Harrassment by Men Named Thomas

Yesterday was a banner day for stories about sexual harassment by people with the surname Thomas. First Anita Hill published an 0p-ed in the NY Times defending herself against charges leveled against her by Justice Clarence Thomas in his new book, My Grandfather's Son. Then, the jury in the sexual harassment case against Isiah Thomas and the New York Knicks returned a verdict for plaintiff Anucha Browne Sanders.

The cases have further parallels as well. In both cases, the accused steadfastly maintained (and still maintains) that the charges were false. Both cases involve allegations by a professional African-American woman against an African-American man. And despite the intra-racial nature of each dispute, both were nonetheless racially charged.

In 1991, then-judge Thomas famously referred to the portion of his confirmation hearings focusing on Hill's charges as a "
high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves," thus contending that Hill was part of a conspiracy by the black and white liberal establishment to silence black conservatives. Although he himself did not make the point, Thomas also could have been understood to be complaining about a double standard under which powerful white men in Washington---including some of the very Senators voting on his appointment---routinely engaged in sexual harassment without suffering any consequences.

The double-standard issue arose in the Isiah Thomas case as well, but with a twist. Thomas said in a videotaped deposition that he would regard a white man calling a black woman a "bitch" as a worse offense than the same term being used by a black man in referring to a black woman. This double-standard on Thomas's part was damaging because it indicated that Thomas was himself willing to use such language towards Browne Sanders, and because it indicated that Thomas tolerated such language when used by Knicks guard Stephon Marbury in reference to Sanders. For his part, Thomas denied both that he called Browne Sanders a "bitch" and that he tolerated that language when used by anybody. He claimed that he was simply making a comparative point.

In the interest of starting a discussion, I want to suggest that (Isiah) Thomas was onto something (which doesn't mean that the jury was wrong). Interpreting Thomas in the most charitable way imaginable, he was saying: (1) When a black man calls a black woman a "bitch," the man is being sexist; but (2) when a white man calls a black woman a "bitch," he is being sexist AND possibly also racist; (3) and even though sexism standing alone is bad, sexism plus racism is worse still, so the white man's use of the term is worse than the black man's.

Of course, this all leaves unaddressed the other glaring problem for Thomas, which is that when a basketball team plays poor defense and has an offense with two low-post players and no pure outside shooters, it usually loses, regardless of the race of its players.

Posted by Mike Dorf, recovering Knicks fan