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The Hill-Thomas Mystery

The liberal-left juggernaut, Brock continues, now pursues a second end: to “redefine the legal and social relations between the sexes.” The Hill-Thomas hearings, he writes, unleashed a torrent of women’s fury into the election campaigns of 1992. Women candidates came to power in record numbers, campaigning explicitly or implicitly on the platform that the white male senators “just didn’t get it.” And Anita Hill’s testimony caused a “sea change” in American consciousness about sexual relationships at work.

Brock’s book is meant to challenge these developments by alleging that they were born in sin—that they were the result of a fabrication that Hill and her co-conspirators could “justify…on the utilitarian grounds that they advanced the larger causes” of helping victims of sexual harassment, whether or not Clarence Thomas was chewed up and spat out along the way. In his epilogue, Brock warns of an encroaching feminism in which “all men are seen as rapists,” so that “it does not matter whether Hill actually proved her case against Thomas or not.” In view of such rhetoric, it is at least worth considering the possibility that Brock is ideologically driven to depict Anita Hill as a liar, no matter whether he actually proves his case against her or not.

3.

Brock constructs his version of the Hill-Thomas story by seeking to answer the question why Hill might appear under oath and testify that Clarence Thomas did something he actually did not do. A truly impartial consideration of the case, however, would at least pose the opposite question: Why might Clarence Thomas appear under oath and testify that he did not do something he actually in some sense did? Brock essentially assumes the truth of Thomas’s testimony and emphasizes that the witnesses “who knew both Thomas and Hill”—fiercely loyal former assistants to Thomas—all “believed Thomas, not Hill.” He thus never explores the possibility of an alternative account.

Suppose Thomas did say to Hill roughly what Hill said he said. What might explain, then, the evident conviction of his angry and powerful televised denial? One subtle possibility was put forward just after the hearings by Orlando Patterson, an African American professor of sociology at Harvard, in a controversial op-ed piece in The New York Times. Brock dismisses Patterson in a single sentence, but his hypothesis deserves more than that.

Patterson speculated as follows. Sexual banter in the workplace is taboo according to the “neo-Puritan” rules of gender relations enforced by “elitist” feminists and the “white upper-middle class.” But “the mass of the white working class and nearly all African Americans” know that “raunchy things” are said in the work-place all the time. Strong women just talk back. Thomas, Patterson surmises, adhered in public to the “elitist” white feminist gender code, just as Brock describes. But on occasion he privately let “his mainstream cultural guard down” when he thought the setting was safe. He thought it was safe with Anita Hill because she was “esthetically and socially very similar to himself.” In what he thought was their shared “psycho-cultural context,” regaling her “with his Rabelaisian humor” was a “way of affirming their common origins.”

Such sexual banter, Patterson writes, would have been “completely out[side] of the cultural frame of his white, upper-middle-class work world, but immediately recognizable” as a common and unmalevolent language “to Professor Hill and most women of Southern working-class backgrounds, white or black, especially the latter.” Now, it turns out, Thomas “misjudged” Hill when he said “what he is alleged to have said”—she did not like it, or take it to be normal, even though she did not talk back or otherwise complain about it at the time. Thus her testimony at the hearings was a shock to him, even though it was not false.

Is there anything in the record that supports Patterson’s speculation? Three sources are suggestive. First is Thomas’s own initial statement to the committee the morning the hearings reopened—a statement he wrote himself, with “no handlers, no advisers”:

I cannot imagine anything that I said or did to Anita Hill that could have been mistaken for sexual harassment. But with that said, if there is anything that I have said that has been misconstrued by Anita Hill or anyone else to be sexual harassment, then I can say that I am so very sorry and I wish I had known. If I did know, I would have stopped immediately and I would not, as I’ve done over the past two weeks, [have] had to tear away at myself trying to think of what I could possibly have done.

But I have not said or done the things that Anita Hill has alleged.

By evening, after a day of Anita Hill’s testimony, that nuanced view had hardened into the statement that he unequivocally, categorically” denied Hill’s allegations. But most of the original statement is consistent with Patterson’s account.

The second major piece of evidence supporting this alternative theory is the statement of Angela Wright, a former EEOC director of public affairs whom Thomas had fired for reasons that remain in dispute (some say she called another employee a “faggot”; she denies it). Wright—often referred to in the press at the time as “the other woman”—had told Senate investigators that she had had experiences with Thomas resembling Hill’s testimony. In Capitol Games: The Inside Story of Clarence Thomas, Anita Hill and a Supreme Court Nomination,2 Timothy Phelps and Helen Winternitz report that Wright—whom they describe as “a young, very attractive, single black career woman who had worked for Clarence Thomas at a time when his life was in turbulence”—said that Thomas had “made comments about my anatomy” and the prospect of their dating. She said that “Clarence Thomas made comments about women’s anatomy quite often,” that this was “a thing that, you know, pretty much pops out of Clarence Thomas’s mouth.”

Wright never testified at the hearings, but her written statement was admitted into the record. Brock dismisses Wright as wholly incredible, suggesting that she was just out to “settle this score” with Thomas for firing her. True, her possible bias raised obvious questions about her credibility, and indeed may have been the reason the Democrats declined to have her testify. But Brock’s dismissal of Wright might have been too hasty. He claimed that her written statement in the record was unsworn. But Mayer and Abramson show that she did in fact swear to its truth on a form sent to the Senate, as Brock now admits in the August American Spectator. Mayer and Abramson also correct Brock’s assertion that she was never questioned by the FBI; her lawyers confirm that she was.

