Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and Gender Abstractions
The spotlight on the 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas and the gender consciousness raised in the media coverage have made Thomas’s and Anita Hill’s names symbols for reverence, respect, and ridicule in feminist and masculinist writings. In the wake of his anti-civil-rights votes from the Court and his September 11, 1995, public claim that affirmative action is a Christian sin against white people, Thomas is more uniformly lampooned in the Black press. Some of the reverence and ridicule surrounding both Thomas and Hill appears to be disconnected from reality and based more on gender abstractions-that is, on a notion of sexual politics conveniently and romantically severed from class and racial politics.
The respect given to Anita Hill, however, reflects the fact that she withstood the racist and sexist harassment of ultraconservative Senate Judiciary Committee members during the nationally televised hearings. Although their diatribes carried the virulent, authoritative contempt that only a fusion of racial, economic, and sexual elitism could manage to spew, Anita Hill maintained her personal dignity, which certainly deserves respect and praise. Still, both respect and praise in this case are weighed with irony: for Hill also worked to implement the policies of white privilege and patriarchy by eroding civil-rights programs redressing past and present discrimination. She harnessed her career to the ultraconservatism of the Reagan-Bush administration and its employee, her former employer, Clarence Thomas. To recreate Hill as a martyr heroine for mobilizing women and feminists is only possible if (a) one disconnects her from the singeing racial and class politics she embraced (and likely still embraces), and/or (b) one maintains that racism and classism are abstractions to that is, irrelevant in-sexual politics. In other words, to make her a symbol or an icon, one must create a martyr heroine as a gender abstraction.
Throughout 1992, articles were written about Anita Hill as a feminist role model, a “race-traitor,” and a “Republican traitor.” These were part of the spillover of the hearings, as would be a number of books including two anthologies reflecting the debates on the hearings among African Americans-Court of Appeal and Racing Gender and Engendering Justice. Allegations of sexual harassment by Hill, a woman from Thomas’s caste, were able to delay the Supreme Court confirmation of Thomas when his own political record-antiblack, antifemale, antipoor and anti-working class, antiyouth, and antielderly-could not. The New York City-based Center for Constitutional Rights released a statement that Clarence Thomas was unsuitable for the U.S. Supreme Court because of his lack of experience (an unqualified candidate was being promoted by anti-affirmative-action politicians) as well as his antidemocratic bias. The center reported that under Thomas’s directorship as chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) class-action suits declined dramatically compared to individual cases; in 1988, 40 to 87 percent of cases were closed because they were improperly investigated by field offices and state fair-employment practices agencies; case backlogs rose from 31,500 in 1983 to 46,000 in 1989; processing time increased from four to seven months in 1983 to nearly ten months in 1989; equal-pay cases declined from thirty-five in 1982 to seven in 1989. Concerning affirmative action, the center noted that Thomas changed the EEOC policy of establishing goals and timetables for businesses to open jobs to white women and women and men of color, reinstating the policy only after the Supreme Court’s 1986 decision to uphold these guidelines. At the same time, the Court upheld affirmative action, which ironically enabled Thomas to further his own educational and legal career.
As Reagan’s EEOC appointee and Bush’s nominee to replace pioneer civil-rights litigator Thurgood Marshall, Clarence Thomas sparred his way through the hearings amid allegations of sexual harassment by portraying himself as a victim of “high-tech lynching.” Historically, postbellum lynching victims were black people (and white people) who resisted rather than collaborated with racist practices. Thomas’s black-victim performance opportunistically appropriated lynching as a defensive strategy and metaphor and as such was ideologically compatible with the anti-civil-rights backlash of the recent Republican presidencies. Claims of innocence can be based either on symbolism or specificity. For Clarence Thomas, a man who faithfully executed the policy wishes of his conservative white employers, to assert during the hearings that he “wasn’t harmed by the Klan [orJ the Aryan Nation but by this process”-the high-tech lynching of an uppity black man-distorted the historical significance of racist killings as punishment for noncompliance with conservative, reactionary white folk. “Whatever one assumes about the charges, Thomas was able to co-opt antiracist and antilynching discourses because public critiques of racialized sexualities and feats are widely discouraged. Because Hill did not address the issues of race or how her sexuality had been racialized, this performance of a black male as racially sexualized captured center stage.
Surviving and refusing to be silent about sexual victimization are courageous acts. Yet survival or speaking out does not make one a public heroine; public responsibilities and commitments must be taken into account. In the malting of heroines in gender politics, feminist or counterfeminist, race and class ideologies still count. For example, if a female staffer in David Duke’s Louisiana gubernatorial campaign had courageously come forward with accounts of sexual harassment by Duke (who incidentally backed Clatence Thomas), although I would have supported her right to conftont her abuset, I would not have named David Duke the only villain, given that they both share teactionary ideologies. Obviously the abuse of right-wing women building careers under the tutelage of right-wing men (who may implement racist, classist, sexist, and heterosexist policies) needs to stop. Eulogizing such women is extremely problematic, given their antidemocratic and retrogressive racial politics. Supporting Hill’s right to a fair hearing on sexual harassment requires compassion and outrage over sexual abuse. But placing her on a pedestal reveals how inane analyses of sexual and racial abuse and democratic politics had become.
