Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality, edited by Toni Morrison
I’m a bit young to have any personal memory of the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas debacle, but have heard it referred to as a significant turning point in popular U.S. discussions of race and sex. So it was with great curiosity that I picked up Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power.
For those of you who don’t follow U.S. politics, or just need a quick refresher, Clarence Thomas was the second African-American to be appointed to the Supreme Court in 1991. His appointment was extremely controversial, not only because of his super-conservative, anti-civil rights politics, or because he was clearly under-qualified, but because Anita Hill, a black woman who had once worked for him, testified in his confirmation hearings that he had sexually harassed her in the workplace on a regular basis.
The essays in this book, edited and introduced by Toni Morrison, focus not so much on what happened, but how the issues were framed by the media and what the whole thing meant in the context of the deeply entrenched racial and sexual tropes that form easily recognizable cultural narratives about race, sex, and power.
The first few essays focus on Clarence Thomas’s conservative ideology and the paradox and hypocrisy of an African-American man condoning the racist policies put forth by the Republican party. African-American leadership was divided on the issue: support Thomas in a bid for symbolic representation, or oppose him on the grounds that his politics are, in fact, detrimental to the black community? What is the value of tokenism?
Things were further complicated by Anita Hill’s testimony. Historically, U.S. African-American women have been marginalized by both feminist movements on account of their race, and black civil rights movements on account of their sex. Many felt that Anita Hill was a race-traitor for bringing intraracial sexual oppression to the attention of the white mainstream. She was simultaneously accused of being a man-hating lesbian and jealous of Thomas’s wife; she was criticized for her careerism and her attempt at “keeping a good man down”. She was thought to be only a pawn for liberal white feminist groups, and was not taken seriously in her own right.
In coming forth with allegations of sexual harassment, with calm and composure, Anita Hill defied many stereotypes about black women: specifically the assumption that they are sexually lascivious and and always willing, that therefore it is not possible to rape or sexually assault them (this is an old assumption which was actually once written into U.S. law). She didn’t fit any easily recognizable roles for black women (think mammy, jezebel, welfare queen) and therefore, she was confounding. People were at a loss as to how to place her. In a sense, she was “de-raced”. By bringing up an issue that was both racial and sexual, she was “made white”…intersectionality was not yet a popular approach to thinking about oppression, and when pressed, people were more comfortable dealing with her as a woman (coded white) because of her sexual victimization than as a black person (coded male). This was not to her benefit.
Conversely, Clarence Thomas invoked symbols of blackness that are negative, but in this case were helpful to him. When he declared himself the victim of a “high-tech lynching” during his trial, he both de-legitimized Anita Hill’s blackness and subverted the issue of sexual harassment. However inappropriate and inaccurate the claim, Thomas effectively drew a connection in the minds of his listeners between the allegations he faced and the racist history of treating black men as brutes, sexual predators unable to control their animalistic urges, beaten by mobs and lynched for the smallest (or completely fabricated) infractions. In doing so, he was able to make himself the victim of racism rooted in sex and authenticate his own blackness.
Each essay in this collection is strong, and covers a much wider terrain than I possibly can in this single post. The ideas noted above are only a small, simplified sample of the essays’ contents. They were all written by academics and noted intellectuals, so the tone and writing of all of them is…academic and extremely intellectual. This is not a complaint, as I quite like that sort of thing, but I know not everyone does. Unfortunately, as is the case for many such collections, the essays do get repetitive and a bit tedious. Worth it, since I do feel I learned a lot by reading them all. I feel I now have a much better understanding of how and why the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings brought discussions of sex and race to the forefront of U.S. politics and how they forced widening thought about the particular oppression of black women and recognition of the existence and importance of black feminism. So I might just suggest reading the essays over time instead of all at once, so as not to get frustrated with the repetition.
A few of my favorite essays included, I think, were Hill, Thomas, and the Use of Racial Stereotype, by Nell Irvin Painter, White Feminists and Black Realities: The Politics of Authenticity, by Christine Stansell, and Whose Story is it, Anyway? Feminist and Antiracist Appropriations of Anita Hill, by Kimberle Crenshaw, a woman whose work I’ve encountered a few times in different capacities and never failed to be impressed by.
If those titles interest you, this book is right up your alley.