It’s been 30 years since Professor Anita Hill raised her hand and swore to tell the Senate Justice Committee the truth about the harassment she experienced while working at the nation’s premier agency to combat discrimination in the workplace. It was devastating testimony of Judge Clarence Thomas’ appointment to the US Supreme Court. His nomination by President George HW Bush to fill the post left by the resignation of Judge Thurgood Marshall alarmed some civil rights activists even before Professor Hill bravely spoke up.
Much has been written since that day, October 11, 1991, about the nomination hearing and how Professor Hill bravely kept his composure, despite the significant neglect of then Senator Joseph Biden as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, including his failure to call himself other witnesses willing to testify that they witnessed Thomas sexually molesting black women. Other coverage has reflected the legacy of the hearing, including its implications for the composition of the United States Congress, Inspire women to run for the House of Representatives and the Senate in unprecedented numbers.
However, not enough ink has been spilled to address the damage done to black women while polishing the pipeline for Thomas to reach the Supreme Court. Black women were the euphemistic roadkill on Judge Thomas’ way to the Supreme Court. And at a time when many view the recent conviction of serial sex predator R. Kelly as “justice” for black women who have been molested by black men, it is still important to think about the ways in which this pattern of violence, including sexual violence against black girls, has permeated every corner of our society.
Despite the fact that Thomas was chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) for nearly a decade, his civil rights record was troubling at best. As head of the federal agency under Ronald Reagan and Bush, the office took a decidedly conservative turn and slowed down important civil rights strategies. Thomas’s philosophy was that “equality of rights” did not extend to the tangible, but rather “the possibility to be free and to rule oneself” – presumably the impoverishment did not impede that kind of freedom.
As the Associated Press reported at the time, Thomas diverted attention from Class actions “The aim is to offer legal remedies to large groups of people in order to bring individual cases to the fore,” a pattern that he continues to support as a Supreme Court judge. And the Women’s Legal Defense Fund argued that “the number of cases filed on behalf of individual plaintiffs has increased under Judge Thomas, but at the expense of class actions that can potentially compensate hundreds and even thousands of individual victims per lawsuit”. Critics noted that his views on civil rights “are so narrow that they are ineffective,” like the civil rights attorney William L. Taylor Put it. Under his supervision, age discrimination cases have expired and ended without government intervention. Thomas “refused to recognize the government’s positive role in protecting against discrimination,” Taylor said.
But than that Los Angeles times reports that Thomas closed the “rotting factory where she once picked crabs as her mother did before her” and left his sister Emma Mae Martin in a life-threatening condition while raising children. At a time when black women suffered stereotypes and villains because of their poverty due to systemic inequalities, Thomas portrayed his sister as the notorious welfare queen who siphoned off precious government resources and tax dollars and picked up the needle that Ronald Reagan had threaded during his political work Campaigns.
This despite the fact that she worked two low-wage jobsreported the Los Angeles times, “while her brother was attending Yale Law School … and when an elderly aunt had a stroke, she quit her job to take care of her.” While her brother lived in Savannah, Georgia with a grandfather who “was building a successful heating oil business,” Martin and her mother and aunt suffered poverty – literally across the tracks. But she wasn’t the only black Thomas and his followers tossed under the bus on their way to the nation’s highest court.
Hill was ridiculed and ridiculed for standing up and testifying that Thomas sexually molested her while she worked for him at the Department of Education and later at the EEOC. What I remember most painfully is the sexism and condescension of black men who banded together in Thomas’ defense, arguing that even if he had sexually molested Hill, she and other black women should keep their mouths shut, as Thomas would have an important future Role on the court would play. Black women just had to be patient – and take a hit for the team.
They suspected Thomas’ notes – including speeches at the Heritage Foundation and the Fairmont Conference – regarding bus traffic; Affirmative Action, which he calls “Addictive substance of dependence“; social safety nets; Natural law; and discrimination in the workplace would surprisingly postpone advancement to the Supreme Court. Obviously they were wrong; Judge Thomas voted to uphold laws suppressing the right to vote, gun control, reproductive rights, women’s rights and LGBTQ equality.
What remains worrying is that far too many black men were ready to bring down Anita Hill when they brought up Clarence Thomas – and with it so many other black women and girls who suffered sexual and physical harassment and violence had to endure. I still remember with horror the headline “The Bitch Song” taped on T-shirts that were on sale at the time of the hearings. The shirts provided a chilling backdrop to the hearings and a powerful reminder of how deeply rooted and normalized abuse of black women is in the United States – even among black Americans.
For those who pledged to have Thomas on the pitch, Hill’s transcript that he “uses”[d] Work situations to talk about sex “meant very little. Her haunting testimony that Judge Thomas would call her to his office for reports on education and then ask her to go to lunch, where the conversations resulted in “very lively” sex acts, including “pornographic films in which … women have sex with animals and films showing … rape scenes, “ironically, led Hill to be ridiculed and chastised by Senate committee members for not being sufficiently explicit in her interviews with the FBI, including failing to mention Richter ‘s penis size Thomas.
Thirty years later, without a doubt, Professor Hill has given widespread attention and legitimacy to allegations of harassment and abuse in the workplace in the United States, not to mention ushering in a record number of women running for Congress. But despite what we learned from Hill’s testimony and legacy, not a single black person serves in the Senate or the Supreme Court today. Too often, black women are overlooked and forgotten when telling their stories of sexual harassment and violence. R. Kelly’s recent conviction may reflect a turning point, but only in the way that legal teams might fight against such horrific acts. So that changes can be fully implemented, we must all take responsibility for how these abuses continue unchecked. Because Anita Hill was one of many, and justice has yet to be done.