For years, Dr. Alvin Poussaint, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, has been faced with the thankless, if well-rewarded, task of explaining to "enlightened" white script writers—including those for The Cosby Show—that their heads are stuffed with offensive racist stereotypes.
"It's a problem," Poussaint said in a speech several years ago at Stanford. "What you get in the scripts is their perception of blackness."
One of the major reasons for the persistent problem is that millions of white adult Americans define "racism" as its most pathological manifestations: wearing white gowns and hoods, burning crosses, tarring and feathering blacks, hunting them down with dogs. Because those same millions of white Americans would not dream of committing such atrocities; because they vote for political representatives who pass civil-rights bills; because they applauded Martin Luther King and Thurgood Marshall; because they respect the changing nomenclature by which certain blacks wish to be addressed, they imagine themselves to be free of racism.
What they have never learned is that racism is an idea, a very old and intransigent idea. That idea exists on an unbroken continuum—all the way from a form that is fully conscious to a form that is unconscious. Its manifestations can range from the most grossly offensive and scornful invective to a compulsive noblesse oblige that cannot permit itself to make any criticisms at all. But whatever the degree or kind of racism, it invariably contains a double standard: The racist simply does not treat black individuals the same way he treats whites.
The effect of stereotypes on blacks is a sense of being unseen, as in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. The effect on whites is the corollary: They do not perceive blacks as real or make the same fine discriminations among blacks that they habitually make among whites. In the last analysis, they do not perceive black individuals; they perceive black skins. And this remains true at every step of the continuum.
It should not, therefore, come as an insuperable shock that the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on the nomination of Judge Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court were a racist phenomenon. The "nice" kind; no Simon Legrees or fiery crosses here. But racist nonetheless. Setting aside old segregationist Strom Thurmond, who conscientiously counterfeited a dead man and may, for all I know, actually have been dead, the other senators participated, singly and collectively—and unwittingly—in a process that ceaselessly generated negative stereotypes about Thomas.
So unaware were these men of their own racist stereotyping that when, at the 11th hour, they were forced consciously to deal with a negative stereotype, they didn't recognize it and had no principles with which to assess it or with which to differentiate between the black individuals involved. The press commentators generally revealed the same incapacities. All eventually ended up mired in an unspeakable crudity that would never have occurred had the protagonists been white.
The original hearings generated at least five negative racist stereotypes, all in one way or another springing from acts of omission, defaults of thinking, rather than conscious racism. The senators blinded themselves profoundly to what they were doing, and that self-blinding led to the ultimate explosion, the meaning of which they and the agitated white press do not understand to this day. I present those initial stereotypes roughly in order of ascending gravity:
1. The Nomination. Much has been made of the fact that President Bush lied when he said, in nominating Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, that Thomas was the "best" candidate and that Thomas had not been chosen because he is black. Of course that was a lie, and so happy were Bush's critics to have caught him in a lie that they gave no thought to the implications of that particular lie for Thomas, and neither, of course, did Bush.
To omit the serious intellectual reasons for wanting a black nominee, and for wanting this particular black nominee, was to leave a vacuum. And the vacuum was implicitly filled by a negative stereotype. What Bush's lie implied, without his knowing or intending it, was: "I'm naming an empty suit with a black body inside it and with nothing worthy of presidential note in that black body's head." From Day One, thanks to the president, Clarence Thomas was an empty-headed black in an empty suit. That's Stereotype 1. Start counting.
2. The Strategy of Evasion. The second, and reinforcing, stereotype emerged as a byproduct—again unintended—of the Republican strategy of evasion, the tactic that had worked with David Souter in contrast with the opinion-laden Robert Bork and with which Thomas had agreed to cooperate. Whatever objections can be raised to that tactic—and there are dozens—the one that was not raised was the effect on Clarence Thomas. Thomas was not, as some historical revisionists are now claiming, an incompetent candidate. His legal writings and his opinions on one of the most prestigious appellate courts of the land had been carefully read by 1,000 members of and consultants to the American Bar Association, including "reading committees" from some of the most distinguished law schools in the country. Thomas' work was found to be well researched and economically and lucidly written; he was adjudged competent to sit on the Supreme Court.
