Today, I attended the “Sex, Power and Speaking Truth: Anita Hill 20 Years Later” Conference at Hunter. The day long conference was without a doubt one of the best experiences in my life, both academically and personally. It forced me to question, expand and reconfigure ideas of sexual harassment, racial relations, women’s rights, and politics. However a few things struck out to me as the day proceeded; the first was my own little knowledge of Anita Hill and her role in the confirmation of Justice Clarence Thomas, as well as the importance that race played into the dynamics of power during this event.
To my own embarrassment, I had not heard of Anita Hill until today, contently replying that I was not even born in 1991 when the incident occurred. I find this same attitude to be prevalent among my peers; a complacency with a lack of knowledge. So for starters, for those that do not know who Anita Hill is and what she did, here’s a quick summary: Anita Hill–a Yale Law School graduate–was working as an assistant to Clarence Thomas, who is now a Supreme Court Justice, but back then was the chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, when she endured sexual advances and harassment from Thomas. When Thomas was nominated for the Supreme Court, Hill stepped forward and revealed Thomas’ inappropriate behavior and what resulted was not only the one of most disheartening events in history, but a prime example of the intersectionality between gender, sex, race and power. (Both Hill and Thomas are Black.)
Anita Hill’s statements received such stiff opposition, by both Republicans and Democrats, by both Whites and Blacks, by men and even some women. She was called a harlot, a perjurer, a tool in the oppression of Blacks, an overly sensitive women, etc. If Thomas had done it, which he had not, it was simply men being men, his supporters replied. One article even reported that the sexual nature of Thomas’ advances were the norm for courting among Blacks, and that by rejecting Thomas, Hill was indeed acting white. This statement was made by a fellow Black woman.
All these accusations occurred within a week that the Senate allowed before voting to confirm Thomas as a Justice. Activists throughout the legal sphere, mainly female law professors, urged the Senate to simply allow more time before voting to approve or reject a man for the highest legal position of the land. Yet, the Senate only gave a week, and our current Vice President Biden, who was then was then the head of the Senate Committee in charge of determining the veracity of Hill’s claims, denied some of the witnesses and experts on sexual harassment to even testify.
Anita Hill was even subjugated to a polygraph test to prove the truthfulness of her claims, all which proved true. Thomas refused to take the test, instead invoked the trial as a “high-tech lynching“. It is this invocation of race and white shame that I believe got Thomas the job of Supreme Court Justice. It was by ‘playing up’ his race, that Thomas was able to avoid his actual role in sexual harassment (not only towards Hill, but towards women which stepped forward as witnesses).
His action clearly represent the extend that white shame still predominates our culture. In fact it is so pervasive that Whites will do anything to avoid the label of “racist”. So when faced with a black lawyer reminding them of their history with approved racism, Jim Crow, and lynching, immediately their reaction was to approve him–after all they did not want to seem racist. Other factors also added to the pressures felt by the Senate–the pressure from the Black community. The vacant seat that Thomas was now nominated for was that of Justice Thurgood Marshall (one of the most progressive Black leaders), a seat that the Black community wanted to keep, one that Thomas was to inherit as their voice within the Supreme Court. Maya Angelou even wrote a piece expressing her support for Thomas. The black community was split– on one side were the Anita Hill supporters, who refused to condone sexual harassment by remaining silent, and on the other were Clarence Thomas supporters, who wanted to maintain a black voice and perspective within the Supreme Court.
The racial aspect of this event was tremendous. During the conversations I had with Kimberle Crenshaw (prominent Critical Race Theorist, professor at UCLA and Columbia Law School, awesome feminist!) after her speech, she pointed out that the best way to prove whether interracial tensions were at play is to switch the race of one of the players and see how dramatic the difference would be. SO,
-If Anita Hill was WHITE, Clarence Thomas would not have even been nominated for the Supreme Court. The myth of the sexualized black men in America harassing, raping white woman, is one that still has an effect on the mind frame of Americans, especially then and somewhat now.
-If Clarence Thomas was WHITE, Anita Hill’s testimonies would not have been acknowledge to the extent that they were. One of the keynote speakers pointed out that almost every congressman during this period was guilty of sexual harassment, meaning a silent condonation of it
Sadly, Thomas was affirmed a week later in 1991, and Anita Hill’s life was reshaped by the label of “liar” and “traitor to her community”. Besides interracial tensions, intraracial tensions were sparked with this issue. The role of gender within the Black community was placed under examination. Yet to many, the gender-dynamics were less important than the advancement of the community as a whole. But whose advancement was it really? Male privilege, which extends through racial categories, once more shields the eyes of many into believing that the advancement of MEN leads to the advancement of the whole.
Lastly, (since I realized this is getting really long, but the dynamics at play during this event are still very relevant, especially with how important the concept of race was in terms of politics and power) I wanted to slightly address who we call ‘racist’ in this society. Thomas, who almost always sides with conservative Justice Scalia and Chief Justice Roberts, whose record clearly contradicts the rights of the people he supposedly represents, is allowed to make comments that clearly racially insensitive, yet he is never called a racist. Scalia and Roberts have been called racist a billion times, yet Thomas (who usually agrees) is spared from this label because he is part of the oppressed group?! To me, personally, Thomas is the most dangerous to the advancement of blacks in the US, because by portraying himself as a representative of people who only share his skin tone, he further supports white supremacy at the cost of black civil rights.
There is so much left to be discussed, and clearly this is only a superficial summation of the conference and of the historic event, which reignited many feminist organizations and activist into realizing that much more progress needs to made in the search for equality.
Questions to ponder:
- How prevalent do you think White Shame is? Is it important to be acknowledged? Is it a good thing or bad?
- What role did race play not only in the interracial dynamics between the all white senators and Thomas, but also within Thomas and Hill and the divide it created within the black community?
- Is sexual harassment an issue pertinent to this class, or is it simply a gender issue?