By Patricia Wilson-Smith
I was still a young woman when Anita Hill was forced to make public her accusations that Justice Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her while she was in his employ at the US Department of Education and later at the EEOC.
It was 1991. I was 25 years old, still pondering what I would ultimately do with my life (sadly), and barely getting by. As a matter of fact, during those now infamous confirmation hearings, I was unemployed, after having just moved to the Atlanta area with my new husband, and I dare say, I spent more time riveted to the television set watching the drama of those hearings unfold than I should admit.
Clarence Thomas was almost assured of winning the nomination that would make him only the second African-American to ever serve on the Supreme Court when a leaked FBI report caused the Judiciary Committee to delay a final vote on his confirmation in order to get to the bottom of the allegations that had been reported. What ensued was days of smarmy testimony from Justice Thomas and Anita Hill that at once captivate and divided the nation, with its graphic details of remarks allegedly made by Justice Thomas. Ultimately of course, Thomas was confirmed by a historically narrow margin, and Ms. Hill’s brave appearance before the Judiciary Committee faded into history.
I can remember feeling a distinct sense of shame back then over watching two otherwise prominent black professionals air their laundry in front of that congressional panel, none of whom were black, and none of whom were women. It just didn’t seem right, though it was certainly historic on many fronts. The Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill saga brought the issue of sexual harrassment to the forefront of the national consciousness with a vengeance -I’m certain that no professional male since has been quite as careless in their remarks to a female subordinate.
This week, Justice Clarence Thomas released a new book, entitled “My Grandfather’s Son”, in which he recounts his life and the events of the 103 days leading up to his Supreme Court confirmation. He also uses the work to continue to besmirch the character of Anita Hill, which is a real shame. With the release of Justice Thomas’ book, Ms. Hill (now a professor of Policy and Law at Brandeis University) has had to yet again go on the defensive after all these years. Way back then, most Americans watched the proceedings, and decided that she was some sort of paid Democratic operative, or even worse - a desperate, confused liar. That’s most Americans. But not me.
I can distinctly remember asking myself even then, “Why would a woman, any woman, subject herself to such unyielding personal scrutiny, such out right attacks, just to gain notariety or financial gain?” It just didn’t add up. Those who labeled Anita Hill a liar insisted that her continued professional relationship with Clarence Thomas was evidence that she clearly had not been harassed. Further, Justice Thomas himself went to great pains to paint her as a neurotic woman, who was mediocre in her work performance and prone to mental instability, though he has somehow gotten away with never explaining why he hired her not once, but twice to work for him.
For me, it boils down to this:
Anita Hill was approached by the FBI during the confirmation hearings after they learned that she had mentioned allegations of impropriety on the part of Justice Thomas to a colleague. She did not seek them out. She was approached about those conversations, and consented to recount them on the record only under the condition that the information never become public knowledge. This fact is a matter of public record. With that being the case, it perplexes me that anyone would think that she set out to smear the man.
Again – the Senate Judiciary Committee was at the point of sending Justice Thomas’ nomination to the Senate for final confirmation when a pair of journalists found out about Ms. Hill’s secret testimony and leaked the information to the news media. There were plenty of accusations leveled, and much speculation about who actually leaked the information – whether it was a Democratic hatchet job, or some other blatant attempt to derail the Justice’s nomination, but the fact that there might have been an ulterior motive on the part of the leaker, didn’t change the fact that Anita Hill was a reluctant participant. Much later in the proceedings, when it was much too late to matter, at least one other woman came forward and admitted that she had endured the same kind of unprofessional behavior at the hands of Justice Thomas.
Further, Clarence Thomas’ defense of himself never rang true to me, not then and not now. In remarks he delivered to the Judiciary Committee, he denied ever attempting to have anything more than a cordial, platonic relationship with Anita Hill, and claimed to have ”wracked his brain” trying to think of what he could have said that would have caused Ms. Hill to make such charges. There was just way too much righteous indignation in his testimony. A “high-tech lynching?” To compare what he endured at the hands of the Judiciary Committee to the misery that black men who were literally lynched suffered at the hands of the evil, murderous racists in this country made me nasueous, and was remarkably self-serving. He played the ultimate race card, in a situation where there was no evidence of racial bias. Maybe political bias, but not racial.
The other striking thing for me was the detailed way in which Ms. Hill described the interactions between she and Justice Thomas. It was chilling, and just way too weird to be fabricated. I mean, she could have gone for the typical, “he grabbed my ass”, or, “he threatened to fire me if I didn’t sleep with him”, but the stories she recounted sounded much more like a long-term professional relationship that at least one party thought was familiar enough that they could say pretty much anything they wanted – for laughs, for shock value, for whatever reason. Pubic hairs on Coke cans? Who would make something like that up as an accusation? It just doesn’t make sense.
Then, there’s Anita Hill herself. A professional law graduate, anxious to make her mark in the legal field - she must have gotten pretty tired of hearing it. ”Well, if that all really happened, then why did you stay?”, and, “No way that happened – wouldn’t someone else have come forward?”, or my favorite, “She was paid off by the Democratic party to ruin the man’s life – she should be ashamed of herself!”
I can remember thinking to myself then, and I’m even more sure now that there is an easy explanation for it all, an explanation that in today’s social and political climate makes all the sense in the world. Here’s my theory.
Back in 1991, there was no Oprah Winfrey to stamp a collective national personna on the black woman. There was no Carol Moseley Braun, no Mae Jemison (she would fly her only shuttle mission a year later), heck, there wasn’t even a Cynthia McKinney to give relevence to the political and professional might of black women back then. Anita Hill was a national anamoly, and I would submit, a sad victim of a society that just plain didn’t know what to do with a black female making such accusations. It was much easier for most people to believe that she was some kind of rare nutcase than it was to believe that Clarence Thomas was a typical, dare I say it, black man, prone to bouts of lewdness and off-color commentary in a close-knit work environment. Since that time, I’ve seen it myself – not so much from a subordinate’s point of view, but I know how black men and women can get within the confines of a closed space when they think they can’t be heard.
And that’s the tough part for me, because I really have always felt that what we all witnessed way back then was a dynamic that occurs all too often between black men and women, being held up to a standard that most other cultures wouldn’t understand. I don’t believe that Justice Thomas thought he was harassing Anita Hill, anymore than I believe that Anita Hill meant to use the information she shared with some colleague in confidence to completely trash her good name trying to go after Justice Thomas. Things took place. Planets aligned. And then it all took on a life of its own.
And though it brought an important issue to the nation’s attention, the unfair light that was cast on Anita Hill was a blow to black women, plain and simple. She should be regarded as a hero for being brave enough to tell her story under such hostile circumstances; instead, she will forever be known by most as the accuser of a ‘great’ man, hell bent on sabotaging the confirmation of a man who was trying to make history by becoming only the second African American Supreme Court Justice. Those of us who believed her then and believe her now know that nothing could be farther from the truth, and that in standing her ground back then, she made a mark that in some ways, was just as important as Justice Thomas’ . One in which a black woman, standing alone and wrongly villified stood up for what’s right no matter what the personal cost to her.