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Thomas’s Confirmation: The True Story

It may be that Patterson’s argument, while intellectually and politically indefensible, might in fact provide a clue into how someone like Clarence Thomas might differentiate between women…. White women could be pure, madonna-like figures needing vigilant protection, but black women can take care of themselves—indeed, they even implicitly consent to aggression by participating in a cultural repartee.

Thomas had gambled everything on his character, on the person he is. He brushed aside all his earlier constitutional views (as in fact, not constitutional, merely partisan). He let his intellectual grasp of things he read, signed, or praised look shallow or non-existent. Everything rode on his personal story, the discipline he had absorbed from his strict grandfather, the family values he owed his success to. The grandfather was almost a member of the dramatis personae in that hearing room. Senator Specter said, “I could not help but think that your grandfather and my father would have been good friends.” Senator Grassley addressed charges against Thomas by asking, simply, “What advice you think he [the grandfather] would give you?”23 Who Thomas was came to be defined in terms of what he had suffered. That was more important than any of his views. Specter was ready to conclude that “his character is shown more by his roots than by these writings” [of his].24 Alan Simpson relied on the fact that Thomas “has this extraordinary early life experience” and “came through the crucible of a life described as we know it now of Justice Thomas.”25 Joseph Biden, the fluttery chairman, gushed his agreement: “I am not so sure but what your roots are not more important in trying to predict what you will do if confirmed, than your writings.”26

The gamble seemed to be working as the committee reached its scheduled end. The “assassins” Thomas feared had never risen up to challenge his idyllic version of the tortured relationship with his own family, to ask why his doctrine of self-help, of mutual help, of family independence from the state had not made him offer assistance to his sister when she had to take state aid. No one asked friends of his grandfather what that man thought of the person he raised to be an NAACP lawyer. Nor did senators wonder at the absent brother, the bitterly divided parents, the long lack of contact between Clarence and other members of his family.

Since everything rested, in effect, on that family, the committee was oddly incurious about anything but Thomas’s own account of it. Competence and constitutionalism were let go—and the remaining thing, character, was looked at only superficially. Until, that is, word spread among committee members of Anita Hill’s charges. If the committee had taken Thomas’s views seriously, had really tested his constitutionalism and competence, those charges would not have had the impact they did. But since everything rested on the picture of his character that Thomas had created, anything so wildly at variance with that picture as Hill’s claims was bound to take on a weird resonance. The man charged with remedying workplace grievances was accused of committing a workplace aggression. The man supposed to be proper yet compassionate toward black women (his sister excluded) was called a harasser of his black associate.

3.

Hill

In all this dramatic story, nothing is more riveting than John Danforth’s account of Thomas’s reaction to Hill’s charges. Those charges had been submitted to the committee in affidavit, but the committee chairman, Joseph Biden, properly refused to air them so long as she would not appear to defend them. She had been interrogated by the FBI, and some friends and lobbyists were urging her to come forward. But news reports of her charges did not come out until after the committee voted (seven for, seven against) on Thomas’s nomination. The Thomas forces had pushed for a quick vote in the Senate, since they feared new developments.

Danforth says he supported the quick schedule because he did not know how long Thomas could endure the suffering he had undergone since the beginning of the confirmation process. Thomas’s fears appeared to have accelerated; he slept little; he had stopped eating. The full Senate vote was, extraordinarily, scheduled for the week after the committee’s vote, on a Tuesday; and Hill’s allegations came out over the weekend. Asked what he wanted to do, Thomas said he wanted to get things over, and would go to the vote. But a number of people were asking, “Why the rush?” Senator Barbara Mikulski demanded that a woman making a complaint should get a hearing if she were willing to come forward.

Danforth and others convinced Thomas that he would lose confirmation if he faced a vote before Hill was heard.27 His team tried to negotiate a quick hearing of two days, with limited questioning. Thomas, according to Danforth, was going into a state of hysterical withdrawal, almost catatonic. He was unable to focus while his own lawyers questioned him. He lay clenched in a fetal position. He sobbed convulsively and hyperventilated before many of his intimates, saying that his destroyers had finally succeeded. Danforth saw many of these symptoms, and Thomas’s wife, Virginia, told him there were some she would not confide even to him. Danforth did not want to know more: “There are matters that should remain private between a husband and a wife—certainly matters that are hard to include in a book about a good man who is a friend. That a future justice of the Supreme Court was writhing on the floor is awful enough to tell.” Danforth would try to put off all further Senate action because he feared for the survival of his friend. It is an odd way to defend a man as qualified for the Supreme Court. If the Senate had known of this reaction, or of the paranoid earlier fears of assassination, would it have worried about stability, as it did in the case of John Rutledge?

Thomas said he would appear again to deny but not to discuss Hill’s charges; and he would write his statement without White House coaching (which he had earlier denied receiving). He brushed off lawyers’ attempts to go into detail in answering Hill. Danforth several times expressed fear that his denials would be too sweeping, so that he risked perjury and possible impeachment. That is a strange position for a man to take who is recommending a lawyer, a judge, to become a Supreme Court justice. Why does one have to inform such a man that he should not commit perjury?

