Anita F. Hill testifies at the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, October 11, 1991.
Arnie Sachs / CNP Photo by: Arnie Sachs/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images
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We Still Haven’t Learned From Anita Hill’s Testimony

In the great awakening around sexual harassment, race was politely ushered offstage. That problem persists.
Twenty-seven years after Anita Hill testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee that Clarence Thomas sexually harassed her, and as Christine Blasey Ford prepares to testify that Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were teenagers, we still have not learned our mistakes from that mess in 1991.

Most people recognized that it looked bad, a black woman fending for herself in front of a group of white men. Yet we can’t acknowledge the central tragedy of 1991 — the false tension between feminist and antiracist movements.

We are still ignoring the unique vulnerability of black women.

I watched Anita Hill testify as a member of her support team. I worried that she would be trapped between an antiracist movement that foregrounded black men, and a feminism that could not fully address how race shaped society’s perception of black victims.

I thought this subtext might be subtle. But when Clarence Thomas denounced Ms. Hill’s testimony as “a high-tech lynching,” I knew this nuance had exploded into full-scale war. Underlying his comment was the idea that sexual harassment, like the feminism that pointed it out, was a white preoccupation incompatible with antiracism.

Image "It became clear that our organizing on Anita Hill’s behalf was ineffective in the face of the black community’s outrage over a black woman who had dared to turn on a fellow African-American at the cusp of enormous judicial power," Kimberlé Crenshaw writes.

The two groups most visible at the Hill-Thomas hearing were at odds with each other. Many white feminists appeared largely unaware of the racial dynamics that shaped the Thomas-Hill confrontation. And many people fighting for racial justice, aware of lynching’s toll on black men, heeded Judge Thomas’s appeal to racial solidarity. They argued past each other, damaging the goal of antiracist and feminist collaboration — the sort of alliance Ms. Hill’s testimony might have, in a better world, solidified.

Meanwhile, Judge Thomas’s counterassault contradicted a good deal of his own legal and political thought. Judge Thomas was an apostle of individualist self-help — blacks could advance only by pulling themselves up from their own bootstraps. He had long derided the civil rights movement’s focus on structural racism and its corresponding calls for structural remedies.
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