The Republican strategy of evasion had the cumulative effect of destroying most of the evidence of Thomas' competence. As he gradually realized, he could only smuggle in a few of his own ideas and correct a few misinterpretations of his writings. And while Souter had been able to dance theoretical pirouettes around constitutional issues while landing nicely on his feet, having said absolutely nothing, Thomas lacked such balletic skills. He had crammed for months just to learn what he might be required to say—and then he had crammed all over again to learn how not to say it. When the time came to evade, he could perform no theoretical arabesques; he just plain, lumberingly, evaded—monotonously, over and over again. He wasn't used to it. To his credit, he was an abysmally bad evader.
The result was yet another offensive stereotype. The empty-headed black in an empty suit became, in addition, a dumb, shifty, and evasive black.
3. Senatorial Etiquette. An ostensibly simpler piece of advice from Thomas' "handlers" pertained to the etiquette deemed obligatory when addressing senators. And again, this boomeranged against Clarence Thomas. For various reasons, our senators engage in incessant mutual flattery and proclamations of collegial devotion. The more they despise each other, the more they do it. When they are at the point of mutually induced nausea, the air around them resonates with "My distinguished colleague from Dubuque," "My good old friend from Peoria, whom I hold in the highest esteem." The participants understand that such fawning formulations are riddled with dark jokes, cynicism, and arrant hypocrisy and are not to be believed for an instant.
But to coach Thomas in such heavily deferential courtesies, when the mutual mockery and cynicism were absent, was to inflict damage on him yet again—above all because he was already intellectually muzzled. Had Thomas been able to perform theoretical legal pirouettes around the senators, had he simply been free to talk eloquently and extensively about the issues of greatest concern to him, then the formulae of excessive and humorless deference might not have mattered so much. But in this case, they mattered dreadfully.
The empty-headed black in an empty suit; the dumb, shifty, evasive black now turned into (in George Will's words) a "cringing and groveling" black—a black tugging his forelock before Massa, a black who knows his place.
4. The "Character Issue." A more complex, and a more complexly stupid, enterprise—and this one allegedly dedicated to the protection of Thomas—was the attempt to establish the nominee as a paragon of virtue.
The original lies about Thomas' nomination, namely that he was the "best" person for the Court and that he had not been chosen because he is black, bore bizarre fruits. Absent a forthright statement of intellectual and political purposes, the goal became to defend both Bush and Thomas against the liberal interpretation of the nomination. George Bush knew, as did the entire political universe, that his use of the Willie Horton ad and his stated opposition to quotas had generated unceasing charges from liberals that he was a "racist" and that Clarence Thomas would be tagged as yet another black exploited by Bush for political purposes—a Willie Horton in reverse.
So a defensive solution designed to outfox liberals in what Republicans thought were liberal terms was devised. According to The New Republic's Sidney Blumenthal—a forthright critic of both Bush and Thomas—Bush asked whether Sen. John Danforth, a known and loyal friend of Clarence Thomas, would "go to the mat" for his protégé if Thomas were nominated to the Court. Danforth said yes, and that, reports Blumenthal, was Bush's "decisive moment." It meant to Bush that his nominee would be protected "by a figure of moral stature," one widely respected by U.S. senators. Blumenthal elaborates: "Part of the reason it has been difficult to associate Thomas with Bush's racial tactics, and thus isolate him, is that the leading critic of such gambits happens to be Jack Danforth."
It became Danforth's appointed mission to orchestrate a chorus of witnesses, all proclaiming Thomas the embodiment of two particular virtues, chosen, obviously, because they are crucial virtues for a justice of the Supreme Court: "fierce independence" and "integrity." Patiently, endearingly, Danforth marshaled his little legion of personal witnesses from different periods of Thomas' life to attest fervently, all in the same language, that Clarence Thomas, as child, as boy, as youth, as young man, and as grown man, revealed "fierce independence" and "integrity." And for all I know it may have been true. The reason I don't know, and that nobody could know from this extended photo op and mass recitative, is that "independence" and "integrity"—"fierce" is lovely but unnecessary—are virtues of mind, virtues of intellect. Eviscerated of ideas, those words meant exactly nothing. The famous character issue was an attempt to assert character without intellectual content.
