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Hatch: "You said some of this is stereotyped language. What does that mean?"
Thomas: "Senator, language throughout the history of this country, and certainly throughout my life, language about the sexual prowess of black men, language about the sex organs of black men, and the sizes, etc., that kind of language has been used about black men as long as I’ve been on the face of the earth, and these are the kind of charges it is impossible to wash off...
"If you want to track through this country in the 19th and 20th century, the lynching of black men, you will see that there is invariably -- or in many instances -- a relationship with sex, and an accusation that that person cannot shake off. That’s the point I am trying to make, and that is the point that I was making last night, that this is a high-tech lynching. I cannot shake off these accusations because they play to the worst stereotypes we have about black men in this country."
Many other things happened, but there is no need to recapitulate. The real end of the hearings, where racism is concerned, occurred in this exchange. The hearings, which had woven a web of progressively destructive racist stereotypes around Thomas, had culminated in the worst conceivable stereotype of all -- the black male as mythic sexual beast. And most of the nation -- 80 percent of it -- found itself watching a black nominee to the Supreme Court discussing, before a Senate committee of white men, the subject of black men’s genitals.
The vast majority of watching Americans, white and black, "believed" Clarence Thomas; the vast majority, white and black, "disbelieved" Anita Hill. Even many people who believed Hill’s story, or parts of it, were deeply shocked by the episode.
Some whites are baffled by the question, Why would a black woman seek to destroy a black man by means of a deadly racist stereotype? How can it possibly be "racist" if it comes out of a black woman’s mouth? That, too, is racism. It rests on the assumption that blacks are an undifferentiated mob with a "leadership" in the place of a brain. A black does not crack up in incomprehension at the idea of a black seeking to hurt another black.
I address this question only because it is so commonly asked, not because it is important or because one needs the answer to know whom to "believe" or "disbelieve." Indeed, too much attention has been focused on whom we should "believe" or "disbelieve." Most significant is the fact that we were asked to function as "believers" or "disbelievers" at all.
Examine the role that we, as witnesses to the execrable spectacle, were all asked to play. We ourselves were asked to serve as jurors at a mock trial. We ourselves were asked to believe or disbelieve in matters pertaining to "the sexual prowess of black men, the sex organs of black men, the sizes...." We ourselves were asked to relive Richard Wright’s Native Son. We ourselves were asked to play the role of the "terrified young white girl" at the inquest, gawking at the Beast.
That is sufficient reason to reject those who organized and orchestrated this spectacle.
It is not sufficient reason to reject Clarence Thomas. There may be, as he himself has said, constitutional reasons for opposing him, or reasons pertaining to his qualifications, or reasons pertaining to the desire for a more politically balanced Court. But I myself am willing to take a chance on Thomas, and I am heartily glad he is now wearing his justice’s robes.
I hope that as the advocate of a colorblind society arranges his new offices, he puts two huge pictures on his walls -- one of Chief Justice Taney and one of Richard Wright. For it is because of them that he endured so much and fought so hard and because of them, ultimately, that he is on that Court.
And it would be salutary for all of us to realize that every single day that this particular justice sits on that Court will be a silent requiem for Bigger Thomas, the fictional slum boy of 50 years ago who is engraved on Clarence Thomas’ heart and whose real-life descendants, trapped in America’s slums, are still hit at puberty by the potent remnants of the dehumanizing myth. This country can only benefit from the presence on the U.S. Supreme Court of a man who authentically understands that deadly myth and has the ego strength to talk about it and to fight it. n
Edith Efron is the author of The Apocalyptics: Politics, Science, and the Big Cancer Lie and has writen extensively about Haitian culture and American racist stereotypes.
Note: Edith Efron died April 20, 2001 at the age of 79. Virginia Postrel's remembrance of Efron is available here.