MALVEAUX: When Will There Be Zero Tolerance for Racism?

Congressman John Conyers was the first politician to leave his job after the #MeToo hashtag galvanized women to speak up about sexual misconduct, harassment and more. Too bad that impetus did not float up to the top, when an avowed grabber of women’s genitals was elected to lead this country. Too bad, too, that the many members of Congress who have paid accusers out of a taxpayer-funded slush fund have not been unmasked. We know some of the names. Texas Rep. Blake Farenthold (R) arranged to have his former communications director paid $84,000 (more than three times the $27,000 Conyers is said to have paid). He has not resigned, nor have Congressional Republicans, including leader Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), called for his resignation. He says he will pay the money back. Right.

As a woman I am cheered by the #MeToo movement, although I am also chagrined by the myopia about women of color and sexual harassment/rape/more. In 1944, Recy Taylor was viciously raped by seven white men who never paid a price. Our civil rights icon, Rosa Parks, was an NAACP investigator in this case, as chronicled by Danielle McGuire in her book, “At The Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape and Resistance” (Vintage, 2010). And the first case in which the Supreme Court ruled that sexual harassment was a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act was brought by an African-American woman, Michelle Vinson, in the case Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson (1986). The high-profile white women who are talking about workplace sexual harassment and assault really need to acknowledge the many ways that African-American women have been systematically abused and systematically ignored — and sometimes conspired against — by their white “sisters.”

Perhaps I quibble, but this overwhelming stand against sexual misconduct (and more — getting nude in front of your staff is not misconduct, nor is forcible kissing, nor is grabbing by the you know what) makes me wonder when there will be a similar groundswell against racism and racial harassment in the workplace. Numerous cases of nooses being displayed in workplaces have been reported in the last decade, so many that a law journal published an article titled, “Does One Noose in the Workplace Constitute a Hostile Work Environment? If Not, How Many?” One isolated incident is not enough, the article opines. What about one unwanted kiss, one abusive grope? Why do nooses get to be seen as “jokes,” while unwanted kissing is seen as an occurrence of zero tolerance?

I’m not ever, ever, ever going to excuse sexual perfidy (and more) in the workplace, but I do wonder why we can wink, nod and grin about racial workplace misbehavior while we stand our ground about gender. I wonder why so many say “just kidding” or “didn’t know” when they are racially insensitive, and nobody calls it, but they are willing to call it on gender. If you look at the Senate and the House of Representatives, the paucity of people of color as senior staff is amazing, as documented by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. Surely, there is no shortage of highly qualified African-Americans and Latinos who could work for Congress. Why aren’t members of Congress calling each other on their racial myopia?

Perhaps racism and racial harassment are a little more complicated than sexism and sexual harassment. Half of the population, after all, is female, and while women’s rise up the hierarchy in corporate America, politics, the media and entertainment is slow, it has been steady enough that powerful women are now able to call men out on their misbehavior, with women demanding resignations of (some) misbehaving men. Too few white men and women, at the same time, have been willing to apply the same “zero tolerance” to employment matters regarding race.

There should never be another noose laid on a Black employee’s desk or displayed in a workplace. There should never be another intimidating Confederate flag flying in a Black person’s face. There should never be another opportunity for an employee (or fellow student, or faculty member) to talk about picking cotton. There should never be another blackface performance, anywhere. And there should never be another person who talks about zero tolerance around workplace sexism to accept any whisper of workplace racism.

If John Conyers had to go, so should Franken. Otherwise, we have accepted a racial double standard that is untenable.

Malveaux’s latest book, “Are We Better Off?: Race, Obama and Public Policy,” is available via www.amazon.com.

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