The impeachment of Clarence Thomas is a pipe dream. In this fantasy, Justice Thomas is actually brought to justice, removed for lying under oath during his Senate confirmation hearing. The pipe dream, which is gathering steam thanks to Jill Abramson’s exploration of Thomas’ lies in New York Magazine this week, is as realistic as the one where President Trump is impeached for bragging about sexually assaulting women.
I would know. In 1991, I was a metro editor at The Charlotte Observer, lobbying to become a columnist, when I was subpoenaed to testify at Thomas’ confirmation hearings after a colleague leaked word to Sen. Joe Biden that I was writing a column about my experiences working with Thomas. The column, though not intended for publication at the time, expressed my conviction that Anita Hill was telling the truth about Thomas — who, as Hill’s boss, allegedly tried to date her and engage in lengthy conversations about sex and pornography. I believed Hill because I had experienced similar behavior from him: He had repeatedly pressured me to date him and inquired about my breast size.
Members of the Senate confirmation committee immediately went on the attack after learning of me and my willingness to testify. I was characterized as a revengeful, foul-mouthed incompetent seizing an opportunity to strike back at the boss who had fired her. Never mind that I was happily ensconced as an editor at the Observer, a job for which Thomas himself had provided a recommendation. He had praised my performance as director of Public Affairs at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and admitted that he “owed me an apology.”
Witness the Me Too movement, and the speed with which mighty men have fallen based solely on the word of their white women accusers.
None of that mattered: The wagons had circled. It was obvious that nothing that I had to say would matter to the men on the Senate confirmation panel. I long ago lost real hope for justice and vindication. All those men were white, and the women who accused Thomas were all African-American. It’s easy to imagine the hearings ending in a very different outcome if the accusers had been white.
How do you remove sexual predators from office when all attempts to prevent their ascension in the first place failed? And, when the accusers are women of color, justice is not just delayed; it’s often denied outright. Even Anita Hill’s sophisticated demeanor and impressive standing as a professor of law didn’t shield her from being labeled “a little bit nutty, and a little bit slutty.” That’s been the cultural narrative about African-American women throughout history.
Because of fallacious stereotypes about the sexuality of African-American women, the people who rape and sexually harass us have often gone unpunished. Consider the case of Recy Taylor, who died in December three days before her 98th birthday. In 1944, Taylor was raped by six white men in Alabama, and threatened against speaking up. She didn’t keep silent, and even though her attackers confessed, two all-white, all-male grand juries declined to indict them. Former Oklahoma City patrol officer Daniel Holtzclaw sexually assaulted more than a dozen African-American women between December 2013 and June 2014, before one brave woman spoke up and he was brought to trial. Despite the testimony of 13 women, it took the jury 40 hours to reach a guilty verdict.
Given the general lack of empathy for black female victims of sexual assault and harassment, it may help that a white woman has now accused Thomas of sexual harassment ― after he joined the bench. Moira Smith is an attorney from Alaska who accused Thomas of groping her repeatedly during a dinner 20 years ago. If there is a remote possibility of getting Thomas impeached, it may lie with her.
Normally, white women don’t have to wage the same credibility battles facing black sexual assault victims; they aren’t assigned culpability for their own victimization. Witness the Me Too movement, and the speed with which mighty men have fallen based solely on the word of their white women accusers.
Four African-American women, including me, were willing to join professor Hill and testify about Thomas’ behavior. We all were denied a voice. Professor Hill and I were maligned by Thomas supporters, on the Senate panel and in his personal circle, in an attempt to coerce us into silence. But I wasn’t afraid to speak then, and I’m not afraid to speak now. Other women have since come forth, including Thomas’ ex-girlfriend Lillian McEwen, an African-American woman who surfaced in 2011 and confirmed that Thomas had a penchant for porn and behaved inappropriately with women at work. I confess to harboring a bit of resentment for all of the people, men and women, who I know had first-hand knowledge of Thomas’ behavior back in 1991, and who chose not to speak up at a pivotal moment. But I also understand why they chose to keep silent, given the vitriolic nature of the hearing. No one who went up against Thomas and the white men on that committee would have walked away unscathed.
It’s highly unlikely that Thomas will be impeached, but we can hope. The Me Too movement has underscored the depth and breadth of sexual harassment in our society. Finally, women are being heard and believed. Not only are women no longer willing to be silent, but men are being put on notice that their time is up.
We can hope that the Congressional balance of power shifts this election year, and that predators like Thomas, and even Trump, will be removed from power. Maybe it’s not just a pipe dream that two of the most powerful men in the country ― a Supreme Court justice and the president ― would have to answer for the many ways they have mistreated women.
Angela Wright is a freelance journalist living in Charlotte, North Carolina, and a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. She is the “uncalled witness” from the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas confirmation hearing.