WHEN DON IMUS CALLED THE RUTGERS women's basketball team "nappy-headed headed hos" and other derogatory names last year, there was justified public outcry. In fact, Rev. Al Sharpton led the campaign to get a public apology from the shock jock and advocated for his removal. The end result of the furor: Imus was fired from his popular syndicated CBS Radio show. (He has since returned to the airwaves.)
By the end of the summer, another incident involving race and gender was playing out in the tabloids. Former basketball executive Anucha Browne Sanders was in court suing her former boss and employer, New York Knicks President of Basketball Operations and Head Coach Isiah Thomas and Madison Square Garden, for sexual harassment. The story made headline news but there were no protests, outrage, Sharpton--or any other advocacy groups such as the NAACP or National Organization of Women. Browne Sanders fought her battle alone.
Two of the most sensational sexual harassment cases in this country and the largest discrimination suit in history all involved black women: Browne Sanders; Anita Hill, during the 1991 Senate Judiciary hearings on the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court; and Bari-Ellen Roberts, a former senior financial analyst who in 1994 was the lead plaintiff in the discrimination suit against Texaco.
Incidences of sexual harassment and racial discrimination in the private offices and boardrooms of corporate America should be shocking. But even with diversity programs touted as an important business imperative, racism and sexism are still alive and well. And since discrimination can be hard to prove in most cases, those who choose to fight, particularly in the case of black women, often have to go it alone--risking isolation, backlash, and a tarnished reputation.
These women find little support, even from individuals and groups who would be natural advocates. The National Organization for Women has issued a variety of statements against sexual harassment on its Website, even outrage over Imus' return to radio, but it has not listed any coverage or offered any statement of support related to the Browne Sanders case. In her response, NOW President tom Gandy conceded that women faced tremendous challenges in getting justice on the local and federal levels.
"It's difficult for women, especially women of color, to get a fair shake on these kinds of cases because the courts are heavily stacked with conservatives who are willing to dismiss cases instead of allowing them to be presented to a jury," says Gandy. "But every time a woman prevails in a highly publicized case, it is a victory and gives other women the courage to take a stand and not give up."
Sharpton's usual boisterous protests were also absent from this case, despite media reports showing a taped deposition of Thomas saying it was worse for a white man to call a black woman "a bitch" than for a black man to use such language. Only after Browne Sanders declared victory did Sharpton call for Thomas' apology--not resignation.
Then, in a media flip-flop, Sharpton said he listened to the tape and Thomas' words seemed to have been heavily edited. Suddenly, Sharpton's demand for an apology flew by the wayside. "If he said it," Sharpton argues, "I would have called for him to be fired just like Imus."
Yet Sharpton says he believes the media's negative portrayals of black women force them to prove they deserve respect. "Black women have been miscast as sexual and promiscuous and they have to go to work and live down the videos and stereotypes. Women's rights are a component of civil rights, and we have to do more," says the father of two daughters.
For the women courageous enough to speak out, they understand that their fight will be a lonely one. "When you take a bold step like that, you have to assume that it is your personal step," says …