These testimonials certainly meant nothing to the Judiciary Committee liberals who were the objects of the anti-intellectual charade; who never for a moment forgot that they were fighting the ideas that Clarence Thomas might or would bring to the Court; who knew full well that Thomas had been chosen because he is black; and who knew, finally, that Thomas had opposed affirmative action's double standards and preferential quotas. And since, to conventional liberals, such views are racist, not a liberal brain cell was budged by this two-week long photo op, which boiled down to a constant loving cry that Thomas was "good."
By the time the parade of devoted witnesses shepherded by Danforth was over, irretrievable damage had once again been done to Clarence Thomas. Thomas was not only the emptyheaded black in an empty suit.…He was not only a dumb, shifty, evasive black.…He was not only a cringing and groveling black who knew his place.…But he was a good black, a willing pawn in the hands of conservative white masters.
Did the Republicans do this on purpose? No. This came, yet again, from the belief that ideas were dangerous, and that defensive tactics, as opposed to a bold hoisting of one's own flag, were safer. Of course, that is about as safe as a Lynching, but I anticipate myself.
5. The Abortion Issue. Customarily, this is simply classified as one manifestation of the evasion strategy. But it had a status of its own. It played a unique role at the hearings, and it produced two particularly damaging stereotypes of Thomas.
Legalized abortion was, for the Democrats, a substitute for the problem they were most frightened to discuss, one of the problems that could destroy their future as a party—the mounting animosity of white workers and middle-class citizens toward double-standard affirmative action, which gives preferential treatment to blacks over whites in hiring and in school admissions. While it was continually discussed at Democratic party councils, and while a major campaign was being planned to regain the votes of the fleeing working- and middle-class whites, this was not an issue the Democrats wanted to discuss at the televised hearings. And they certainly did not want Americans to see a strong and thoughtful black man—a black Republican—advocating equality of access for the disadvantaged and colorblind, meritocratic solutions. So the Democrats evaded the issue.
As Juan Williams wrote in The Washington Post, "For all the verbiage, the hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Clarence Thomas were much more interesting for what wasn't said than for what was.…Affirmative action is the dog that hardly barked."
To fill the resulting intellectual vacuum, the Democratic senators organized a furor over legalized abortion. It consisted of two things. First, they asked Thomas almost 100 times to explain, in advance, what his legal and political opinions would be in any upcoming abortion case, when he had a right to decline to answer such questions. The only contribution of the Republicans to the out-of-control Democrat batterings was…to count the questions!
Next, the Democrats put on an array of witnesses who foresaw only legions of butchered women if Thomas were confirmed. On that charge, the Republicans strangled. The effect on Thomas, the advocate of fair, colorblind solutions, was appalling.
He was not only the empty-headed black in an empty suit….He was not only a dumb, shifty, evasive black….He was not only a cringing and groveling black who knew his place….He was not only a good black, a willing pawn in the hands of his conservative white masters….
But he had been cast in the role of a black criminal taking the Fifth, 100 times, and a would-be butcher of women.
With this last, as any cop on the beat could have told the senators, Thomas had been smacked on the equivalent of a "Most Wanted" list, with the annotation "black—43 years old—reputed mass murderer—armed—dangerous." Thomas had been set up for a kill.
Why didn't the senators grasp the dangerous stereotypes they had generated? Why didn't they recognize what they were doing? Because the stereotyping was camouflaged for them by their enormous hypocrisy, a hypocrisy that took two forms—the first, a counterfeit reverence for Clarence Thomas' achievements and "roots"; the second, a counterfeit concern with his intellectual history and ideas.