If Wright’s statement is viewed as credible, she gives support to Orlando Patterson’s account. Her statements to Senate investigators suggest that she understood Thomas’s remarks as part of the psycho-cultural context Patterson describes, one in which the remarks were considered repartee rather than verbal assaults: “I want you to understand that I am not sitting here saying to you that I was sexually harassed by Clarence Thomas. I am a very strong-willed person and at no point did I feel intimidated by him.”

Anita Hill’s feelings may well have been quite different from Angela Wright’s. She may have been both more offended by similar remarks and more intimidated by them. But Thomas may have been utterly unaware of her different reaction because, as his opening statement emphasized, she had never told him how she felt. Thus Hill and Thomas may have ascribed different meanings to the same behavior. If Thomas spoke about sexual matters to Anita Hill thinking she did not seriously object to what he was saying, then he may have meant it when he said he did not do “what she alleged.”

Hill may have been quite conscious that her failure to convey her sense of discomfort to Thomas posed a problem for her, as a third source from the record suggests—her own statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Hill did not, in fact, testify that she had been “sexually harassed”; the charge of “sexual harassment” was ascribed to her by her interrogators and the press. Indeed she was sometimes at pains to remind the senators that she was not charging technical sexual harassment in the legal sense. Why not? Sexual banter is not “sexual harassment” when both parties consent to its being used; conventional legal definitions of sexual harassment generally specify that the sexual behavior that exacts a quid pro quo or creates a hostile environment must be “unwelcome.” It is at least possible that the lawyerly caution in Hill’s description reflected her sense that by failing to make her feelings clear to Thomas at the time, she had created, legally speaking, an uphill or perhaps impossible sexual harassment case. According to Patterson’s interpretation, she had led Thomas to believe that “in context” his remarks were safe.

If this account is closer than Brock’s to what happened, then pieces of the puzzle Brock finds suspicious fall into place. Thomas considered Hill a friend, not an enemy, right up to the eve of the hearings, never knowing that his trust in their mutually understood “context” had been misplaced. Hill came forward reluctantly, and then provided only flatly stated clinical details rather than sweeping characterizations of Thomas’s behavior; she knew how difficult it would be to establish a claim that she had been “harassed.”

It remains, however, to ask why, if this is how it happened, Thomas would deny that Hill’s allegations were true. What rationalization could he possibly have had? To Orlando Patterson, the answer is straightforward: testifying before the white, upper-middle-class senators, he realized that categorical denial was the only way out. The Hill-Thomas hearings had

lifted a verbal style that carries only minor sanction in one subcultural context and thrown it in the overheated cultural arena of mainstream, neo-Puritan America where it incurs professional extinction.3

If Thomas had said he had made the innocent mistake of thinking she was on the same wavelength, the senators, Patterson says, wouldn’t “get it”; no communication was possible across the cultural divide. Still, why not tell the factual truth and take the consequences? Because, Patterson argues, the penalty of losing his appointment was grossly disproportionate to what he had done and the process grossly unfair. Just as juries sometimes nullify the facts before them to avert unjust verdicts, so did Thomas’s denial nullify Hill’s case.

The shift in the polls—according to Brock, yet another creation of the liberal press and television—can be more easily explained by this alternative hypothesis. At the time of the hearings, when more people said they “believed” Thomas than Hill, some of them might well have meant “he did it, but so what?” To lose a Supreme Court seat over the unprotested events of ten years earlier would be disproportionate and unfair. With Thomas securely on the Court, however, even those sympathetic to Thomas are safe to say that they believed Anita Hill.

Of course, this version of what happened cannot be proved. Moreover, it raises deep moral and political questions of its own. Patterson says that according to his interpretation, Thomas “was justified in denying making the remarks, even if he had in fact made them,” because truth is relative across our national “psycho-cultural” divide. Others would argue that the truth about whether statements were in fact made cannot be called relative; and it is for the relevant tribunal to decide what weight and justification to give statements such as those ascribed to Thomas. How could the concept of perjury survive, and how could legislators rely on testimony, if witnesses can decide for themselves that the facts of what took place can legitimately be denied?

Furthermore, Patterson dismisses out of hand the injury many women, including Anita Hill, claim to feel when men make rough sexual remarks in the workplace. He also abruptly dismisses their claim that they feel too powerless to follow his advice that they talk back boldly to the men who annoy them. Patterson divides the world into “psycho-cultural contexts” according to race and class but not according to gender; he fails to notice that many women—black or white—may not consider sexual remarks at work to be “Rabelaisian humor” or “down-home…courting” but rather understand them to be abusive.

However speculative or controversial, Patterson’s hypothesis at least puts Brock’s equally speculative account into relief. Brock purports to resolve the “Rashomon-like standoff” between Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill, but in doing so, he misses Rashomon‘s point. Sometimes no version of events is authoritative; what happened is sometimes a matter of the perspective from which they are viewed. Patterson’s interpretation suggests how perspective can alter the meaning two people can give the same events. But Rashomon reminded us that narrators too are trapped in a world of partial perspectives. Brock claims to have transcended partial perspective and found the truth, but instead of the truth he gives only his own perspective. The more closely it is examined, the more distorted it appears.

July 15, 1993

  1. 2

    Hyperion, 1992.

  2. 3

    Reprinted in Court of Appeal: The Black Community Speaks Out on the Racial and Sexual Politics of Thomas VS. Hill, edited by Robert Chrisman and Robert L. Allen (Ballantine, 1992).

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