Though his handlers could no longer put words in Thomas’s mouth, they did bargain hard to let him make the opening statement, and to follow up after Hill testified. The logical order would be for Hill to make her charges and then for Thomas to answer them. But Thomas, who had agreed to the Hill appearance when it became clear that the Senate would not confirm him with her charges left hanging in the air, went before the committee to say he would not answer questions:

I am not going to allow myself to be further humiliated in order to be confirmed…. I am not here to be further humiliated by this committee or anyone else….

He would deny Hill’s charge absolutely, and answer no further questions. He was not only stonewalling, but denouncing the committee for listening to Hill at all: “This is not American. This is Kafka-esque. It has got to stop.” Then he used a startling metaphor: “I will not provide the rope for my own lynching.”28 After Hill’s testimony (which Thomas claims he did not watch), he returned to repeat this metaphor even more angrily, calling the committee’s performance “a high-tech lynching.”

The use of this term causes as much indignation in the black scholars in Morrison’s collection as did Thomas’s comment on his sister. He said that any whites who suspected black men of sexual excess were succumbing to stereotypes of lustfulness that had stirred lynchers in the past. But Thomas was joining his defenders on the committee, who had used an equally powerful stereotype of black female sexuality (the Sapphire caricature from Amos ‘n Andy, the “oversexed-black-Jezebel”).29 Senator Simpson artfully suggested in the public hearing that Hill was sexually aberrant by referring to her “proclivities,” the homophobe’s code word. Danforth himself would diagnose Hill, with a sudden influx of psychiatric expertise, as an “erotomaniac.” A later critic would call her “a little bit slutty.”

Nell Irvin Painter, the Edwards Professor of American History of Princeton, points out that the black stereotype of male lust has been effectively opposed in our culture (e.g., in the cases of blacks falsely accused of rape, litigated by the NAACP which Thomas has mocked); but the stereotype of female lust is not so often challenged. It is even perpetuated by some blacks—including Orlando Patterson, when he says black women can be talked to in ways different from those used with white women. This is the double code that, Painter says, shows up in Eldridge Cleaver’s boast “that he raped black women for practice; he was honing his skills before attacking white women, who were for him real women.”

White feminists were upset at the committee’s senators, who did not seem to take sexual harassment seriously. But black women were angry at Thomas for the glaring anomaly in his lynching metaphor, which few people bothered to notice. What role did Anita Hill play in his little scenario? As Kendall Thomas points out in Morrison’s book, “No African-American man was ever lynched on the word of an aggrieved black woman.” Black women were themselves often killed or raped by lynch mobs. Thomas was casting Hill in the role of a white woman, the only kind listened to by white lynchers. He was erasing her color. Kimberlé Crenshaw puts it this way:

A black woman, herself a victim of racism, was symbolically transformed into the role of a would-be white woman whose unwarranted finger-pointing whetted the appetites of a racist lynch mob.

Entirely apart from the truth of Hill’s charge, this was wild talk, racially insensitive and even inverted. No white mob ever cared what black men did to black women. They only cared about any contact with white women. Indeed, as Kendall Thomas, who teaches law at Columbia University, points out, the only thing that would enrage a real lynch mob at Thomas’s hearing was the white woman sitting near him, Virginia Thomas.30

For all these reasons the black scholars condemn Thomas’s lynching metaphor as an act of what Kendall Thomas calls “language-robbery.” Morrison herself says Thomas was speaking the masters’ language even while he pretended to defy them. Cornel West, in his contribution to the Morrison book, says:

All his professional life he has championed individual achievement and race-free standards. Yet when he saw his ship sinking, he played the racial card of black victimization and black solidarity at the expense of Anita Hill. Like his sister Emma Mae, Anita Hill could be used…
  1. 23

    Thomas Hearings, Part 1, pp. 69-70, Part 4, p. 258. Thomas said his grandfather’s advice would be “give out but don’t give up.” 

  2. 24

    Thomas Hearings, Part 2, p. 39. 

  3. 25

    Thomas Hearings, Part 2, p. 50. 

  4. 26

    Thomas Hearings, Part 1, p. 494. 

  5. 27

    It would take a unanimous Senate approval to delay the vote, so any of Thomas’s supporters could have prevented the delay. 

  6. 28

    Thomas Hearings, Part 4, pp. 8-10. 

  7. 29

    An ad signed by 1,603 black women professionals appeared in the November 16 New York Times denouncing the sexual stereotyping of Anita Hill. 

  8. 30

    Judge Leon Higginbotham, in his famous open letter to Thomas (reprinted in Morrison’s book), told Thomas that if the civil rights groups he derided had not overturned an anti-miscegenation law in Virginia as recently as 1966, “you could have been in the penitentiary today.” 

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