Nothing could have been more proudly offered by committee Republicans and more flatteringly received by Democrats than the tale of the black boy from Pin Point, Georgia, and the saga of his studies at Holy Cross, his law degree from Yale, and his eventual rise to prominence. It was a Horatio Alger story that tugged at every American's heartstrings, and even when it didn't, it was supposed to.
The tale that Thomas himself told was accurate, and he told it with justified pride. It was the compulsive and wide-eyed gushing over it by the senators that was counterfeit and tacitly offensive to blacks. Thomas was scarcely the first small-town boy from the South to have achieved an important measure of success in the United States, and it was both patronizing and hypocritical to celebrate him as though he were. But that was just a symptom of a deeper hypocrisy: Few, if anyone at all, on the Senate committee, plus its legions of staff "researchers," actually cared a fig about Thomas' background or "roots."
The roots of an American black are not to be found in the town in which he was born or reared. They are plunged deep in the dark loam of slavery and its ongoing and unfinished business of institutionalized racism. No senator, and apparently no staffer, even considered for a moment investigating Thomas' real roots or his real struggle with American racism.
They should have done so, for the same reasons they should not have evaded one of their major political problems and buried it in legalized abortion. Because they all knew that white racism, both of the deeply entrenched kind and of a reactive, defensive kind, was exploding all about them in workplaces, in schools, and in police departments in response to double-standard affirmative action; because it was an issue that in one form or another might come before the Court; because it was an issue about which the nominee had thought deeply for most of his life—and because it was an issue that was affecting, must be affecting, the real black man sitting before them.
Except…the subject for the Democrats was taboo. And Clarence Thomas wasn't real to the Senate Judiciary Committee: He was a black pawn in their evasive political chess game; he was a collection of stereotypes. So no one, apparently, thought of doing some research on what really lay behind all the mutually congratulatory, intensely "caring" backslapping about Clarence Thomas' roots.
Here are just a few things someone might have dug up about those roots by grabbing an old copy of The Black Bourgeoisie by E. Franklin Frazier, professor of sociology at Howard University and former president of the American Sociological Association. Here are a few of the events that were still living memories transmitted to those who reared Thomas:
- Thomas' great-grandfather was alive in 1857 when the question of whether the Negro was or was not only property and therefore had or had no rights as a human being was raised. This question was addressed in the Dred Scott case, which was taken to the Supreme Court where Chief Justice Taney inscribed the famous answer: "A Negro has no rights which a white man need respect."
- In 1898, close to the date of birth of Clarence Thomas' grandparents, Rep. A. Dearmond of Missouri described Negroes as "almost too ignorant to eat, scarcely wise enough to breathe, mere existing human machines."
- In 1900, perhaps within Thomas' grandfather's memory, the American Book and Bible House published The Negro, A Beast, which depicted God as an idealized white man, along with a white man made in his image and a caricature of a Negro intended to show that the Negro was "simply a beast without a soul."
- At the same time, says Frazier, the Negro was ceaselessly portrayed as "a gorilla dressed up as a man." The newspapers described him as "burly or apelike." Even the white-skinned products of intensive racial mixing were cartooned as "black with gorilla features." This stereotyping, says Frazier, was "constantly representing the Negro as subhuman, a beast, without any human qualities."
- In 1915, an army surgeon informed people that "many animals below man manifest a far greater amount of real affection in their love-making than do Negroes."
- In the early 1920s, a doctoral dissertation in Columbia University's Department of Studies in History, Economics, and Public Law presented as "scientific" fact that the Negro was "as destitute of morals as any of the lower animals."
Such facts are integral to an understanding of Thomas' "roots." If anyone on the Judiciary Committee had shown the slightest interest in such matters, he might have speculated on the degree to which the worst stereotyped hatreds entangled in those roots were still alive. He might have remembered the recent videotaped beating of a black man by out-of-control Los Angeles cops and the investigation that had brought to life the voices on the police radio crackling with jokes about "gorillas in the mist." He might have realized that those white cops were not joking about their night school courses in zoology. He might have wondered if Clarence Thomas were still subjected to such dangers and to such assumptions of bestiality. He might have wondered how Thomas might feel about it. And what Thomas might do if such a thing happened.
