Kanye West comments spur free speech debate

Guest Columnist

Many Americans – especially students – are naïve when it comes to issues of race and poverty. Whether by choice or conditioning, non-minorities and the upper middle class cannot understand, or refuse to acknowledge, the millions who struggle daily for existence in this nation simply because they are poor or of color. As a result, when one of the disenfranchised voices dissent with the system and its leadership or points out the many flaws (racism, sexism, class-ism, etc.) that plague America that person is vilified, and if all goes according to plan, marginalized.

George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” said recording star Kanye West during a nationally televised fundraiser for victims of Hurricane Katrina that aired live on NBC, MSNBC and CNBC. Censors at the network, which is owned by General Electric and Vivendi Universal, were so concerned that the public would be “offended by the remarks” they were edited out of the program which was broadcast on tape delay to western states.

However, the damage was done. A black man, who just happens to have the number-one selling record in the country (West’s second album “Late Registration” sold over 800,000 copies in its first week), spoke ill of our great land and its leader during a time of national crisis when the world was watching.

The media pounced on the story, which was made more compelling when NBC, a major news network, refused to release footage to other news networks. Coupled with rumors that Time Magazine, with West on the cover, was pulled off store shelves in some cities, presumably because of the comment, the story immediately grew legs.

The critics attacked West for making wild accusations about the president that, if Condeleezza Rice and Colin Powell are any indication, cannot be true because some of President Bush’s best friends are black. While others claim not to have a problem with what West said their gripe is the platform from which he chose to espouse his views – wrong place and time.

However, as the crucifixion of West was underway, one of America’s educated elite made an equally inflammatory statement that directly affected a lot more people and seemed to give credence to comments made by West.

“So many of the people in the arena here were underprivileged anyway, so this-this is working very well for them,” chuckled former First Lady Barbara Bush, wife of ex-president George H.W. Bush, while on a tour of the Astrodome in Houston, Texas, with her son, current president George W. Bush. The question is whether Bush’s comments received the same as West’s statements? This is especially true since it is offensive to all Americans including those who have lost family members, friends, homes, their life’s possessions and will be displaced for years to come.

Bush was not censored. The media outlet that got the statements released them immediately. Everyone from The New York Times to local radio deejays at KWPR Power 106FM in Los Angeles were all over the story. In fact, Power’s morning show, which aired Sept. 8 on KPWR just after Bush’s unsympathetic remarks, played audio from Bush several times every hour (the morning crew juxtaposed Bush’s statements with West’s. “George Bush doesn’t care about black people;” “So many of the people in the arena here, were underprivileged anyway, so this-this is working very well for them.” They added, “This is the president’s mother; the apple can’t fall far from the tree”).

Bush defenders claim the former First Lady’s statements were being taken out of context. Her detractors raise one simple question: is Barbara Bush unable or unwilling to accept that with thousands of families still separated from one another, thousands of children abandoned with no hope of reuniting with parents or blood relatives, and the remains of thousands more who perished in Hurricane Katrina or after Lake Pontchartrain flooded New Orleans still afloat in the city, is it possible for things to be working out well for evacuees?

Neither West nor Bush should have been censored for expressing their views. Yes, it is okay that their statements offended some people. Maybe Bush and West could have chosen better venues and words or maybe they felt within their constitutional rights to say what they truly felt.

However, while it is clear what West thinks about President Bush and this country’s attitude toward the least of its citizens, what is not clear is how an educated, informed, member of this nation’s political elite, a person whose husband and sons (Bush’s other son Jeb is governor of Florida) have shaped policy at all levels of government, could be completely ignorant to the plight of the poor.

West may not have chosen the proper forum and his words may have been harsh, but at least they are rooted in the values this nation holds dear, the right to challenge our leaders and demand they do more. What remains to be seen is whether Bush’s statements reflect the way poor people are seen by people like the president’s mom and that regardless of how insensitive your comments as long as you are not of color they will be heard by all.

Darren D. Dickerson is a junior journalism major.

Darren D. Dickerson is a junior journalism major.