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Today, Clint will teach you about the Supreme Court confirmation hearing of Clarence Thomas. During the screening process, Anita Hill came forward alleging that Thomas had sexually harassed her when the two of them worked together at the Department of Education. The public response to Hill's allegations was tense and split the Black American community along gendered lines. Thomas's nomination was ultimately confirmed by a margin of 52-48, and he became the second Black American appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Clint's book, How the Word is Passed is available now!

Harris, Duchess. Black Feminist Politics from Kennedy to Trump. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.
Harris-Perry, Melissa V. Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011.

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CC Kids:
Hi, I’m Clint Smith, this is Crash Course Black American History.

Today we’ll be discussing the Supreme Court confirmation hearing of Clarence Thomas, who was selected by George H. W.

Bush to replace the legendary Thurgood Marshall on the court. In 1991, during his confirmation hearing to become an Associate Justice to the Supreme Court, Thomas faced accusations of sexual harassment from Anita Hill, who he had previously worked with. Thomas denied the allegations, and before the Senate Judiciary Committee he went on to describe the treatment he was receiving from the Democrats and the media as a “high-tech lynching.” Lynching has never been something to allude to lightly.

Invoking the term, means invoking the long, traumatic, painful history that Black people have long had to endure. So by describing what was happening as a “lynching,” Thomas tapped into something deeply-rooted, and deeply controversial. Some thought Thomas was right to use the term, given the way that allegations of sexual misconduct have been used, often unjustly, against Black men.

Others however, thought that Thomas was manipulating Americans by disingenuously comparing what was happening to him to Black men who had been shot, drowned, or hanged from trees. There were many people who believed Anita Hill’s allegations, and there were many people who did not. Hill’s decision to come forward had ramifications beyond the confirmation hearing.

Following the tense confirmation battle, many companies, organizations, and institutions began taking a deeper look at their own sexual harassment policies and procedures. In the process, and throughout the rest of her life, Hill became a leader in the fight for workplace protections for all people. Today we’ll be recounting the events of that now infamous hearing and the resulting cultural impact that the case holds in Black American culture.

Let’s get started. [Intro] I want to note up top that this episode will address some challenging topics including sexual violence and images of extreme violence. In 1991, President George H. W.

Bush selected Clarence Thomas as a nominee to the Supreme Court of the United States. Thomas was only the second Black man ever to be nominated; the first was Thurgood Marshall. During the screening process, however, Anita Hill came forward alleging that Thomas had sexually harassed her when they worked together in the US Department of Education.

Thomas began working in the Department in 1981 and hired Hill shortly thereafter as his special assistant in the department of the Office of Civil Rights. According to Hill, the harassment began shortly after she was hired and continued after Thomas became the chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and then Hill took on a new job there as his assistant. Hill eventually left Washington DC in 1983 to become a law professor in her home state of Oklahoma.

It wasn’t until late in the summer of 1991, as the Thomas nomination was moving forward, that she was contacted by members of the Senate Judiciary Committee regarding rumors of alleged misconduct on Thomas’s part against at least one female employee. After an FBI investigation, the White House determined that the allegations were “unfounded.” Plus the public confirmation had ended after an intense ten-day marathon of hearings. The White House thought that would be the end of the story, but it wasn’t.

Not long after, NPR reporter Nina Totenberg learned of the FBI report, and of Hill’s allegations, and made those accusations public for the first time on October 6th, 1991. The next day, Hill held a press conference and stated publicly that she was willing to testify about her allegations. Joe Biden, then the head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and following pressure from interest groups and Congress, reopened the hearing so that Anita Hill could testify.

Prior to their entry on the national and international stage in 1991, Thomas and Hill actually shared some pretty similar backgrounds: they both came from rural roots (Thomas in Georgia and Hill in Oklahoma) and they were both first generation college students who went on to attend Yale Law School. But the resulting controversy from the allegations being made public caused a schism along both racial and gender lines in the United States. For example, after the allegations came out against Thomas, 38% of Americans believed he should still be selected to the nation’s highest court, even though 51% of those polled in that same survey believed that the Senate had not taken Hill’s claims as seriously as they should have.

The case also divided the African American community along lines of gender, in large part because it was an example of an intraracial struggle and not an interracial struggle. Some Black people expressed support for Thomas in part because, during his confirmation hearing, they were convinced by his lynching comparison. As Thomas put it: "And from my standpoint as a black American, as far as I'm concerned, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas, and it is a message that unless you kowtow to an old order, this is what will happen to you.

