What makes it easy to hit women? Their objectification. Make them objects and it’s not like you’re hurting anyone. Why would someone want to hit a woman in the first place? She’s stepping out of line, threatening to take up the space she deserves is one reason. It’s pretty easy to think that’s okay with the institutionalized sexism and racism that plagues this country. Kim Gandy does a good job (below) of explaining how that works and why we are going to be in this for a long haul. It’s up to the many good men (like Cesar Alvarado of Men’s Nonviolence Project who posted this on a list serve) who are out there to join with women to start speaking up about attacks on us, not just the physical ones but the 10,000 little cuts that are being inflicted at the emotional level each and every day to women in every corner of this land.

Racism and Sexism Run Deep
Below the Belt: A Biweekly Column
Published on April 17, 2007 by the National Organization for Women President Kim Gandy

Let’s start with a simple fact: Most U.S. media outlets – television and radio stations, newspapers and magazines, movie studios, music companies and book publishers – are owned by a shockingly small number of giant corporations. These conglomerates generally are run by white men focused on profits and stock options. This reality lurked behind much of last week’s Don Imus storm.

That’s not to say that some fine behavior wasn’t on display. In fact, the outcome was a victory for all women, and particularly for women of color. After Imus called the Rutgers University women’s basketball team “nappy-headed hos” (and his producer Bernard McGuirk called them “hard-core hos”-he can’t be let off the hook), organizations like the National Association of Black Journalists, Media Matters for America and, of course, NOW swung into action, alerting the public and demanding accountability.

NOW supporters sent over 30,000 messages in support of the campaign. Women and men across the country responded in force, saying enough is enough. Employees of CBS and NBC let their bosses know that a line had been crossed and the networks’ reputations were at stake. Advertisers started dropping like flies.

One week after the offensive comments were made, MSNBC discontinued its simulcast of Imus in the Morning. The next day, CBS Radio canceled the show. The week ended with an inspiring press conference organized by the National Congress of Black Women and the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, at which a long list of leaders, including civil rights legend Dr. Dorothy Height, addressed the larger challenge of creating diverse and responsible media while ridding our culture of misogyny and racism.

So, kudos all around to everyone who did the right thing.

Unfortunately, the media’s handling of this news story demonstrates a problem beyond Imus’ crude sense of so-called humor. My staff and I watched hours of media coverage on this issue, and I appeared on a number of TV and radio shows. The other guests invited to comment were almost invariably men. True, we saw and heard from more people of color than ever before. It’s just too bad that almost none of them were women of color. I was on two segments of an hour-long morning cable show devoted to the issue and, despite a large number of guests, I was the only woman – in other words, there wasn’t a single African American woman on the show. And with so few women in the discussion, the issue of sexism has not been given the attention it deserved.

Despite the advances that women and people of color have made as working members of the media, their presence in top management and as owners is still minuscule. The news can’t help but reflect the lack of diversity and inherent privilege of its ownership, and the power imbalance that persists in our society. Take the April 13 front page story in the Wall Street Journal as an illuminating example. The article was littered with the names of high-profile decision-makers and communicators. A total of 35 people were named in the text and photo caption – ranging from talk radio hosts to media executives, politicians to journalists, civil rights leaders to business chiefs.

Just two of them were women – a lousy six percent in a story partly about sexism! The writers and editors didn’t even bother to call Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer by name; otherwise the tally might have jumped to a surplus of three women.

When I took part in meetings with NBC and CBS executives last Thursday, who did the television media report was there? Only Rev. Al Sharpton and Rev. Jesse Jackson. Now, I don’t begrudge these two civil rights leaders the ink and airtime they received – they were saying what needed to be said and, without their outrage, the story might never have received the level of attention it did. But it sure would have been nice for women across the country to know that women leaders were present at those meetings, speaking up on their behalf.

