I watched HBO’s Confirmation, the Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill biopic about the days leading up to Justice Thomas’ appointment to the Supreme Court . I have to admit that I wasn’t too familiar with the particulars before watching. My senior year of college, my mentor invited me to a legal conference for women of color and Anita Hill was the keynote speaker. I was confused; her name had triggered negative connotations in my mind. Isn’t she a historical villain? I was too embarrassed to ask clarifying questions and too lazy to do a google search, so six years later, I was still in need of a history lesson. I had a feeling my initial gut reaction to her presence at the conference was ill founded and I was ready to be schooled.
The film did an excellent job of showcasing each major player’s perspective and pain while not negating the harm they inflicted on others. Wendell Pierce’s portrayal of Clarence Thomas grabbed and held me. There was such a righteous indignation running through his body from the moment he was informed about the complaint that Anita Hill had filed against him. Pierce conveyed what I believe to be true about Thomas, and that is: he wholly believed himself to be the victim in the situation.
Halfway through the film, Justice Thomas is seated before the Senate Judiciary Committee after Professor Hill has presented her affidavit. He then launches into his firm refutation of the information presented. As the monologue progressed, it was clear to me that he was leading up to a big finish and I was eager to hear it, until I suddenly realized that I already knew the climax he was building to. The expression had been hanging in my head for years, unconnected to anything, until I was able to summon the phrase and seemingly force it into his mouth like a final puzzle piece. I found myself mumbling the words a beat before he spewed them out: “a hi-tech lynching.”
I wonder how many black people sat in front of their televisions that night in 1991, feeling such pride in this black man who was able to speak so eloquently on the real truths of being black in America, while simultaneously closing their ears and hearts to the truth also being spoken by Professor Hill. How many of those black people now feel ashamed after living through 25 years of Justice Thomas’s harmful Supreme Court decisions? While initially praised as a beacon of hope and icon of black exceptionalism, Justice Thomas has spent more than two decades championing colorblind policies as if the official end to explicit chattel slavery and Jim Crow left no traces that needed to be addressed. He continuously advocates against affirmative action and refuses to speak out against the prison industrial complex that disproportionately incarcerates black men. As many at the time of his confirmation – Professor Charles Ogletree included – decried, he was and is a poor substitute for his predecessor, Thurgood Marshall.Not only that, Justice Thomas has actively worked to undo all the good that Justice Marshall championed as a judge and before that, a civil rights attorney.
During my 3L year, Justice Thomas came to Harvard and requested a meeting with the Black Law Students Association. BLSA hosted a breakfast for him and asked any student who wanted to attend to submit two questions that they wanted to ask the Associate Justice (a screening method likely intended to weed out those folks who were planning to pop off on him unnecessarily). If they liked the questions submitted, the author of the questions was invited to the breakfast.
I was invited to the breakfast and my peers and I had two main questions we wanted him to address: 1) How do you feel about your legacy on the Supreme Court and 2) Why are you here?
That last question was meant to encapsulate the following beliefs of black Harvard Law students: “Harvard has an affirmative action policy, and based on your firm anti-affirmative action stance, it follows that you believe some, if not many, of us don’t deserve to be here. And in your world, in which race is not a significant factor in the post-racial society that you imagine we live in, the very existence of this affinity group should be preposterous to you.”
He responded to the latter inquiry by stating matter of factly that if he was going to come to Harvard, he would obviously have to meet with the black students at some point because that is the group he most identifies with. No one knew how to respond to that statement. He then reflected on his legacy with a tired shrug and replied, “I don’t know. I tried to do what I thought was best, but I honestly don’t even like dealing with race issues anymore. I don’t know what the right answer is.”
Despite the state of mind I was in when I entered the room, I found myself empathizing with him. It was clear that he honestly believed that he was doing right by black people. His philosophy was overly simplistic, but logical: he was better off without handouts, so the rest of black America would be as well. Of course, that mindset failed to acknowledge that he too was given leg ups in life and, regardless, his experiences were the exception to the norm. Policy and law is written for the majority, not the exceptions. I was reminded of this conversation that I had with myself about him while watching Confirmation. For him, the hearing nothing more than a clear-cut case of the white man trying to keep the black man down, this woman’s feelings and interests be damned.
This perspective is not particular to him. I was treated to a healthy dose of this mentality when I went home for Christmas last year and sat through a lengthy conversation with a group, dominated by women, defending Bill Cosby. I was so flabbergasted at the time that I couldn’t articulate my thoughts well. Living in a liberal bubble often leaves me defenseless when I have to refute problematic views because I have been lulled into a false understanding of the world, namely: surely there aren’t still people defending Bill Cosby out there, especially women.
The summer prior to that Christmas, my friend and I were talking about the rape allegations and he admitted, “You know when it was just Janice Dickerson, I was like cool, I can ignore that. She’s crazy. But now the numbers are growing and…if Cosby did this, who can I, as a black man look up to? He’s the only role model I have left.” A couple of months later, after moving back to Guatemala, I saw that the number of women coming forward had jumped again. I sent my friend an email with the latest update entitled, “You need a new role model.”
