“Silence never makes change”
That's what Anucha Brown Sanders said about sexual harassment in the workplace, reflecting upon her courtroom victory yesterday against the Knicks, Coach Isaiah Thomas, and Madison Square Gardens. The former Knicks executive was awarded $11.6 million in punitive damages, with compensatory damages that are yet to be determined. She told newspapers that she hopes this lawsuit will serve as a wake-up call for employers that are tolerant of sexual harassment. From the NY Times:
''I hope [the lawsuit] has an impact ... for employers across industry to take heed and pay attention and take responsibility for the workplace,'' Anucha Brown Sanders said on ABC's ''Good Morning America.'' She added that she hoped her case also would embolden women to speak up about sexual harassment.
Interestingly, Thomas did not have to come out of pocket at all in the punitive damages award, although his actions—allegations that he referred to Brown Sanders as a “bitch” and a “ho” and never disciplined player Stephon Marbury for referring to her as a “black bitch”—were at the center of the suit. After the jury verdict, Thomas remains adamant that he is “very innocent.” Brown Sanders' deposition and other trial materials, however, document that Thomas and Marbury frequently cursed at her, that she had been physically handled inappropriately, that management failed to follow through in “sensitivity training” to address her complaints, and that the circumstances behind her termination may have been retaliatory. You’ll find lots of information on the lawsuit in the NY Post, including links to depositions and past articles.
Unfortunately, Brown Sanders’ claim is not unique. Even in the recent months, the Supreme Court’s Ledbetter case, the EMC sex discrimination case, and even Justice Thomas’ decision to pick at the scab of the Anita Hill harassment scandal, display the pervasive incidence of sexist practices in the workplace and a disturbing brand of resistance against sexual harassment claims. Like Prof. Hill’s op-ed in the NYT notes, defenses to sexual harassment claims often include claims that the claimant (usually a woman) was under qualified, overly sensitive, or imagining the harassment. So not only do victims of sexual harassment have to navigate a hostile work environment, they also often have to shoulder a social environment that is hostile to any suggestion that sexism (rather than their hyper-sensitivity or healthy imagination) is a problem in our day and time.
Isiah Thomas’ testimony that he would have reacted with zero tolerance had a white male called Brown Sanders the same derogatory names, but that there was something “different” about it when a black male used the terms, just goes to show how sexism as a system of oppression often overlaps uncomfortably and incongruently with racial oppression, creating confusing mish-mashes of abuse and ridiculous double standards. The Imus “nappy headed ho” comment, and again, the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill scandal also both speak to this.
“The challenge we face is to change patterns of exclusion, rejection, privilege, harassment, discrimination, and violence that are everywhere in this society and have existed for hundreds (or in the case of gender thousands) of years…”My two cents are that our society has a near-obsession with moving past the days of bra burning and lunch counter sit-ins in such a way that suggests we’ve already met the challenge Johnson articulates. Perhaps we suffer from fatigue from those times. Or maybe part of mystifying that era requires believing that “back then” we had problems with racism and sexism that are largely corrected now, only a few decades later. This belief would obvsiously be a delusion.
It is more than appropriate to celebrate the strides we’ve made in resisting various forms of oppression, accomplishments demonstrated in the legal context via Titles VII and IX, and in the social context via a general shift away from tolerating and accepting outward displays of racism or sexism. But I echo Brown Sanders’ hope that her lawsuit serves as a “wake up call”—I hope that it reminds us that we have not crossed the finish line just yet.
While getting there requires addressing systems of oppression on a wide scale, on a smaller scale individuals will continue to seek protection in the court system. Prof. David Whitfield wrote on the high cost of sexism in the workplace, noting that the legal cost is “no small potatoes.” He writes: “sexism leads to legal action because in a male-dominated, male-centered workplace it is tolerated.” Brown Sanders’ lawsuit is a case-in-point. She complained to managers and sought to resolve the matter outside of court, until she was fired and really had no recourse besides the legal system.
In Brown Sanders’ case, she found the protection she sought in the legal system. In Lilly Ledbetter’s case, she didn’t. The system is not perfect. Increased access to employment class actions, invalidation of unconscionable employment arbitration contracts that shut off access to the courts, and other improvements can make a difference. But in the mean time, the civil justice is a viable, potentially powerful alternative to silence. Because as Brown Sanders notes, silence never makes change.