At that time, Anita Hill had implemented Reaganite anti-civil-tights policies, taught at Oral Roberts University Law School, and maintained that Robert Bork was unjustly denied a seat on the Supreme Court. To idolize Hill, therefore, one had to imitate Clarence Thomas, Orrin Hatch, John Danforth, Arlen Specter, Strom Thurmond, George Bush, and company in their wolfish cries of “lynching!”-this time with the added cry of “Harassment!” Following the opportunistic moves on political language, history, and reality through our the hearings, one could first male trivial and then manipulate the lengthy red record of racial and sexual violence and imagery that African Americans struggle to survive. (Or one could have chosen to mimic contortionists’ daims, in an episode of Tony Browns Journal with Thomas supporters Phyllis Berry Myers and John Doggett, that Thomas was lynched while Anita Hill was raped-claims that thereby attain some false enclosure of unifying blackness.) Rape and lynching are tied together in the history of African American women who were tortured and raped prior to and during lynchings; black women were also lynched, along with African American men who assisted them, for resisting or avenging rape by white men. Because manipulating history is a useful tool for denying reality, it is unsurprising that the political history and reality of African American men’s sexual abuse of African American women is equally manipulated and denied.
The Hill-Thomas hearings provided equal opportunity to create pedestals laden with right-wing role models-black and white, male and female. Anita Hill, who had overcome her personal victimization with dignity and restraint painfully lacking in Thomas and most of his multiracial, female, and male cheerleaders, was the most appealing. Consequently, in the November 2, 1991, issue of the New York-based weekly the Village Voice) African American columnist Lisa Jones, after describing the “Bush Thomas lynch strategy” and the racist and sexist vilification of African American women, wrote that ”Anita Hill-shunning victimhood-is a role model.” And yet Hill-shunning or embracing victimhood-could not possibly be a role model if being one means having a responsible relationship to African American communities and progressive democratic politics. For Jones, the class and racial politics of Hill are as irrelevant as Thomas’s sexual politics are for the editors of the African American, Brooklyn-based weekly City Sun, who superficially treated the charges of sexual harassment while focusing on the detrimental political relationship of both Thomas and Hill to African American communities: “The truth is that Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill are cut from the same cloth …. Black people’s interests were not the motivating factor for either Thomas’ or Hill’s career move.” Such articles, based on gender abstractions, fail to present a discussion of sexual politics connected to racial and class politics or the ways in which black identification shaped responses to sexual abuse.
In the aftermath of the hearings, a televised spectacle that became popular entertainment much as the O. J. Simpson trial would in 1995 the veracity of Hill’s courageous testimony has been disparaged by some and substantiated by others.’ That neither Hill nor Thomas worked for the benefit of African Americans probably led to the more jocular attitude among a number of black male intellectuals in their commentary on the hearings. More somber attitudes among black male intellectuals were later expressed over controversies involving Benjamin Chavis, C. Eric Lincoln, and Mike Tyson. Chavis, the former head of the NAACP, was accused of sexual harassment. Lincoln was convicted on charges of physical assault of a black female Harvard divinity graduate student. Mike Tyson was found guilty of raping a black beauty-pageant contestant. Prominent civil-rights leaders, black scholars, and sports heroes clearly invite different forms of consideration.
Reductionism is endemic to discussions in which the politics of sexual harassment are isolated from racial and class politics. When the African American experience was reduced to the African American male experience opportunistically performed by Thomas (he also represented the transracial male because his accuser was black, not white), the woman’s experience became reduced to the “whitened,” middle-class female experience uncritically worn by Hill. The irrational and illogical commentary on the hearings underscored how prevalent reductionism is: white women commentators on National Public Radio stated that Clarence Thomas needed a black on the Senate Judiciary Committee, whereas Anita Hill needed a woman. Neither the fact that Hill is both black and female nor the fact that there is no monolithic black or women’s voice or vote spared listeners the inanity of coverage lost in gender abstractions. Much of the analysis obscured the political ties of gender to race and class and veiled the racial and class politics of women and men mobilizing under the banner of sexual politics.
The issue of class mystification routinely appeared in writings about this case. An October 1991 Boston Globe article argued that in confirming Thomas in the face of Hill’s odious, highly detailed and credible story, the Senate’s clear message will be that women who complain of sexual harassment are not to be believed …. if an upstanding, articulate law teacher who knows the rules cannot get a group of men to hear her, can a secretary have much hope??
This passage suggests that Hill had no race (although credibility is tied to race) and refers to class in an incomplete way: the secretary is likely to be believed if she is white and accuses the black janitor. Women harassed by men of their race and class have little credibility before the law; women with race and class privilege are more credible than the accused if he is someone with a lower status in the social hierarchy~which is a significant part of the history of lynching. Referring to Hill as if she had no race or class interests gives her the guise of respectability, which in this society takes the form of middle-class, white, and heterosexual womanhood. Isolating sexual harassment from a race and class analysis thus reduces discussions of such harassment to abstractions.
