It’s been 30 years since professor Anita Hill raised her hand and swore to tell the truth to the US Senate Committee on the Judiciary about the harassment she experienced while working at the nation’s leading agency against workplace discrimination. It was damning testimony on the nomination of Judge Clarence Thomas to serve on the US Supreme Court. His nomination by President George H.W. Bush to fill the vacancy left by Justice Thurgood Marshall’s retirement had alarmed some civil rights leaders even before Hill bravely came forward.
Since that day, October 11, 1991, much has been written about the nomination hearings and how Hill courageously maintained composure, even in spite of then-Senator Joseph Biden’s significant lapses as chair of the Judiciary Committee, including his failure to call other witnesses who were ready to testify that they witnessed Thomas sexually harass Black women. Other coverage has reflected on the legacy of the hearing, including its impact on the composition of the United States Congress, inspiring women to run for the House and Senate in numbers never seen before.
But not enough ink has been spilled on addressing the harms caused to Black women in the greasing of the pipeline through which Thomas reached the Supreme Court. Black women were euphemistic roadkill on Justice Thomas’s path. And at a time when many might be seeing the recent conviction of serial sexual predator R. Kelly as “justice” for Black women who’ve been abused by Black men, it’s as important as ever to reflect on the ways in which this pattern of violence, including sexual violence against Black girls, has permeated all corners of our society.
Notwithstanding the fact that Thomas had served for nearly a decade as chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), his record on civil rights issues was unsettling at best. When he was head of the federal agency, under both Ronald Reagan and Bush, the office pursued a decidedly conservative direction, pumping the brakes on important civil rights strategies. Thomas’s philosophy was that “equality of rights” did not extend to the tangible but rather stopped with a postulated “opportunity to be free, and self-governing”—presumably, a person’s being impoverished didn’t interfere with this kind of freedom.
As the Associated Press reported at the time, Thomas shifted attention away from class action lawsuits “aimed at providing remedies to large groups of people, to a more narrow emphasis on individual cases,” a pattern he has continued as a justice on the Supreme Court. And the Women’s Legal Defense Fund argued that “the number of cases filed on behalf of individual claimants increased under Judge Thomas, but at the expense of class action litigation that can potentially compensate hundreds and even thousands of individual victims per suit.” Critics noted that his views on civil rights were “so narrow as to be ineffective,” as civil rights attorney William L. Taylor put it. Under his watch, age discrimination cases lapsed, expiring without government intervention. Taylor said that Thomas “refused to recognize the affirmative role of the government in protecting against discrimination.”
In my senior year of college, I watched nightly news coverage of the hearings, eerily reminded of a lecture I attended my freshman year at the University of Wisconsin. There, another smart, young Black professor, Manning Marable, warned that in the not-too-distant future Clarence Thomas would be nominated to replace Justice Marshall on the Supreme Court. It was not the prediction itself that was startling so much as Marable’s reasons for it: Thomas’s demeaning and misogynistic characterizations of Black women, namely his sister and mother, gained him credibility and standing among conservative power brokers.
Thomas gained political traction for giving speeches to conservative groups, “air[ing] his disgust” about his sister’s use of public assistance in the early 1980s, as the Los Angeles Times reported. Rousing a crowd of Black conservatives about his sister, he claimed, “She gets mad when the mailman is late with her welfare check. That’s how dependent she is. What’s worse is that now her kids feel entitled to the check, too. They have no motivation for doing better or getting out of that situation.”
But Thomas left out that the “rotting factory where she had once picked crabs, as her mother had done before her” had closed, leaving his sister, Emma Mae Martin, in a perilous condition while raising children. During a period in which Black women endured being stereotyped and vilified because they lived in poverty due to systemic inequalities, Thomas picked up the needle Ronald Reagan threaded during his political campaigns and portrayed his sister as a notorious welfare queen, siphoning off precious government resources and taxpayer dollars.
This despite the fact that she worked two low-wage jobs, “while her brother was attending Yale Law School…. and when an elderly aunt suffered a stroke, she gave up her work to care for her.” While her brother lived in Savannah, Ga., with a grandfather who “built a successful fuel-oil business,” Martin endured poverty with her mother and aunt—literally across the tracks. But she was not the only Black woman Thomas and his supporters threw under the bus on his road to the nation’s highest court.
Hill was mocked and derided for coming forward and providing testimony that Thomas sexually harassed her while she worked for him at the Department of Education and later at the EEOC. Most painfully, I recall the sexism and condescension of Black men who rallied in Thomas’s defense, rationalizing that even if he had sexually harassed Hill, she and other Black women should shut their mouths, because Thomas would play an important future role on the court. Black women simply needed to be patient—and take a hit for the team.
They presumed that Thomas’s record—memorialized in speeches at the Heritage Foundation and the Fairmont Conference, among other groups—on busing; affirmative action, which he called a “narcotic of dependency”; social safety nets; natural law; and workplace discrimination would surprisingly shift after he ascended to the Supreme Court. Clearly, they were wrong; Justice Thomas has voted to uphold laws suppressing voting rights, gun control, reproductive rights, women’s rights, and LGBTQ equality.
What remains troubling is that in lifting up Clarence Thomas, far too many Black men were willing to pull down Anita Hill—and by extension so many other Black women and girls who endured sexual and physical harassment and violence. I still recall with horror the caption, “The Bitch Lied,” plastered across T-shirts sold at the time of the hearings. The shirts provided a chilling backdrop to the hearings and a potent reminder of how engrained and normalized the abuse of Black women is in the United States—even among Black Americans.
For those committed to having Thomas on the court, Hill’s testimony that he “use[d] work situations to discuss sex,” meant very little. Her powerful testimony that Thomas would call her into his office for reports on education, then urge that they go to lunch, where the conversations would turn to “very vivid” sex acts, including “pornographic films involving…women having sex with animals, and films showing…rape scenes,” ironically resulted in the Senate committee members’ ridicule of Hill, and chastisement of her for not being sufficiently explicit in her interviews with the FBI, including a failure to mention Thomas’s penis size.
Thirty years later, without a doubt, Hill brought widespread attention and legitimacy to claims of harassment and abuse on the job across the United States, not to mention ushering in a record number of women candidates for Congress. But despite all we’ve gained from Hill’s testimony and legacy, not one Black woman serves in the Senate or on the Supreme Court today. And still today, when Black women come forward to tell their stories about experiencing sexual harassment and violence, they are too often overlooked and forgotten. R. Kelly’s recent conviction may reflect a tipping point, but only in the way legal teams might fight against such horrific acts. In order for change to be fully realized, we all must take responsibility for the ways in which these abuses continue unchecked. For Anita Hill represented one of many, and justice has yet to be served.