money to buy ipods and clothes. [When this kind of thing happens in affluent white suburbs] it’s an illustration that our expectations have gotten so low. Behavior that shouldn’t be acceptable has become acceptable and gone mainstream.

You sound an awful lot like Bill Cosby when he made his controversial statements in 2004 about blacks not “holding up their end of the deal.” Do you agree with Mr. Cosby?
Bill Cosby saw this as a class thing. He attributed the worst behavior to poor black folks. I think we’re all a part of this. Basically every one of us can be ghetto. This is not a race thing or a class thing.

People from all walks of life can certainly dress and talk “ghetto.” But Martha Stewart still goes home to a fancy house in an upscale neighborhood. Performing ghetto and actually being ghetto are two different things, aren’t they?
Yes. The difference is [Martha Stewart] is not going to feel the repercussions. But my neighbors in Brooklyn are going to be hurt by this behavior, whereas celebrities are using it and co-opting it to become bigger names. Bill Cosby pointed his finger at others and didn’t accept his own part in what was going on. What I’m arguing is this is a larger societal issue at this point and that everyone is responsible for allowing it to happen. I think Imus’s comments hurt all black women, but there were a dozen or so young college women who didn’t even get to defend themselves [in real time]. 

In the book you reveal your own struggle with being ghetto versus wanting not to be. Where does that come from?
I grew up in a neighborhood with the ghetto mentality. I’m part of the hip-hop generation, I’m 35, and there’s a general attractiveness to being ghetto that can be hard to resist. But at the same time I see how damaging it is. And as a black woman, I think it’s destroying our community.

What are your hopes for this book?
My hope is that we won’t be numb any more. That we will recognize what is going on in all our backyards: women are being demeaned, the worst stereotypes of African-Americans are being touted and embraced, and commitment is treated like garbage while instant [sexual] gratification is glorified. I want us to raise our expectations and expect more of ourselves and each other. I think it’s time we put our foot down, and [the Imus controversy] is the perfect example of behavior that is not acceptable becoming acceptable. Imus should be fired. There are no excuses.