You will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the U. S. Senate, rather than hung from a tree." As we said, lynching holds a dark place in Black American history and politics, harkening back to a past when Black people were subject to extrajudicial terrorism from white people who would murder them without remorse or cause.

According to the Equal Justice Initiative, at least 6,500 racial terror lynchings occurred in the United States between 1865 and 1950, with likely thousands more victims whose names we’ll never know. Although Black women were sometimes the victims of lynching, very often the victims were Black men who were falsely accused of raping or sexually assaulting white women. These false allegations were then used to justify horrific and unimaginable violence against Black men.

So all of this is to say, that when Clarence Thomas invoked the idea of a “high-tech lynching,” he tapped into this history of intragroup solidarity between Black men and Black women on an issue that everyone in the community was familiar with. But the thing is, in doing so he subtly implied that Hill was outside of that intragroup unity and that what she was doing was something that could be done to any Black man at any time. And some in the Black community vilified Hill as a “race traitor” and identified Thomas as the real victim.

According to political scientist, author, and professor Melissa Harris-Perry, “After he invoked the specter of lynching, Thomas’s approval ratings among Black Americans jumped to nearly 50 percent.” This number was surprising in part because, according to Harris-Perry, Thomas’s career as a conservative justice meant that many of his judicial decisions and philosophies ran counter to the prevailing sentiments and political ideologies of the larger Black community. To be clear, support for Thomas from the Black community was far from universal. During the hearings and afterwards, many Black women remained strong supporters of Hill both privately and publicly.

After the hearings, in which Thomas was narrowly confirmed by a 52-48 vote in the Senate on October 15th, 1991, the National Coalition of 100 Black Women awarded Hill the Ida B. Wells Award in honor of her courage in coming forward. Additionally, in an ad published in the New York Times, 1,603 African American women defended Hill.

In the ad, titled “African American Women in Defense of Ourselves” the women wrote: “We are particularly outraged by the racist and sexist treatment of Professor Anita Hill, an African American woman who was maligned and castigated for daring to speak publicly of her own experience of sexual abuse. The malicious defamation of Professor Hill insulted all women of African descent and sent a dangerous message to any woman who might contemplate a sexual harassment complaint.” The women were responding not only to the public treatment of Hill but also because of their concern that Hill’s treatment might dissuade other Black women from coming forward with their experience of sexual harassment in the workplace. The group also engaged in criticism of Thomas beyond the allegations of harassment and let it be known that racial representation on the court was not sufficient if the justice was going to, as they believed Thomas would, fail to protect the rights of the vast majority of Black Americans.

Another part of the ad read, “As women of African descent, we are deeply troubled by the recent nomination, confirmation and seating of Clarence Thomas as an Associate Justice of the U. S. Supreme Court.

We know that the presence of Clarence Thomas on the Court will be continually used to divert attention from historic struggles for social justice through suggestions that the presence of a Black man on the Supreme Court constitutes an assurance that the rights of African Americans will be protected.” And they weren’t alone in their concern, the NAACP, the National Organization for Women, and dozens more were all concerned that Thomas would vote in ways that were the opposite of Thurgood Marshall, in ways that would be a threat to important issues like affirmative action and abortion. In the aftermath of the case, Anita Hill continued to be a law professor and also went on to become a prominent social activist, public speaker, and advocate for women’s rights. The case experienced renewed interest and attention when, in 2018 during the hearing of Supreme Court Justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh, Christine Blasey Ford brought allegations of sexual assault against him.

Many parallels were drawn between the two cases, not the least of which because they both caused divisions along political and gender lines throughout the United States. Although there were marked similarities between the two sets of allegations, it’s worth mentioning that, in large part because of the #MeToo movement—which was started by a Black woman named Tarana Burke—there’s a difference in public awareness of and sensitivity to issues of sexual harassment today compared to when Hill came forward in 1991. The real legacy of the Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas case is that it inspired future generations of women (particularly Black women) to speak up in defense of themselves and their right to safety from harassment in the workplace.

In 2021, Hill herself said, "Thirty years later, I'm here to say that even though Clarence Thomas was confirmed, I do believe that what I did was effective because it opened up the conversation publicly in a way that had never been done before… I've heard from people whose lives have been changed because that conversation was open." Even with that being true, for Hill, it didn’t come without a cost. After the hearing Hill faced public scrutiny, and attempts to discredit her and destroy her career. She received human feces through the mail and even death threats.

But over time she has been hailed as a change maker in conversations around women’s safety in the workplace. Today the legacy of this fight continues to give support and strength to all people who come forward with sexual harassment allegations and to create a safer, fairer, and more equitable workplace across the country for everyone. Thanks for watching.

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