How can a repeat sexual offender be qualified to dispense justice?
If you're not familiar with the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas (who was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in 1991), settle in. His nomination was opposed by the NAACP (who feared he would undo Civil Rights gains) and the National Organization for Women (who feared Thomas would rule against legal abortion). He had also only served as a federal judge for just under two years. Despite these criticisms, Thomas' confirmation seemed assured. Until a private interview given by Anita Hill to the FBI was leaked to the press, revealing a much more sinister side to Thomas' supposed good character. She was hired as an assistant to Judge Thomas in 1981.
Hill testified that in the time she worked for Thomas, she was repeatedly sexually harassed.
It began when he asked her our and she refused. "I believed then, as now, that having a social relationship with a person who was supervising my work would be ill advised. I was very uncomfortable with the idea and told him so." According to Hill, Thomas did not take no for an answer, demanding further justification from her and continuing to ask her out. And he didn't stop there either.
"My working relationship became even more strained when Judge Thomas began to use work situations to discuss sex. On these occasions, he would call me into his office for reports on education issues and projects or he might suggest that because of the time pressures of his schedule, we go to lunch to a government cafeteria. After a brief discussion of work, he would turn the conversation to a discussion of sexual matters. His conversations were very vivid."
He spoke about acts that he had seen in pornographic films involving such matters as women having sex with animals, and films showing group sex or rape scenes.
"He talked about pornographic materials depicting individuals with large penises, or large breasts involved in various sex acts. On several occasions Thomas told me graphically of his own sexual prowess. Because I was extremely uncomfortable talking about sex with him at all, and particularly in such a graphic way, I told him that I did not want to talk about these subjects. I would also try to change the subject to education matters or to nonsexual personal matters, such as his background or his beliefs. My efforts to change the subject were rarely successful."
Imagine this for a moment. Your boss is making these kinds of comments. Thomas himself said that "the only reason why she'd held a job in the Reagan administration was because I'd given it to her." (Via his book My Grandfather's Son). While he meant the comment to be disparaging, it paints an ugly picture. Her continued employment was in his hands, and he used that power to sexually harass her.
The harassment stopped- for a little while.
Thomas was made the Chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and Anita Hill was asked to go with him, which she did (a fact which was used to discredit her- despite the nonexistent opportunities elsewhere). Hill stated that the harassment ended for the first few months, but began again in 1982. "He began to show displeasure in his tone and voice and his demeanor in his continued pressure for an explanation. He commented on what I was wearing in terms of whether it made me more or less sexually attractive." According to Hill he would refer to the size of his penis and his skill at oral sex. It was at this point that she began looking for another job. She feared that he would find out and fire her, or sabotage her attempts to get another job. She was finally successful and left in 1983.
Clarence Thomas knew what he was doing was inappropriate.
There's no arguing that he didn't. If he was completely unaware that discussing the size of one's penis was inappropriate in the workplace, he would have done it in front of others, or with his male employees. He wouldn't have vehemently denied it or called Anita Hill his "most traitorous adversary". Hill bravely came forward despite the personal pain it caused her, because she was asked to by the Senate. It would have been easier to keep the story to herself, to avoid the scrutiny and shame she endured as a result of honestly sharing her experience. "When I was asked by a representative of this committee to report my experience I felt that I had to tell the truth. I could not keep silent." (You can read the text of the entire hearing here).
Clarence Thomas was confirmed anyway.
On October 15th, 1991, Thomas was confirmed by a 52–48 vote (the narrowest margin yet). However, Hill's testimony is considered one of the key events that brought the issue of workplace sexual harassment into public discussion. So while it is more than a little unsettling that a sitting Supreme Court Justice was incapable of living justly by telling the truth (or by not exerting this kind of power over his employee in the first place), it is at least comforting to know that Hill's bravery was not for nothing.
HBO is airing a dramatization of the events Saturday at 8pm.
I know I'll be watching. Hill's commitment to the truth, at huge personal cost, is something that still deserves to be recognized. This isn't in the faraway past, this happened within my lifetime. And it serves as an ungentle reminder that while we've come a long way, we still have very far to go.