But these are questions, or speculations, one raises about a man—and Thomas was not a man to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Both the men on the committee who were hurled into panic by new ideas and the men on the committee who were hurled into panic by all ideas asked no such questions and gained no such insights. They had lost all contact with the human being they were "judging."
They didn't even know that he was judging them. They didn't notice that his eyes, once twinkling, had become dark and impenetrable, that his once spontaneous laugh had vanished, and that he now smiled through tightly clenched teeth, with the muscles in his jaws working tensely beneath the surface of his skin. They didn't even realize that Clarence Thomas was terribly, terribly angry.
They didn't observe that as each day passed, Thomas' body had grown more rigid, that he was being held upright now only by a few powerful ideas, which he repeated like a mantra—by the ideas of "the nuns," the first teachers to instruct him explicitly that he was the metaphysical equal of whites…by the idea of "my grandfather," the first to teach him that whatever legal and constitutional victories had been achieved for his racial group, his personal efforts, his personal achievements, his personal pride, were his own to forge…by the idea of his lifelong "dilemma" over the "fundamental contradiction" in the U.S. Constitution, which he wove, over and over again, into his answers—the "contradiction" that had, historically, refused him membership in the human race.
The ideas that held him upright helped him mask his terrible anger. But even to the power of these ideas to sustain him there were limits—limits to what he could or would tolerate.
Limits? The concept never entered the heads of the senators who recognized no limits on themselves. A black who sets limits? That did not conform to the stereotyped creature they had created. Blinded by "caring" hypocrisy, no one thought to investigate what those limits might be, or to consider that they were precariously close to those limits.
And then there was the second major source of self-blinding, which reinforced the first—the senators' counterfeit interest in Thomas' intellectual history. It kept them from discovering that right under the senatorial noses, there was clear-cut information about the limits to what Clarence Thomas could and would tolerate.
Throughout the hearing the Democrats in particular pretended that they were deeply interested in, indeed determined to discover, the nature of Thomas' ideas. The Republicans were not in the idea business; they had left that up to the Democrats. But the Democrats had compiled all the papers and speeches Thomas had written and the interviews he had given. They knew, they said, the books he had read, the authors who had influenced him. All, they said, they had carefully examined and thought about. But they hadn't.
They had simply been searching for fragments of sentences with which to indict Thomas as politically extreme or politically unreliable or politically unrespectable. Had they been authentically interested in Thomas' ideas, they would have read, and read carefully, one of the first documents brandished by Sen. Joseph Biden on the air, complete with references. It was an interview given by Thomas to REASON four years ago. One passage in that interview should have sounded a red alert to the men who professed to be interested in Thomas' ideas. It went as follows:
"REASON: Are there any writers who were really influential to you when you were young, and still are?
"Thomas: Richard Wright. I would have to put him number one, numero uno. Both Native Son and Black Boy really woke me up. He captures a lot of the feelings that I had inside that you learn how to repress."
Richard Wright, "number one, numero uno"—until this very day? Richard Wright, one of the most powerful black writers ever to have appeared in America? How could that have been overlooked by men who were trying, as his interrogators claimed to be trying, to understand this particular man? How could they have overlooked the observation that Wright "captures a lot of the feelings that I had inside that you learn how to repress." How could they have missed the switch to the present tense?
But his interrogators missed this. Had they not missed it, it is conceivable, just barely conceivable, that the hearings might have run a different course.
Wanting very much to understand this man who had been stereotyped out of existence and who was controlling a violent anger at what was happening to him, I reread Native Son. It had been published in 1940, and I had not read it for 50 years. One finds many things relevant to Thomas and to his roots and his lifelong concerns in this book. But in this particular context, one finds one crucial thing—his limits. The one thing Thomas would not, could not, permit, whatever else might be at stake, the one stereotype that it would be downright dangerous to paste on him, leaps out from those pages.