The lack of a class and ideological analysis among some organizers and commentators in the Hill-Thomas hearings was critiqued by bell hooks’s “Must We Call All Women ‘Sister?’,” an essay criticized by some feminists because of its rejection of a generalizing gender solidarity irrespective of politics. In “The Invisible Ones: The Emma Mae Martin Story, the One Thomas Didn’t Tell,” Lisa Jones also offers a critique of class politics in the choice of Hill as a symbol of feminism and women’s victimization. According to Jones, that sexual harassment was a more appealing middle-class women’s issue than welfare rights is the reason why fewer women rallied around Thomas’s sister Emma Mae Martin. Thomas, in Lee Atwater fashion, publicly chastised her for welfare dependency: “She gets mad when the mailman is late with her welfare check.” Noting how economics and class shaped women’s mobilization in resisting sexual violence and harassment, Jones observes:
Thomas’s distortion of his sister’s life says a lot about him, but it says even more about America. No child-care or health-care system, dead-end jobs, dysfunctional schools, yes. But what of the political/media value put on the lives of women like Martin? Especially black women like Martin. The Martins of this country are pigeonholed as sub-American, subfemale … subhuman.
An ad hoc group organized by African American academic activists Barbara Ransby, Elsa Barkley Brown, and Deborah King pitched an educational and fund-raising campaign with a large ad in the November 17th, 1991, Sunday New York Times. Under the title “African American Women in Defense of Ourselves,” their analysis demystified abstractions by speaking out against the partnership between destructive U.S. policies and the cynical posturings of Bush, Hatch, Specter, Danforth, and their employees. Excerpted below and signed by more than 1,600 women of African descent, it broke the routine rally around media heroes and heroines and the diversion of gender abstractions:
As women of African descent, we are deeply troubled by the recent nomination, confirmation, and seating of Clarence Thomas as an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. We know that the presence of Clarence Thomas on the Court will be continually used to divert attention away from historic struggles for social justice through suggestions that the presence of a Black man on the Supreme Court constitutes an assurance that the rights of African Americans will be protected. Clarence Thomas’ public record is ample evidence that this will not be true. Further, the consolidation of a conservative majority on the Supreme Court seriously endangers the rights of all women, poor and working class people, and the elderly. The seating of Clarence Thomas is an affront not only to African American women and men, but to all people concerned with social justice.
We are particularly outraged by the racist and sexist treatment of Professor Anita Hill, an African American woman who was maligned and castigated for daring to speak publicly of her experience of sexual abuse. The malicious defamation of Professor Hill insulted all women of African descent and sent a dangerous message to any woman who might contemplate a sexual-harassment complaint…
As women’ of African descent, we express our vehement opposition to the policies represented by the placement of Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court. The Bush administration, having obstructed the passage of civil rights legislation, impeded the extension of unemployment compensation, cut student aid and dismantled social welfare programs, has continually demonstrated that it is not operating in our best interests. Nor is this appointee. We pledge , ourselves to continue to speak out in defense of one another, in defense of the African American community and against those who are hostile to social justice no matter what color they are. No one will speak for us but ourselves. This text is unique in that it addressed structural politics and racism as well as sexual abuse with some form of integrated analysis that was missing from camps that polarized both issues or from groups that treated the accusations and hearings as pure spectacle.
The selective use of black women as feminist icons reflects their abstract roles in American culture and the ways in which political ideology influences iconography. The extensive and multiracial rally around Anita Hill was not repeated in 1993 when President Clinton withdrew his support for Lani Guinier, his nominee for the Justice Department’s civil-rights division, in the wake of a conservative backlash against her strong stance on voting rights for minorities. Nor did massive protests like those surrounding Hill appear in 1995 when Clinton fired Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders for her candid stance on the need for sex education in American schools.
Gender abstractions that reconstructed Hill and Thomas as icons veiled the antidemocratic politics upheld by Black Republicans. The construction of Thomas as a racial icon, simultaneously representing black victimization and resistance, mirrored the construction of Hill as a gender icon, representing female victimization and resistance. The disingenuousness of antiblack and anti-civil-rights politics among African Americans was highlighted in President Bush’s selection of Thomas as the successor to a civil-rights leader who successfully argued Brown v. the Board of Education in desegregating American schools. Thomas’s retrograde gender politics were inconsequential to his selection by a pro-choice president; his reactionary sexual politics could hinder, but not obstruct, a confirmation fueled by racial politics that were palatable to the far right who supported him. If allegations of sexual violence could have derailed such strong political commitments to reactionary racial politics, they would not have been accusations made by a black woman, who in the American mind embodies the racial-sexual Other.
James, Joy and Davis Y. Angela. “Resisting State Violence Radicalism, Gender, and Race in US. Culture,” 15 October 1996.