I’m not angry with people who defend Cosby or those who rushed to Thomas’ defense back in 1991 because I’m not without my own blind spots. I have a huge one for Kanye West. I work really hard to not read or hear anything he has said since 2005. When people attack him to me, I shrug and say, “Y’all, he’s going through some stuff. Leave him be.” I don’t want his legacy to be tarnished; his lyrics have rescued me on multiple occasions.
And then I saw that photo of him with Trump and my heart sank.
The other day, I was walking down the street, listening to “Never Let Me Down,” and tears streamed down my face as I rapped along with him.
I get down for my grandfather who took my momma
Made her sit in that seat where white folks ain’t want us to eat
At the tender age of 6 she was arrested for the sit in
And with that in my blood I was born to be different
Now niggaz can’t make it to ballots to choose leadership
But we can make it to Jacob’s and to the dealership
Swear I hear new music and I just don’t be feelin’ it
Racism still alive, they just be concealin’ it
Where is the man who spit these truths? I was fine with the fact that his later albums never went as hard because his reality has changed. He is up to his neck in privilege and privilege is the death of perspective. However, while it’s one thing for him to move on and address new topics, behaving and speaking in a way that directly contradicts truths he understood so clearly before is harder to swallow. What is going on? Did Kanye really make a 180-degree turn?
Michael Arceneaux’s answer is nope; he was never checking for black people to begin with. When I read his headline, my immediate response was okay, sir, that’s a farce. Please don’t tarnish his entire legacy just to make a point. But after finishing the Clarence Thomas biopic and reflecting on my meeting with him in law school, I understand Arceneaux’s argument better. It is extremely problematic that Justice Thomas used the term “hi-tech lynching.” There is a powerful moment in the film when Kerry Washington, as Anita Hill, is breaking down, angry that Thomas evoked the lynching imagery because it is disrespectful to men, like her grandfather, who lived with the real threat of actual lynching.
Nevertheless, the black community applauds our public figures for their bold commentary because even if the actual grievance they are complaining about doesn’t speak to the majority of our experiences, they are using language that gives voice to horrors most of us are too powerless to voice. But before too long, when they “get on and leave our ass for [some] white [privilege],” we’re confused because we thought they spoke for us. In reality, they were never speaking for the group. West and Thomas were advocating solely for themselves and, because they are black, race was simply one of the tools they had at their disposal to help them fight their individual battles.
From college to law school, I have met many Wests and Thomases in person and it never fails to hurt me when I see them operating from a place of “I” instead of “we.” As black people, we can’t afford to not work for the group’s best interests. When people do that, someone gets left out to dry, namely me, the black woman. History is littered with the bodies of black women who suppressed their own interests and submitted to the will of the group, just to be trampled on by the egos of the selfish ones among us. Coretta Scott King is one of those women. She never publicly condemned Martin Luther King, Jr.’s infidelity because his advocacy for the group outweighed his loyalty to her. Beverly Johnson, a model who was drugged by Cosby is another one of those women. She didn’t want to speak out because she didn’t want to tarnish the image of a man who had been the only father figure and positive role model that some of us would ever know. And I know now that Anita Hill is one of those women, similarly afraid to speak out and only coming forth after being asked to by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
After Trayvon Martin was denied justice, the black law students had a meeting where people could come process their feelings with the group. One 3L approached the microphone and told a story about how he had been at a bar when the verdict acquitting George Zimmerman of Martin’s murder came down. A group of white men approached him and his white friends. They looked at him and said, “What’s up, Trayvon?” and he admitted that his only response was a weak, “He’s dead.” He broke down crying at the podium while saying, “I just didn’t understand! I mean, I have cool hair [he had a relaxer], I have white friends, I go to Harvard Law School and still…” I got up and walked out.
To begin with, the idea that he believed he had earned some kind of Good Negro badge that he wore proudly is both ludicrous and shameful. These degrees are not a shield against racism. And even if they were, that shield shouldn’t be used to separate yourself from those who weren’t fortunate enough to earn one themselves; instead, they should be used to help fight for true equality, in effect negating the entire purpose of the shield.
The second glaring problem is that after trying to pass through on his privilege, he had the audacity to come back to the group and ask us to accept and carry this relatively minor injustice in the midst of our struggle to mourn the senseless loss of a young boy’s life.
What would the world look like if women felt so entitled to bring their individual pain to the table of group injustice? Maybe we wouldn’t have the Hills and Johnsons who felt like they had to make a choice between fighting sexism or advancing racial progress.
As a black woman, I have to be careful not to let my back be used as a bridge by people who will just as easily send me to the wolves when they have no further use of me or my kind. This is unfortunately the plight of all black women. Confirmation doesn’t linger too much on Judy Smith, but the camera focuses on her look of discomfort after former President Bush’s office receives word that Professor Hill was finally headed home and the confirmation vote would continue as planned. I wonder if she lost sleep, wondering if she allowed her sister to be sacrificed for “the greater good”–one that turned out to be nothing more than the maintenance of the status quo in a darker hue.
In her book Shrill, Lindy West asserts, “In a certain light, feminism is just the long, slow realization that the stuff you love hates you.” Though those realizations are very painful, I still believe in collective action and am willing to continue fighting under the banner of group injustice. However, I’ve learned that I need to be more critical of the people I naturally assume are my allies. When they show me that their protests are solely wrapped up in their individual concerns, I need to train myself to step away and let them fight those fights, alone.