Native Son is the story of Bigger Thomas, a defiant, terrified, sensitive black tough, a chronic delinquent trapped for life in a white world where he dreams of experiencing connectedness to others but cannot. He gets a job as a chauffeur for a rich white family. Entirely by accident—there is nothing equivocal about this—he suffocates their daughter with a pillow when she is dead drunk. In terror that he will be charged with murdering her, he burns her body in a furnace. It does not occur to him that he will automatically be charged with raping her and that he has burned the evidence that he did not. One lie leads to another, one crime to another, and eventually the young Bigger Thomas becomes the object of a 5,000-man police hunt that combs every inch of the segregated slum in which he is trapped. Eventually he is caught; he is defended by two white communists; their efforts fail; and Bigger is found guilty—guilty, above all, of the two crimes he has not committed, the rape and the murder of the white girl.
Here are four passages from the book:
It was all over. He had to save himself. But it was familiar, this running away. All his life he had been knowing that sooner or later something like this would come to him. And now, here it was. He had always felt outside of this white world, and now it was true. It made things simple. He felt in his shirt, yes, the gun was still there. He might have to use it. He would shoot before he would let them take him; it meant death either way, and he would die shooting every shot he had.
He looked down and read, REPORTERS FIND DALTON GIRL'S BONES IN FURNACE. NEGRO CHAUFFEUR DISAPPEARS. FIVE THOUSAND POLICE SURROUND BLACK BELT. AUTHORITIES HINT SEX CRIME…
He paused and reread the line, AUTHORITIES HINT SEX CRIME. These words excluded him utterly from the world. To hint that he had committed a sex crime was to pronounce a death sentence. It meant a wiping out of his life even before he was captured; it meant death before death came, for the white men who read those words would at once kill him in their hearts.
"Come on, now, boy. We've treated you pretty nice, but we can get tough if we have to, see? It's up to you! Get over there by that bed and show us how you raped and murdered that girl."
"I didn't rape her," Bigger said through stiff lips.
"Aw, come on. What you got to lose now? Show us what you did."
"I don't want to."
"You have to!"
"I don't have to."
"Well, we'll make you!"
"You can't make me do nothing but die!"
And as he said it, he wished that they would shoot him he could be free of them forever.
He did not turn to the papers until after the man had left the room. Then he spread out the Tribune and saw: NEGRO RAPIST FAINTS AT INQUEST. He understood now; it was the inquest he had been taken to. He had fainted as they had brought him here. He read:
Overwhelmed by the sight of his accusers, Bigger Thomas, Negro sex-slayer, fainted dramatically this morning at the inquest of Mary Dalton, millionaire Chicago heiress.
Emerging from a stupor for the first time since his capture last Monday night, the black killer sat cowed and fearful as hundreds sought to get a glimpse of him.
"He looks exactly like an ape!" exclaimed a terrified young white girl.…
The moment the killer made his appearance at the inquest, there were shouts of "Lynch ´im! Kill ´im!"
But the brutish Negro seemed indifferent to his fate.…He acted like an earlier missing link in the human species. He seemed out of place in a white man's civilization.
One of these paragraphs above all contains Clarence Thomas' limits—the charge, the very intimation of a charge, that he could not, would not be able to permit:
"He paused and reread the line AUTHORITIES HINT SEX CRIME. These words excluded him utterly from the world. To hint he had committed a sex crime was to pronounce a death sentence.…It meant death before death came, for the white men who read these words would at once kill him in their hearts."
The men on the Judiciary Committee, and their staffers, had not read this. Or if a few of the oldest ones had ever read the book, they had long since forgotten it. By climaxing the hearings with an 11th-hour charge of a "sex crime," the ingenious staffers were only seeking to disseminate what they conceived of as "dirt." They did not know that to Clarence Thomas, given his background, his roots, and his intellectual history, such a charge meant: Death.
Rarely has there been so poignant an example of life imitating art. But the senators and their "researchers" were not imitating art; there was no one on the Judiciary Committee or its staff with the literary imagination, let alone the vicious literary imagination, to do so. They were simplehearted souls, party hacks, whose only aspiration was to disgrace a political enemy. They didn't understand this political enemy. They didn't know that Thomas carried Richard Wright engraved upon his heart, that he had carried Richard Wright right into that hearing room.
