Tuesday, October 2, 2007
Thomas and Hill Redux
By eerie coincidence Isiah Thomas and the Knicks were found guilty of sexually harassing Anucha Browne Sanders on the same day that Anita Hill published her response to Clarence Thomas's recently released memoir, titled My Grandfather's Son. In the memoir, Justice Thomas seeks simultaneously to vindicate himself and his image and to implicate the liberal establishment in what he claims were Hill's false accusations during his 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearings.
In 1991, I was an undergraduate and already much too familiar with the tensions that can plague the relationships between professional Black women and men. I remember vividly the countless conversations in the dining halls of Harvard College that ensued after Anita Hill accused the nominee to the Supreme Court of sexual harassment. I am proud to say that I believed Hill from the beginning, although I admit that I disliked Thomas even before Hill surfaced. More interesting is the fact that most Black people I talked with, male and female, also believed Hill. What we argued about was whether it was ultimately helpful or damaging to the Race (meaning for African American progress) for Hill to have come forward.
I argued then that the Race is only degraded when we cover up Black men's misdeeds, especially when those crimes damage Black women. Black women are not responsible to imperil their physical, spiritual, or professional lives in order to preserve the fiction of a united Black community. And in fact, it is a form of internalized racism to have such a low opinion of Black manhood that we think Clarence Thomas and his ilk are the best we can do when we look for representatives of, in, and for our community.
In 2007, I am struck by how much has changed and how much remains unchanged. Recent events, including the civil trial of Isiah Thomas, the conviction of Michael Vick, and (another) indictment of O.J. Simpson demonstrate that the Black community still struggles with how to respond when famous Black men are accused of wrongdoing. But the ruling holding Isaiah Thomas liable for sexual harassment demonstrates that some things have changed. As Anita Hill herself put it: "Fortunately, we have made progress since 1991. Today, when employees complain of abuse in the workplace, investigators and judges are more likely to examine all the evidence and less likely to simply accept as true the word of those in power."
The Anita Hill who emerges in the New York Times Op-Ed piece is worthy of celebration. Whereas during the hearings she seemed muted and victimized, today her voice resounds like the clarion call of a trumpet. Unlike Thomas, she seeks no vindication, since as she notes, independent authors have already demonstrated that the claims Thomas seeks to resurrect were false. But she does offer a caution, that this unprecedented and obviously bitter outburst by a sitting Supreme Court Justice may portend legal regression if the nation drops its guard.
I (still) hear you, Professor Hill.