I had a visceral reaction to the news that Virginia Thomas had called Anita Hill and asked her for an apology. In 1991 I was a college freshman, and the televised Hill-Thomas hearings were my adult initiation into the public vilification of black women. I watched as white male senators and conservative commentators exploited the common myth of black women as promiscuous to cast Hill as oversexed and delusional. I remember when Thomas draped himself in the history of America’s racial violence by angrily referring to his confirmation process as a "high-tech lynching." Although there is no history of white men forming a posse to punish those who sexually assault black women, Thomas deployed the lynching trope to great effect. After the comment, his approval ratings rose sharply among black Americans, many of whom maligned Hill as a race traitor who allowed her story to be used by powerful white opponents to harm the credibility of an African-American man. The Hill-Thomas hearings were an object lesson in the joint complicity of black communities and white power structures in the public humiliation of black women to meet conservative ends: being both black and a woman means you can be maligned by both racist and sexist discourse.
So my stomach flipped when I learned of Virginia Thomas’s phone call. Her request is the aggressive act of a right-wing activist unwilling to allow her opponent the dignity of privacy. And it is much more. Ginni Thomas’s insistence that Hill apologize is an apt metaphor for the long history of blaming black women for social ills. After the Civil War black women were considered a potential public menace. Social reformers claimed that black women’s sexual immorality was the cause of urban disruptions during the 1920s Great Migration. In the 1960s liberal policy-makers worried that black women were matriarchs who undermined family stability. And in the 1980s Ronald Reagan painted black women as welfare queens robbing the public coffers. In our current economic downturn, the explicit and implicit public denigration of African-American women is in vogue across the political spectrum and is supported from within black communities as much as it is imposed from the outside. Once again, black women find themselves blamed as one of the central causes of, rather than one of the primary victims of, American social and economic decline, and many are calling on black women to apologize for their own suffering.
In her new book Democracy Remixed, political scientist Cathy Cohen argues that race leaders, media voices and policy-makers eschew analysis of the structural inequalities—inadequate housing, poor nutrition, unequal schools, limited employment opportunities and racially biased policing—that cause racial inequality. Instead, they blame the sexual practices of young black women. Primed by the centuries-old assumption that black women are sexually lewd, this moral panic suggests that inequality should be addressed not by structural change but by enforcing limitations on black women’s sexuality.
This impulse shows up in some surprising places. For example, it’s a common theme among Democratic and Republican education reformers, who agree that children are suffering primarily because they are raised in single-parent households headed by poor women in urban areas. "Poor" and "urban" are code words for "black," and many reformers imply that black women are not spending enough hours reading to their kids; not paying enough attention to keep their kids out of trouble after school; and, most important, not providing them with financially stable fathers.
Even President Obama has argued that America’s imperial hegemony is threatened by inadequate educational achievement. Beneath that anxiety is the implication that this shortcoming can be traced to failing black mothers and to their public employee counterparts—urban public school teachers, who are disproportionately women. Never mind the high cost of quality daycare, the lack of affordable housing, the challenge of balancing work and parenting, the poor prenatal care and childhood health and dental coverage—black women should be able to raise honor students through sheer force of will!
Not only that; they should apologize for having children at all. In lockstep with the implication that black women’s parenting is undermining education, some African-American commentators have aggressively targeted black women with a new No Wedding, No Womb movement. Led by blogger Christelyn Karazin, people in this movement suggest that childbirth outside marriage is a primary cause of the social ills that afflict black communities. In their view, women should marry "strong" men who can provide financial security for themselves and their children. Through its title alone, No Wedding, No Womb explicitly encourages black women to barter their reproductive capacity in exchange for the trappings of patriarchy: a wedding for a womb. The movement shames black women who choose to exercise their reproductive freedom by bearing children they want even when the men in their lives and leaders in their communities disapprove. These women are made to feel they should apologize for choosing to be parents.
Even in this moment when black women are asked to apologize for themselves, for their choices and for their children, there are models of unapologetic black women who insist on the right to their own voices. When Shirley Sherrod took a strong public stance against blogger Andrew Breitbart, the Obama administration and the NAACP, who all attempted to malign her character—she offered a potentially empowering model for African-American women. Rather than apologize, she demanded an apology. Anita Hill’s decision to make the Thomas voicemail public is a similarly unapologetic stance of self-preservation.