"The Sex Crimes"
When Clarence Thomas learned he was going to be charged with a pack of "sex crimes," lumped together under the heading of "sexual harassment," and that they were to be discussed at a mock trial, he reacted with the swiftness of lightning. He fired his Republican handlers, who had not only dressed him in a dumb clown suit but had not known how to protect him from being portrayed as a criminal taking the Fifth and as a would-be butcher of women. If he had once believed that the men at the peak of the power establishment knew what they were doing, he believed it no more. He took his life out of their hands and back into his own.
Certainly, no one knew better than Thomas what "sexual harassment" had become over the years—a cultural phenomenon beyond his or, apparently, anyone's control. Once an objective description of the use of male employers' power to subjugate and exploit female subordinates, this new and ever-expanding legal offense, first defined in 1986, had turned into pure feminist dementia. Now "sexual harassment" meant anything or everything said or not said, done or not done, to a woman by a male superior, by a male co-worker, by any male in the vicinity, which upset, angered, or offended her—in the woman's judgment. Men's judgments had become legally irrelevant. The subjectivity and dubious First Amendment implications of the New Harassment are well-known. Thomas was charged by Anita Hill with crimes of "verbal conduct"—"speech crimes," which, of course, implies thought crimes.
Thomas' legal analysis of his alleged speech crimes was that of a trained Yale lawyer, a judge of a Court of Appeals, and the former head of the EEOC. But his decisions about what to do and say were pure Richard Wright. The two roles were different, but both were functions of the "evidence."
The charges against him, Thomas saw quickly, were legal junk. One aspect of that junk was dangerous legal junk—a set of charges that he had boasted of his "sexual prowess," of the "larger than normal" size of his own penis, accompanied by a drumbeat of other references to the mythic dimensions of black men's genitals.
"Legal junk," of course, means evidentiary junk, and that means something in addition to the fact that the charges were unprovable and there were no witnesses to attest to them. It means that, save for the dangerous allegations, the speech crimes as presented at the hearings had little or no significance to begin with. Anita Hill simply made a group of empty generalizations or recited a list of subjects that one can find in library card catalogs, in dictionaries, in encyclopedias, in articles, in monographs, and in books. How, in what words, in what style, Thomas had discussed those subjects, at all, were the crucial missing factors. Most of Hill's charges were an invitation to mass projection.
There was also corroborative junk. Three witnesses—all lawyers—testified that Hill had told them 10 years ago that she was depressed and was blaming her depression on unspecified verbal behavior, by implication of a sexual nature, by her boss. Hill did not even offer her subject list or her generalizations to those lawyers. She gave them no information at all. The lawyers were preternaturally incurious, asked no questions, requested no evidence, and, according to their testimony, all said the equivalent of, "Poor dear." A fourth lawyer testified that some years later Hill had told him that she left the EEOC because she had been "sexually harassed" by her boss. But still this famous list of speech crimes did not surface.
All that was established by her friends' testimony was that 10 years ago Anita Hill had been depressed and had attributed her depression to Thomas. This total absence of legal evidence was no doubt the reason that Hill's lawyers gave her a polygraph test, which is further evidentiary junk not accepted by our courts. It was an act of legal desperation to help a client who had been blowing evidentiary smoke.
Finally, there may have been outright psychological junk. Hill's strangely passive legal witnesses were aware of her depression but did not check her competence. One witness tried to establish Hill's competence by saying, "I have never known Anita to express anger," a bizarre comment, since repressed anger is a common characteristic of depression. Another witness sought to strengthen the claim that Hill is stable by testifying that to Hill fictional characters are not "real." Apart from the implication that people who read novels suffer from instability, the fact is that fictional characters are more intensely real than everyday people—that is the purpose of art. Hill's inability to accept fictional beings as "real" and her inability to express anger may have reflected an emotional disorder—one that could prevent her from correctly interpreting the style, mood, and intent of any discourse dependent on affect. To say any consideration of Hill's psychological or emotional states is "blaming the victim" is to beg the question.
