Caryl Rivers

(WOMENSENEWS)–After the firing of Don Imus for denigrating remarks about the Rutgers women’s basketball team, a debate is ranging in cyberspace and elsewhere in the media about whether or not the campaign against Imus played into “victim ideology.”

When the popular radio and TV host called the basketball champions “nappy-headed hos,” a firestorm of anger broke over the head of the shock jock-turned-pundit, who seemed, at first astonished.

He clearly never expected to be fired. After all, the New York Times estimated his annual salary at $10 million. But in the wake of his dismissal by MSNBC Cable and CBS Radio, there are those both on the left and right who are using the V (for victim) word.

Fred Barnes, executive editor of the Weekly Standard, said the players acted like victims during their April 10 press conference.

Appearing on the April 10 edition of Fox News’ “Special Report with Brit Hume,” Barnes added, “I think they made one huge mistake, and that is going to meet with Don Imus. They don’t need to meet with him. They ought to flick him off like a mosquito and move on and be proud, instead of acting as they did today . . . They’re winners. They should act like winners.”

The controversial sports columnist Jason Whitlock of the Kansas City Star, a harsh critic of corporate hip hop, wrote, “I watched the Rutgers news conference and was ashamed . . . While we’re fixated on a bad joke cracked by an irrelevant, bad shock jock, I’m sure at least one of the marvelous young women on the Rutgers basketball team is somewhere snapping her fingers to the beat of 50 Cent’s or Snoop Dogg’s latest ode glorifying nappy-headed pimps and hos.”

Female pundits and powerbrokers also took different views of the incident.

Clinton Joined the Outcry

Hillary Clinton joined the outcry against Imus.

Critic Wendy Kaminer, author of “A Fearful Freedom: Women’s Flight From Equality,” challenged Clinton on that.

“I’d question her assertion that Imus’s remarks were ‘degrading to women everywhere,'” Kaminer blogged in comments noted on several Web sites. “I didn’t feel degraded by them. I dismissed them as the ravings of a bigoted blowhard whose time would soon be past (I didn’t know then how quickly). Of all women, Hillary Clinton should understand. She has endured a great deal of vicious, sexist mockery, from Imus and others, without being ‘degraded’ by it. Of all women, Hillary Clinton must know that we are capable of deflecting insults instead of absorbing them.”

Yes, yes . . . I agree. But . . . and it’s a big but.

Research suggests that it isn’t as easy as we’d like to think to ignore the power of stereotypes. They are insidious, like tiny microbes that come in through our pores and get under our skin without our noticing. And they are powerful little germs. The research of Claude Steele makes this very clear.

Steele, a Stanford professor of social psychology, studies a phenomenon known as stereotype threat.

His ongoing research, developed through the 1990s, finds that being part of a group that is negatively stereotyped hinders individual performances.

Stereotypes Affect Test Taking

For example, in the area of test-taking, if you are African American and you are told that your race does not generally perform well on a certain kind of test, you will actually perform more poorly than if you had not gotten that message.

The same thing holds for women taking math tests. If you internalize the idea that women aren’t good at math, you perform poorly on the test.

As Steele says, “The stereotype about African Americans impugns their ability, their intellectual ability. So all you have to do to make the stereotype relevant to their performance is to present the test as a test of their innate intellectual ability. Then they know that they’re at risk of being seen through the lens of that stereotype.”

That lens is so powerful because stereotypes get in people’s head without their knowing it.

I know of a man who went to pick up his 3-year-old at day care and was astonished to hear her pipe up from the back seat, “Know what daddy? I have hos in every area code.”

Maybe taken by itself, the Imus comment about hos could be shrugged off as so much mimicry of some disgusting rap music.

But what if it’s one more brick in the building of a stereotype that powerfully affects black women?

Steele notes that, ironically, stereotype threat affects the best students, not the worst ones. “The effects of the stereotype are poignantly most powerful for the students who are the strongest and the most motivated.” In other words, the more you want to succeed, the more power stereotypes have.

And stereotypes get inside everybody’s head, not just those who are the victims.

Once, after reading the paper of a black male student whose writing ability wasn’t known to me, my first reaction was that I was surprised that it was so good. My second reaction was, “Where the hell did that come from? How on earth had I internalized a lower expectation for a black male?”

I have been a firm supporter of civil rights all my life. I’ve written that the notion of racial differences in intelligence (an idea expressed in “The Bell Curve”) is absolute nonsense. I’ve read many wonderful black male writers. And yet, the stereotype had slipped in under my radar, unwanted but present.

I wonder, in the future, if an employer may be deciding between two female job applicants–one black and one white–the employer won’t even know what’s in the back of her or his mind.

Maybe images of nappy-headed hos and cleaning ladies (what Imus called broadcast journalist Gwen Ifill in 1993) will be lurking, unbidden. Maybe he (or even she) won’t ever know why the white candidate got the nod.

And that is why Imus matters. George Orwell said that language is politics. Maybe it is the most potent sort of politics there is.

Boston University Professor Caryl Rivers is the author of “Selling Anxiety: How the News Media Scares Women,” published this month by University Press of New England.

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Secrets of the SAT by Claude Steele: