Sept. 19, 2007 — -- African-Americans Tuesday criticized New York Knicks coach Isiah Thomas for saying it was less offensive for black men than for white men to call black women "bitches."
"A white man calling a black woman 'bitch,' that is wrong with me. I'm not accepting that. That's a problem for me," Thomas said in a videotaped deposition shown during a trial brought against the team by a former marketing executive who claims she was harassed by Thomas and wrongfully terminated.
But when asked if it was wrong for a black man to call black women bitches, Thomas said "not as much" and "I'm sorry to say, I do make a distinction."
Thomas' comments come amid increased scrutiny of public figures' use of racial and sexual epithets, particularly those aimed at black women.
Don Imus was fired as host of his CBS radio show in April when he referred to the members of the Rutgers women's basketball team as "nappy headed hos."
That comment prompted the new resurgence of an old debate over who, if anyone, could use derogatory epithets, and when, if ever, it was acceptable to use them.
"The National Action Network and I are unequivocally against a person of any race, color or creed calling a person a 'nigga' 'bitch' or 'ho,' and further, that no person regardless of his or her race, has the right to make misogynistic or sexist remarks against another person," the Rev. Al Sharpton told ABC NEWS.com in an e-mail.
The taped deposition was played by lawyers for Anucha Brown Sanders, a former vice president of marketing for the Knicks, who accuses Thomas of calling her "bitch," "f***ing bitch" and "ho." Sanders claimed she was fired when she complained about Thomas' comments and sexual advances. She is seeking $10 million and wants her job back.
There's no understanding in the black community that this kind of language is acceptable, said Anita L. Allen, a professor of law and philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania. "I think he's off the wall," she said of Thomas.
"I don't know how or where this idea comes from that it might be OK for an African-American man to refer to a black women as a bitch," said Allen.
Allen said just because some women have appropriated the word "bitch" as a term of endearment and solidarity with one another, and just because the term is freely used in music and films, doesn't make its usage acceptable.
"Only in the last decade has it become OK for women to call each other bitches, but there is no historical context that makes it acceptable for me. … It's offensive and there are no exceptions. … Just because something is said in a song on the radio or in a film doesn't mean it's part of African-American culture. When I watch 'The Sopranos' and I see people killing each other, I don't just assume killing people is an acceptable part of Italian-American culture," she said.
Danyel Smith, editor-in-chief of Vibe magazine echoed that sentiment: "In art and music we accept that kind of language because we consider it art, but in real life it's wrong"
African Americans who spoke with ABC said that the prevalence of misogynistic language in black music and film might help explain Thomas's words.
"There is plenty of misogyny in music and television and movies, and that might lead him to think this is ok," said Marcela Howell, a spokesperson for Advocates forYouth, a women's rights group.
Marie Tolliver, president of the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs, agreed that black Americans found the word "bitch" offensive, comparable to the use of the n-word.
"There is not a double standard in the African-American community when it comes to this sort of language," Tolliver said. "Whoever calls black women bitches, white or black, is wrong."
In the taped deposition, Thomas denied cursing at Sanders.
"I have never cursed at Ms. Sanders. Now, have I ever sworn or used curse words around her? I probably have."
Thomas also denied making sexual advances toward her.
"I'm not attracted to her, no," said Thomas.