In summary, evidentiary junk, corroborative junk, and possibly psychological junk, had all been dragged out at the last minute to destroy a Supreme Court nominee.
But all this junk Thomas denied, then swept aside. What he took seriously was the dangerous junk interwoven throughout. He immediately saw that he had been hit by the oldest and most murderous racist stereotype directed at the black male: the black male as sexual beast; the subhuman, predatory ape without sensibilities and without morals; the stereotype amply documented by Franklin Frazier in the 1950s (his 10th edition still being read in 1968) and exemplified by the crackling radio jokes about "gorillas in the mist" from the white Los Angeles cops in 1991. That stereotype was hundreds of years old, it was still alive, and Thomas accurately understood that it had been aimed at him.
He also knew its origins, its vicious hypocrisy, and its social uses. For all the constitutional talk forbidding blacks human status, our Founding Fathers—like the French, Spanish, and Portuguese aristocrats who imported black slaves into the New World—were fully aware that blacks were human beings. Such men happily slept with black women, fell in love with them, protected the children they fathered by them, freed those children, adopted them. They safeguarded their own black sons, often by sending them abroad for higher education. But they reserved a different and frightful fate for the unprotected black boy—not for the girl, only for the boy. As soon as he reached puberty, as soon as he was sexually mature, he turned, magically and abruptly, into the Mythic Black Beast who became sexually taboo for white women. Thus did the white men control their paternity and property lines. Any alleged breach of the sexual taboo could, and often did, mean death—for the black male.
That is what the dangerous legal junk meant to Thomas. He knew that, regardless of the lack of legal evidence, the humanity of his female accuser would be assumed, as indeed it was. He knew he would have to establish his own humanity, and to do so at a mock trial.
The Thomas who reentered the hearing room was the "real" Clarence Thomas, the man without Republican handlers, with only two people at his side: his old and trusted friend Danforth, who was shaking with volcanic rage, and Virginia Lamp Thomas, his white wife, who sat motionless, tears rolling down her cheeks. From the depths of his Richard Wright-infused subconscious, Thomas made statements and leveled his own charges, charges that totally disoriented the Senate Judiciary Committee. The senators, like children who had played too long with matches, suddenly grasped that they had set the whole house afire and had no idea what to do about it.
Thomas said, "I died. The person you knew—whether you voted for me or against me—died." He said, "I've been harmed, my family has been harmed. I've been harmed worse than I've ever been harmed in my life. I wasn't harmed by the Klan. I wasn't harmed by the Knights of Camelia. I wasn't harmed by the Aryan Race. I wasn't harmed by any racist group. I was harmed by this process—this process, which accommodated these attacks on me….I would have preferred an assassin's bullet." He described what had occurred as a "high-tech lynching" and informed the Judiciary Committee grimly: "I will not provide the rope for my own lynching."
Even when he talked quietly and calmly, he was clearly in a state of uncontrollable mutiny. When asked whether he wanted to withdraw his name from nomination, he replied, "I'd rather die than withdraw. If they're gonna kill me, they're gonna kill me….I'd rather die than withdraw from the process—not for the purpose of serving on the Supreme Court but for the purpose of not withdrawing from this process." Somewhere inside Clarence Thomas was the unmistakable voice of Bigger Thomas, refusing in extremis to submit to the white man's power: "You can't make me do nothing but die!" And whatever these white senators understood, they knew that to be true. Their power had become entirely destructive; they could make him do nothing but die.
It was mainly from Sen. Orrin Hatch, who by means sensible and not had consistently conveyed his sympathy for Thomas, that Thomas consented to hear Anita Hill's charges. He had refused to attend or to listen to the session at which she herself had testified. In this exchange, Hatch became the only man on the committee to admit, honestly, that he did not understand the phenomenon of the stereotyped racist attack:
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.
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.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Native Son".