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Law professor examines interplay of race and gender in Anita Hill case
STANFORD -- If she was sexually harassed by her boss on the job, why didn't Anita Hill quit?
This question was never answered to the satisfaction of most Americans during the October 1991 hearings into the fitness of Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court because those conducting the hearings did not understand the "interplay of race and gender" in the workplace, writes Stanford University Law Professor Kim A. Taylor, a friend of Hill's.
Taylor, the former chief public defender for the District of Columbia and a Yale Law School classmate of Hill's, compares Hill at the time of the hearings to Ralph Ellison's "invisible man."
"Professor Hill stood alone, invisible to those entrusted with the task of seeing her and evaluating her words, and at best an enigma to the communities that should have understood and supported her most," Taylor wrote in a recent Stanford Law Review essay.
During Sen. Arlen Specter's cross-examination of Hill, Taylor said, he "seemed to forget that at the time Clarence Thomas began subjecting Anita Hill to the harassment that she described, she had not yet become the composed, tenured law professor who appeared before the senators. She was 24 years old and in only her second year of law practice. She had already resigned from a law firm and had assumed a position at the Department of Education.
"Anyone familiar with the legal profession would acknowledge that when seeking employment in the more conventional segments of the profession, two moves in as many years would not have been viewed favorably by most employers," Taylor wrote.
"As Professor Hill knew even from her limited experience in the workforce, she could not afford to leave her job no matter how much she longed to do so."
Taylor, who attended the hearings and said she expected hard questioning of Hill, was nevertheless shocked by the failure of potential allies to help explain Hill's dilemma to the public, she said.
"In their efforts to tout her as spokesperson for all women who had been victims of sexual harassment, some feminists attempted to distill her voice into simply that of a woman and, as a result, denied her complexity," Taylor said. "Many who acknowledged the difficulty of finding the courage to speak as a victim of sexual harassment overlooked the additional measure of strength that Professor Hill needed to summon in order to speak those words against an African American man. Having been raised in a tradition that taught her not to 'air our dirty laundry in public,' Professor Hill did not violate that directive lightly."
And with good reason, argues Taylor, who is African American, because the African American activists who had opposed Thomas' confirmation earlier in the hearings "seemed to have lost their voices" when Hill was about to testify against him.
" 'Why didn't she quit if this really happened?' was a question that emerged not just from Sen. Specter but from my community as well," Taylor wrote. "Interestingly, African Americans who had been subjected to racist remarks in the workplace knew all too well that they had often tolerated such abuse and then swallowed their anger to maintain their jobs. Now these same individuals were suggesting that Professor Hill's experience was somehow different and less important; they were suggesting that she should be held to a different standard than the one they applied to their own behavior."
"The message behind these attitudes, which registered painfully in my head and heart, was that issues facing African American women should be sacrificed in our efforts to close ranks around an African American man."
Taylor suggested two ways in which the hearing process could have been more fair to Hill and the public. The Democratic leadership of the Judiciary Committee could have established a "non-confrontational setting, gathering facts through the presentation of statements and clarifying issues with open-ended questions," she said.
"Or the committee could have borrowed roles and rules from litigation: It could have assigned advocates to Professor Hill and Clarence Thomas, and allowed them to conduct cross-examinations, raise objections and present arguments about inferences to be drawn from the evidence." In the latter case, the committee members could have reserved the role as jurors for themselves.
"Instead, the committee adopted a process which effectively ceded control of the hearing to the Republicans and made possible the one-sided inquisition of Professor Hill that would eventually unfold."
Without basic rules of procedure, she said, the Democrats essentially permitted Thomas' Republican supporters to make unsupported speculations and ad hominem attacks on Hill, without anyone in the hearing room taking responsibility to point out the flaws in these types of attacks.
Taylor said she is "encouraged" by 1992 public opinion polls that showed more empathy for Hill a year after the hearing than during it.
"Although the Senate failed to provide a meaningful process by which Professor Hill's allegations could be considered, and polls taken at the time of the hearing revealed that much of the American public did not believe her allegations," Taylor wrote, "Professor Hill may have finally become visible."
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