| The Dr. Paul Barrows case is difficult to sort through because it involves the balancing of individual rights, which, in this case, seem to collide against each other. Barrows was accused, although no formal complaint had been raised against him, of sexual harassment. Barrows was disciplined without any hearing or direct knowledge of who his accusers were.
Do we have to choose between the rights of Barrows and his accusers or can they be reconciled in some way? On the one hand, we must consider the impact of power relationships in a work setting, particularly as they relate to sexual harassment or racial harassment.
How can a subordinate be protected when coming forward to file a harassment claim against a superior with direct or indirect influence over the subordinate's work conditions and career? How can they come forward without being penalized by the alleged harassment and then again by filing a complaint? How can individuals bring violations of law and policy to the light of day without being punished for doing the good deed? And how can some forms of unacceptable behavior like sexual harassment be stopped when there are no witnesses?
I once worked for an abusive supervisor. He was very nice on the outside, but would berate me when no one else was around and he hit me once saying "Jon, sometimes, you just frustrate me." I didn't tell anyone about this behavior because I didn't think people in a position to do something would believe me and I didn't think any good would come out of a 'he said, she said" battle. Some of my co-workers knew about the behavior, and so, we gave each other support. I wasn';t the only one. I made my plans and left that abusive situation.
It is very stressful when abusive people have power over you like that. And organizations need to have some mechanism in place to allow those abusive situations to come to light, lest the organization experience a continuous brain and talent drain before someone in a decision-making role finally becomes aware of the situation. In any institution, especially public institutions, the weak need to be protected against the strong because the contributions of all "without fear of harassment" are needed for the organization to be successful. The stress should be work related and not based on what you are or the caprice and desires of others.
And, most importantly, sexual and racial harassment are just plain wrong.
However, even the strong have rights to due process as individual citizens lest unfounded accusations are made born of rivalry, envy, and ambition. The right to due process is extremely important because it is one of our fundamental civil rights in a democracy. And it is also important if our institutions, especially public institutions, are to be effective. If there is no due process, then people can hardly be blamed for spending a great deal of their time forming political alliances and covering their tails. We ought to live by the rule of law and not by the dictates of a mob or the whim of the day.
Due process is also important because of our perceptions of others and ourselves. In the case of Paul Barrows, most of it was based on how people perceived Barrows. There was no "smoking gun." There was no testimony that Barrows made sexual statements or inferences or asked people to engage in sexual acts. Barrows was not accused of touching anyone. It was ruled that Barrows had not violated any university rules or procedures. No one said to Barrows, either directly or through someone else "Dr. Barrows, stop! You are making me feel uncomfortable." Barrows, along with many UW administrators, had no prior sexual harassment training.
Most of the accusations were from that murky world of perception, i.e. how Barrows was perceived by others. The case against Barrows did not revolve around specific acts that are clearly judged to be harassment. It revolved around people's perceptions of Barrows and his actions, which could be interpreted in a number of different ways.
And in a society where race matters, Barrows and other African American men lose hands down in the game of perception. Since the beginning of slavery -- we're talking centuries here -- African American men have been depicted in the mainstream media in every negative way possible: brute, chattel, beast, rapist, pimp, clown, stud, drug addict, thief, murderer, welfare recipient, etc. For every Bill Cosby, the family man, there have been 10 or more of these depictions. There's Amos and Andy and J.J.
And there's no real help for that perception in the history books that neglect to mention all of the contributions of African American scientists -- except George Washington Carver perhaps -- and treat slavery as an almost benign institution. And of course there are all of the rap songs that middle class Euro-American youth are tuned into that emphasize and glorify the gangsta image.
And so, as humans -- with all of our defense mechanisms in place that allow us to traverse through the world without actually dealing with it -- we maneuver the world through our perceptions based on what we have been taught. We don't deal with each other. We deal with our image of each other. And in that kind of world, African American men lose hands down on the battlefront of perception. A gay African American man can still have people cross to the other side of the street out of fear because of their perception of him -- totally devoid of reality.
So, in a process dominated by perception and interpretations of ambiguous actions that may or may not support allegations of sexual harassment, Barrows was sure to lose if due process was not a part of the process. If it is all based on just how Barrows is being perceived and how others are interpreting his actions, then he becomes a "virtual slave" to the whims of others. He himself loses all right to self-definition and must spend every hour of every working day kowtowing to what he thinks other people may be perceiving his actions to be regardless of what he is responsible for doing. Forget about him getting any work done. Better reserve time for Barrows on the psychologist's couch for a daily visit.
I am not excusing boorish behavior here or sexual harassment. It would be a different story if Barrows' accusers had told him that he made them feel uncomfortable and asked him to stop ; and he didn't. But they didn't for whatever reason.
It was crucial that Barrows be given a due process hearing so that facts -- not perceptions -- could be evaluated to see what happened. In that arena, Barrows won.
Much of the Barrows saga, starting with the news media and Republican members of the legislature, is all about perception and image manipulation. In that kind of game, Barrows -- and all other African American men -- lose every time. And the University of Wisconsin and all of us will pay a heavy price for years to come.
|May 17, 2006
* "A Proud day for a Posse of PEOPLE,"
by Dr. Paul Barrows
* Las amenazas en contra de los mas vulnerables continuan,
by Alfonso Zepeda-Capistran
* Asian Wisconzine: Asian immigration in America (Part 2),
by Heidi M. Pascual
* Campus-Community Connection
--26th annual African American Student Recognition Ceremony,
by Pam Pfeffer
* Shanghai wandering,
by Jon Gramling
* Greenbush Confab,
by Melissa Ann Janowski
* Missing but not forgotten,
by Jonathan Gramling
* Prize Fight,
by Tracie Gilbert
* A joyous sound for peace,
by Jonathan Gramling
* Americans to the rescue while authorities dither,
by Lea Zeldin
* Se realizada jornada en memoria de los ninos y adultos desaparecidos de Wisconsin,
por Elda Gonzalez
* Impact of proposed 2006-07 school budget on students of color
by Bill Keys
* Will magnolias bloom again in New Orleans?,
by Dr. Jean Daniels
* Global Connections
* Hues City Happenings
|Vol I NO. 5 May 17, 2006|
Missing but not forgotten
A perception of Black