Women, and men, need to hear the message from feminist groups that what Imus did was not just a shock jock repeating naughty words he heard in rap songs (yeah, like Imus listens to rap). No, what Imus did was utilize an ugly, age-old tactic. When confronted with a group of successful women who dared to tread into a historically male arena, he tried to diminish them the best way he knew how-by reminding everyone of their sex and their race, and by judging them on their appearance. Not only that, he employed the term “ho” (short for whore), which often is reserved for women who step beyond male-patrolled sexual boundaries. What did these young women do to rate such a harsh assessment? – Oh, that’s right, they were playing sports.

Imus and the crew on his show had a long record of making racist and sexist comments. In 1993 he said of journalist Gwen Ifill, who was then working for the New York Times: “Isn’t the Times wonderful? It lets the cleaning lady cover the White House.” Still, he attracted a steady stream of well-respected presidential candidates, legislators, news anchors and editors as guests. It’s the top-shelf company he kept that helped sink Imus – making it almost impossible for him to defend his show as merely a comedy.

While other big mouths like Glenn Beck, Neal Boortz, Tom Leykis, Michael Savage and Rush Limbaugh (whom NOW targeted with a multi-year campaign) spew hate across the airwaves, none of them have the status that comes with interviewing Tom Brokaw, Maureen Dowd, John McCain and John Kerry on a regular basis.

And, despite what some may say, this is not a free speech issue. Don Imus can walk down the street shouting “nappy-headed hos” all he wants, or even get a demonstration permit, make signs to that effect, and march around with them. But nothing in the First Amendment entitles him to a $10 million a year job or a television showcase for his hate speech.

Even those inside the media agree. On the Today show, radio host Tavis Smiley said: “I think while Imus had a First Amendment right to free speech, he doesn’t have a First Amendment right to a talk show.”

We can’t heap all the blame on the media’s shoulders, though. Why was there an audience willing to snicker along as Imus insulted women, blacks, Jews and other oppressed groups? Why did Tim Russert of Meet the Press and Tom Oliphant of the Boston Globe agree to go on his show? Why did so many people consider his words no big deal, or felt that his good deeds should compensate for his bigoted speech? Perhaps it’s because we’ve encountered this attitude so many times, for so long, in a society where racism and sexism continue to fester, that we’ve all become far too desensitized.

Neither Imus nor the media industry created the system of denigration, intimidation and discrimination that functions to keep women in line. But they do benefit from it.

Let’s face it, we’re all going to have to be vigilant if we want to change something as elemental in our society as sexism and racism. We must call out hate speech whenever we hear it, even from our friends and family. We must teach our kids that boys and girls are equal, and equally deserving of respect – that women are not the mere decorations or sex objects that they seem to be in most music videos (that’s all genres of music, by the way, not just hip hop).

And we must support legislation that protects women and girls as they make their way in a hostile world. At the same time the Imus flap was dominating the news, Senators Ted Kennedy and Gordon Smith introduced the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act, a law that will penalize and help prevent hate-based violent crimes. The most comprehensive hate crimes legislation ever introduced in Congress, this law will finally classify as hate crimes certain violent, criminal acts that are motivated by the victim’s gender, gender identity, sexual orientation or disability.

When I first heard of Monday’s horrific mass murder in the engineering building at Virginia Tech, I immediately thought of another mass murder at another engineering building – the one at the University of Montreal where, in 1989, engineering student Marc Lepine murdered 14 women and injured 14 other students, mostly women. That reminded me of last year’s Amish school shooting where girls were singled out for elimination. We don’t yet know whether the Virginia Tech shootings were hate crimes, but there have been enough hate crimes – more than enough – to make it clear that more expansive laws are essential. And they remind us of how deep the river of sexism runs.

We have our work cut out for us. The radio dial is chock full of raving bigots, but we’re ready. Watch out, and listen up!

The National Organization for Women, NOW, is the largest organization of Feminist Activists in the United States. NOW has 500,000 contributing members and 550 chapters in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

To comment please join the Men’s Nonviolence Project listserve by sending an e-mail to mensnonviolence@listmanager.tcfv.org, personally sending an e-mail to C├ęsar J. Alvarado at calvarado@tcfv.org, or calling 1-800-525-1978 x3194.