There’s one distinct difference between the Clarence Thomas hearings and the Brett Kavanaugh hearings.
This week’s hearings in which Christine Blasey Ford, the California professor who has accused the Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault when she was 15 and he was 17, will appear, seems primed to privilege Kavanaugh and exploit Ford’s weaknesses.
There is no effort yet to thoroughly investigate her claim, by either the F.B.I. or the Senate itself, and there are no plans as yet to call any witnesses other than the accused and the accuser. This is designed to be a spectacle that will embarrass her and elevate him, much the way the Clarence Thomas hearings featuring accuser Anita Hill played out in 1991.
Indeed, many people have drawn attention to the numerous parallels between the two cases, but I would like to draw attention to one difference, one that could bode well for Ford: the absence of a racial element in a heated racial environment.
Months before Thomas was nominated, an amateur photographer videotaped the savage beating of motorist Rodney King by a throng of Los Angeles police officers.
One could argue that this was the first modern Black Lives Matters case — a private citizen recording and sharing video that exposed police brutality.
As The New York Times described the incident at the time:
“Fifteen police officers in 10 patrol cars stopped Mr. King’s white sedan. As Mr. King lay on the ground offering no resistance, he was surrounded by officers, one of whom shocked him with a stun gun as others hit him more than 50 times with their batons and kicked him in the head and body at least seven times while he begged them to stop.”
In June of 1991, as the officers awaited trial, Thurgood Marshall, the civil rights lion and the only African-American on the Supreme Court, announced his retirement. President Bush, under pressure to appoint a minority replacement, did just that. He nominated a black man to replace a black man — Clarence Thomas for Marshall’s seat — even as he publicly proclaimed, “I don’t feel there should be a black seat on the court or an ethnic seat on the court.”
But the two men could not have been more different: Marshall, a true liberal, and Thomas, a man hostile to civil rights initiatives.
Thomas’s nomination put black America in a bind: Oppose Thomas and risk having no black representation on the court, or support him in spite of his hostile views. Black civil rights groups were hesitant to take a stand one way or the other on Thomas, even though years earlier he had berated these groups, saying all they do is “moan and whine.”
Then came the allegation of sexual harassment brought by Professor Hill, and everything changed. It is not that Hill wasn’t credible, but it was that Thomas was on the defensive and the image of yet another black man under attack from a group of white men had an eerie echo of King under assault from the L.A.P.D.
The hearings that followed, including compelling, credible testimony from Hill and the demeaning way in which she was treated, was extraordinary, must-see television. One poll taken after the hearings by this newspaper found that “nine of 10 people said they had seen at least part of the hearings.”
Then, Thomas provoked blacks to circle the wagons when he declared the hearings a “high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves.” He continued: “And it is a message, that unless you kowtow to an old order you will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the U.S. Senate rather than hung from a tree.”
After the hearings, The Chicago Tribune reported on an ABC News-Washington Post poll that showed support for Thomas’s confirmation had actually risen to 56 percent. But as the paper pointed out:
Thomas’s support was strongest among blacks, with 70 percent backing his nomination; 50 percent of whites support him. Another weekend poll, conducted by The Los Angeles Times, said 51 percent overall believed the Senate should confirm Thomas, down from 54 percent in September. But when broken down by race, the figures showed 61 percent of blacks backed Thomas’s confirmation, up from 55 percent in September, while only 50 percent of whites said he should be confirmed.
Black people, to their everlasting regret, backed Thomas, as did the Senate, over Hill’s warnings.
This time, that racial element is absent. The Republicans on the committee, those likely to be hostile to Ford, are all still white men. Ford and Kavanaugh are both white.
This is a much more focused battle of testimonies. Either a boy assaulted a girl or he didn’t. Either an older child took advantage of a younger one, or he didn’t.
One of these people is lying and in this collision of gender narratives, women will not have to struggle with the choice that black people did. If they believe Ford, they can simply say #metoo.