1. Archive

Clarence Thomas vs. Anita Hill

Published Oct. 12, 2005

Each week until the election, we will present a book or group of books dealing with a crucial campaign issue. Today we focus on the questions of race and gender, and specifically on the impact the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings have had on these issues in the present election campaign.

RACE-ING JUSTICE, EN-GENDERING POWER: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas and the Construction of Social Reality, edited and with an introduction by Toni Morrison, Pantheon, $15.

The final debates on the nomination of Judge Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court were, to some Americans' ears, the sounds of a death march _ the rat-tat-tat of rhetoric on the way to a grim, inevitable conclusion.

This conservative black man's ascent to the highest court _ in the wake of sexual harassment allegations by an equally conservative Republican lawyer, Anita Hill _ left ideological bodies and long-held beliefs strewn in its wake.

Among the dead: The notion that a white male Congress could represent, much less understand, the needs and position of women in America; the belief that black Americans think alike and coalesce under a unified political agenda; the civics-book assumption that the U.S. Senate conducts its business on the basis of reason and collective good instead of the pompous, hypocritical methods witnessed in the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings.

From the dead, new spirits were born which are now alive and kicking in the current elections. The discrediting of Anita Hill via the senators verbal gang mauling spurred women into politics with a vengeance, making 1992's elections the so-called, "Year of the Woman." The hearings added fuel to the "Throw the bums out" fervor that has put incumbents at a disadvantage and planted the seeds for Ross Perot as a heroic Washington outsider, untainted by the political chicanery exposed in the televised proceedings. In its messy racial aftermath, the hearings helped render moot race-baiting election tactics, a la Willie Horton.

The Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings were a turning point in American politics on many fronts, but none as profound or as multifarious as their impact on black Americans.

Now, on the first anniversary of the hearings, the ramifications of the Thomas-Hill incident receive an overdue, exhaustive and fascinating autopsy by scholars, both black and white, male and female, in Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas and the Construction of Social Reality, edited by Pulitzer Prize winning novelist-critic Toni Morrison. The collection of essays comes at Thomas and Hill from legal, historical, political, cultural and sexual perspectives. The book assumes the tough task of tallying the damage and hard realizations that resulted from perhaps the most publicly divisive moment for black Americans in the past 30 years.

Race, gender and class converge in Thomas-Hill, and the 17 scholars pick up on the various threads in this unusual tangle of issues.

In "Clarence Thomas and the Crisis of Black Political Culture," for example, Manning Marable, a political science and history professor at the University of Colorado, details how Thomas, as a member of the self-reliant conscious black middle class, furthers the larger Republican agenda and how prevailing liberal attitudes ended up corroborating the conservative viewpoint, sacrificing Anita Hill in the process.

Claudia Brodsky Lacour, who teaches literature and theory at Princeton University, analyzes the Thomas-Hill proceedings linguistically, how Thomas' choice of loaded images detonated the sexual harassment charges against him. Gayle Pemberton, associate director of Afro-American studies at Princeton, invokes the wisdom of James Baldwin for a reflection on the symbolic meanings in the hearings. Christine Stansell who teaches American history and women's studies at Princeton, takes Hill-Thomas apart from a feminist perspective, while Carol M. Swain, assistant professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School, points fingers at the black American leadership role in the Thomas-Hill debacle.

Although the essays emphases are diverse, several shared observations and conclusions emerge:

The majority of black Americans backed Thomas for emotional rather than politically valid reasons, namely that race is the most important criteria and that the success of one black registers as a credit for the race as a whole. Thomas, however, is such an avowed conservative _ avidly campaigning against affirmative action programs and civil rights legislation _ that pro-Thomas blacks found themselves in an embarrassing coalition with ex-Klansmen, David Duke and anti-integrationist Strom Thurmond, who also endorsed Thomas. Thomas is an example of a black man who has left the struggle of his ethnic heritage behind in order to achieve personal gain.

Thomas advocated colorblindness, but hid from Hill's allegations under the cover of race, proclaiming himself a victim of a high-tech lynching. In crying racism in response to the testimony of a like-minded black woman, he rendered the accusation virtually meaningless. Thomas manipulated racism as a diversionary tactic to disarm his critics and in the process, deluded the truth of racism's real consequences.

In his eagerness to please Republican bigwigs, Thomas ridiculed his sister in a speech, citing her as a welfare queen. In fact, his sister was on welfare only briefly, while she cared for sick relatives. Mostly, she worked two minimum wage jobs to raise the four children she had by a husband who deserted her _ and with none of the affirmative-action advantages afforded her brother. Thomas' willingness to exploit his sister to win career points evidenced a contempt for black women even before Hill entered the picture.

Hill did not fit the mammy, black jezebel, or welfare queen stereotypes ascribed to black women by mainstream America. Without context, her reasoned, calm, polygraph-tested testimony was whisked away in lieu of Republican senators' unsubstantiated portrayal of her as a woman scorned, deluded or of wavering sexual preferences. Among the majority of blacks, Hill was rejected as a traitor to the race.

Race-ing Justice, En-Gendering Power is an important but almost morbid dissection of what is still a very raw wound. Yet even more difficult and painful than this book's conclusions regarding a past event are the questions it raises about the future.

How long can gender and race issues remain divided? How can black Americans confront their diversity without undermining the goal of a unifed political front? How long before Americans of all races stop accepting the false security of veiled lies and manipulation, knowing that the future will not take the right course without our active participation.

_ Divina Infusino