Remembering the Anita Hill hearings

As we head toward the 2nd round of Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, with Christine Blasey Ford prepared to testify, it’s useful to go back and look at the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, and the testimony of Anita Hill.

Let’s go back in time to 1991, when Clarence Thomas was nominated by President George H.W. Bush to replace Justice Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court.[1] Prior to his nomination, Thomas had been the Director of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which is the federal agency that administers and enforces civil rights laws against workplace discrimination. Towards the end of the confirmation hearings, allegations were brought forward by Anita Hill, a law professor who had previously worked under Thomas at both the U.S. Department of Education and the EEOC. She claimed she had been sexually harassed by Thomas while she was working for him.[2] This produced a set of televised hearings and an extraordinary side-show.

According to Hill, Thomas asked her out socially on a number of occasions during her employment. He discussed sexual subjects in the office, including on women having sex with animals and films showing group sex or rape scenes. Thomas graphically described his own sexual prowess and the details of his anatomy, among other things.[3]

During the hearings (which were chaired by future Vice-President Joe Biden) Thomas categorically denied that he had harassed Hill, and claimed that he was being subject to a “high-tech lynching for uppity blacks” by white liberals (which included, other than Joe Biden, Ted Kennedy and Howard Metzenbaum).

Thomas’ supporters went on a character assassination of Hill (of course!), noting among other things that there had been a ten year delay before she brought these allegations forward, that she had followed him to a second job, and that she had had other subsequent personal contacts with Thomas (including once giving him a ride to the airport).

My Thoughts at the Time

I remember these hearings from 1991. I was about seven years out of law school, and was riveted by the proceedings. I also remember the moment that I was sure that Hill was telling the truth and that Thomas had harassed her. It was when Hill reported the story that Thomas had asked during a meeting, “Who has put pubic hair on my Coke?”

Why did that convince me?

Because nobody would make up something that stupid.

If Hill were going to make something up, she would have made something up that makes some sense.[4]

I also remember being struck by something else at the time, and it was Thomas’ use of the phrase “high-tech lynching for uppity blacks.” Let’s just be clear about a few things:

  1. There was nothing “high-tech” that was part of these proceedings.
  2. This was not a metaphorical lynching. Lynchings – as some of you may remember – frequently happened when black men were accused of touching white women. They never happened when black men were accused of touching black women.
  3. Thomas used this occasion to play the race card in spades. He played it so boldly that he successfully tied white liberals (like Biden, Kennedy and Metzenbaum) in knots.

Thomas was, of course, confirmed to the Supreme Court (if by one of the narrowest margins ever). Since his nomination, Thomas has consistently thrown his own people under the bus, voting against affirmative action and the Voting Rights Act, to name a few examples. The only thing Thomas did not do (which quite a few of his supporters expected he would) was to overturn Roe v. Wade, the seminal (pun intended) abortion case about which controversy still rages, 45 years later.

Thomas is 70 years old now, and if he’s like Ruth Bader Ginsberg (the “real RGB”), he could easily be on the bench of another 15 to 20 years. This was a total home run for conservatives, and Thurgood Marshall is still rolling over in his grave knowing that this guy replaced him.

Looking Back Through History

I think there is now a general consensus that Thomas did harass Anita Hill, and that he effectively lied at his confirmation hearings. Not everyone agrees, of course.

Thomas himself wrote an autobiography entitled  My Grandfather’s Son, in which he claimed that Hill had been his “most traitorous” adversary, that she was “touchy” and “apt to overreact,” and that her work at the EEOC was “mediocre.” On the other side, Jane Mayer[5] and Jill Abramson, two reporters for the Wall Street Journal, wrote a book concluding that Thomas lied under oath.  Mayer and Abramson argue that Biden abdicated control of the Thomas confirmation hearings and was effectively responsible for failing to call the four corroborating witnesses to the stand.[6]

The appointment of Thomas is what it is. It happened a long time ago, and there is no way to reverse it now. The only question now is whether we’re going to make the same mistake with Brett Kavanaugh.

What We Can Expect from the Kavanaugh Hearings

Kavanaugh has, as of this writing, been accused by two women of sexual improprieties (although there may be a third in the wings, represented by Michael Avenatti, who might either have her own allegations or can simply provide corroboration for one of the other two). In brief:

  • Christine Blasey Ford, a professor at Palo Alto University, alleged that Kavanaugh (and classmate Mark Judge) corralled her in a bedroom at a high school party, pinned her to the bed, groped her, ground against her, and tried to pull off her clothes. She also alleges that Kavanaugh covered her mouth when she tried to scream. Ford was 15 at the time while Kavanaugh was 17.
  • A second woman Deborah Ramirez, alleged that while both she and Kavanaugh were freshman at a Yale University party, Kavanaugh stuck his penis in Ramirez’ face, and (urged on by other party-goers) tried to get her to touch it. Kavanaugh was already 18 at the time.

In an effort to defend his reputation, Kavanaugh appeared on Fox News and alleged that he was a virgin throughout high school and for “many years after.”

That’s nice, although it obviously doesn’t prove that he didn’t sexually assault these two women. If anything, it might have made Kavanaugh a precursor to those men now known as Incels, young men who take revenge on women because they can’t get one to date them.

So, the character assassination of Ford and Ramirez has already begun. Kavanaugh, if he doesn’t claim simply not to have been there, will claim that this was just “roughhousing” or something like it, just like what Donald Trump said on the Access Hollywood tape was just “locker room talk.”

This is good timing right before the mid-terms. Many women are already outraged by Trump’s behavior (and that of many of his Republican colleagues). If this brings more women to the polls as part of the Blue Wave – while we can fear for what will happen to Ford and Ramirez and anyone else who comes forward personally – at least there will be something positive that comes out of all of this.


[1] For those of you who don’t remember, Marshall had been a civil rights champion and had argued Brown v. Board of Education before the Supreme Court before arriving there himself.

[2] Note the irony that Thomas was THE person in the United States government who had the most direct responsibility for enforcing the nation’s workplace discrimination laws, including those against sexual harassment. In effect, the allegations were that the #1 enforcement officer had engaged in exactly that activity which his agency was designed to protect against.

[3] Four female witnesses reportedly waited in the wings to support Hill’s testimony, but they were never called.

[4] Subsequent to the Thomas hearings, I became a professional workplace investigator, and I can tell you that it’s those kind of details which really do establish or vitiate against credibility.

[5] Jane Mayer, along with Ronan Farrow, is part of the reporting tandem that more recently has been noted for helping to uncover the allegations against Harvey Weinstein, Les Moonves and NY AG Eric Schneiderman, which effectively helped to start the #MeToo movement.

[6] The Mayer and Abramson book also included evidence that Thomas had a substantial interest in pornography although, as critics of the book have noted, that obviously doesn’t prove harassment.

About a1skeptic

A disturbed citizen and skeptic. I should stop reading the newspaper. Or watching TV. I should turn off NPR and disconnect from the Internet. We’d all be better off.
This entry was posted in History, Law, Politics and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Remembering the Anita Hill hearings

  1. Anonymous says:

    And now there are three women making accusations, with Julie Swetnick (another Michael Avenatti client) being added to the mix. And her accusations are mighty serious.

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