Tyson case underscores bigger problem of black men devaluing black women

February 16, 1992|By William C. Rhoden | William C. Rhoden,New York Times News Service

For the past two weeks we've all weighed in with our respective takes on Mike Tyson. There has been anger directed at Tyson, compassion for his victim; apologies for Tyson, piercing questions directed at the victim.

Now the case has escalated to another level.

Three days after the fighter's conviction for raping an 18-year-old woman who was a beauty-pageant contestant, the victim agreed to allow her name and photo to be used.

Friday, Desiree Washington's picture was on the front page of at least two New York newspapers. She will appear on the cover of People magazine's Feb. 24 issue, and next Friday she will be interviewed by Barbara Walters on ABC's "20/20" news-magazine program.

Tyson is the subject of a feature in the same issue of People and, according to the New York Post, the fighter has received an offer from Donald Trump to put together a financial package to benefit rape victims on the condition that Tyson serve no time.

After all the deals are cut, however, all the stories told and sentences leveled, the fact remains that a former heavyweight champion raped a beauty-pageant contestant. Actually, it's more than that: A black male champion abused a would-be Miss Black America.

There is something chilling about that. It goes beyond condemnation of athletes and gets to the underdiscussed but persistent problem of disrespect and the continued abuse of black women by black men.

That Tyson is an athlete simply proves, perhaps once and for all, the folly of generically setting up athletes as role models, particularly in terms of sexual responsibility.

The larger problem represented by and embodied in Tyson is how to curb and eventually cure the strain of sexism that has muted relationships between black men and women.

The implications of that healing process for the family, the community and generations of black children, like Tyson, and like his 18-year-old victim, are enormous.

A good friend of mine -- his wife calls him "a recovering sexist" -- said he believed that until recently, a number of black men didn't seriously regard themselves as sexists. This was largely, perhaps subconsciously, because in the theater of civil rights, blacks have been cast in the role of the "oppressed." As such, it was impossible for the oppressed to be an oppressor.

"If anything I would argue that African-American males are even more sexist than the norm," said Haliford Fairchild, secretary of the general assembly of the Association of Black Psychologists.

Fairchild believes that a number of black men, symbolized in many ways by the black male athlete, have been brought into and have bought into a power system in which women are devalued.

"That's because we have been disenfranchised for so many generations that we try harder to be like the dominant male model in American society, and the dominant male model is the white male," he explained.

Fairchild said that fathers, and men in general, need to have an attitudinal revolution of what it means to be a man. "We live in a social culture that is perverted by sex, by material things, and we as African-Americans find ourselves caught up in a cesspool.

"We have to chart a new path. It's a very difficult problem, though. I think it will take many, many generations to rectify this situation."

One wonders to what extent the intense involvement of black males in the sports industry has contributed to the gap in male-female relationships.

For a number of years, the highly refined, male-dominated athletic culture in this country excluded blacks and relegated women to meaningless, stereotypical roles.

The subsequent inclusion of black athletes in the culture has been one of the dominant themes for the last four decades. They were allowed to forge distinctive athletic personalities, given unlimited freedom to create and encouraged to play with a sense of abandon.

They inherited fame, fortune and notoriety, but also helped perpetuate institutionalized sexist notions. It is not an institution that reforms men.

Perhaps it's time to rethink the notion of sports, particularly in the black community, as the healing agent it was once popularly thought to be, and look at it, purely, coldly as a business.

It may also be time to rethink the role of sports as a device which, by definition, propels boys toward manhood and maturity. There have been too many young men, like Tyson, who are no better off coming out than they were going in.

Yet for all of the trashing and ridicule directed at Tyson, the irony of the last two weeks is that the fallen champion, in his own way, and no doubt by accident, might have helped begin a healing process between black men and women.

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