The evolution of Joe Biden, Black America and the Supreme Court, as witnessed by Anita Hill

By URL Media

Perhaps there’s no better person than Anita Hill to actually tell us how far we’ve come. 

1991 wasn’t that long ago, after all. That was the year Hill testified before the all-white, male Senate Judiciary Committee, headed by then Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, as she detailed allegations of sexual harassment against Supreme Court justice nominee Clarence Thomas.

“I sat before them telling the truth about what I had experienced,” Hill recounted in a wide-ranging conversation earlier today on WURD, a Black talk-radio station in Philadelphia. "They probably couldn't relate to my experience as a woman. They couldn’t relate to my experience as a Black woman. They couldn't relate to my experience of working for Clarence Thomas when I was about 25 years old."

Contrast that to last week’s image. Biden, still in charge, but now flanked by two Black women: Vice President Kamala Harris and Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Jackson Brown. 

"Is that an indication that Joe Biden has evolved? I would like to think so. But whatever it is, and however it has happened, that is what I'm focusing on," Hill said. "In my lifetime, I can see two glass ceilings broken, one political and one legal."

WURD president Sara Lomax-Reese interviewed Hill about her opinion piece, exclusively distributed by URL Media, on Jackson, the first Black woman to be nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court. (Lomax-Reese is also the co-founder and president of URL Media.) You can listen to the entire interview here. Below is an excerpt of the transcript, edited for context and clarity. 

Sara Lomax-Reese: We’re on the cusp of a Black woman being Supreme Court justice. It is absolutely historic. I want to get your perspective on that but I want to begin with your personal experiences. If we could go back to 1991, when you were testifying in front of the Senate confirmation committee for then-Supreme Court justice nominee Clarence Thomas.

I remember it so vividly. I was probably about 24, 25. We were crowded around the television, watching you confronting and testifying before 14 older white men who just were so dismissive. In my recollection, you seemed so alone. But you also seemed so determined. Could we start off going back to your state of mind, your state of being in that moment, when millions of people are watching you reveal some of the most traumatizing experiences of your life? 

Anita Hill: What you just described really does say it all. But it also says why today I'm still doing work to address the issues that were raised in 1991. The work I do today really came about because of that testimony.

I came before the Senate Judiciary Committee to talk about the character and fitness of the individual who they were vetting for the Supreme Court. I sat before them telling the truth about what I had experienced. And I understood that they probably couldn't relate to my experience as a woman. They couldn’t relate to my experience as a Black woman. They couldn't relate to my experience of working for Clarence Thomas when I was about 25 years old. In the context of a Washington, D.C. power grid and being incredibly vulnerable, people said, ‘Were you worried about your career?’

I was worried when that behavior started happening about being able to make a living. I ultimately decided to leave Washington, but I did come back to testify when Clarence Thomas was being considered for the Supreme Court because I believed that what I had to say was important. I believed, and I still believe today, that what I experienced—the harassment, the badgering for dates, the talk about pornography in the workplace, the sexualizing of that workplace and me—spoke to his character and so that's why I testified. I was nervous. But I gave myself a charge and that is to tell the truth.

I believe I said enough to convince the committee, if they were open to the idea, that he should not be on the court. 

I do feel that in the years since, I have a different perspective. I had assumed that I was just talking to those 14 men, but as it turns out, I was really talking to the entire country. And in some ways, with CNN, the entire world.

Sara Lomax-Reese: I expected the white men who were grilling you and assessing the validity of your testimony would be hostile and disbelieving. What really shocked me was the way that so many in the Black community turned against you as well. A lot of people, men and women in the Black community, saying, ‘Why is she airing our dirty laundry? Why is she trying to take a Black man down?’

Did that surprise you? 

Anita Hill: I knew that people in the Black community are very concerned about information that casts a bad light on Black people, especially people who are high profile and representing Black people in positions of power.

The thing that did bother me was that so many of the critics, even in the Black community, accused me of being the pawn of white feminists. There was a real denial in the community of the sexual abuse and harassment of Black women. 

They bought into the idea that Black women weren't as vulnerable or that they weren't as worthy of being heard and taken care of and protected against this behavior. I've come to understand that as a defense because we have dealt so many years with racism. When a situation like that in 1991 comes up, our first instinct is to be concerned about how racism might play. Since then, and with the help of and support of Black women in particular, I've come to understand that that sentiment was not universal in the Black community. 

Even within the Black community, we have grown. Shortly after the hearing, Mike Tyson was accused of rape and the Black community, including Black ministers, rallied around him. He was ultimately convicted and his victim was a very young Black woman and they abandoned her. But five years later, when he was released from prison, there was a planned parade for him and Black women stood up and said, ‘He should not return as a hero.’

I think that was a moment. It took five years of us telling our stories and bearing witness to our own experiences and the experiences of others to move us in the direction. Today I hear from young Black men who are saying, ‘I want to be part of this movement. I want to be part of the anti-gender violence movement.’

There's a seed now that we can work these issues out as a community.

Sara Lomax-Reese: Definitely, we have seen progress. People point to your experience in 1991 as the seed that planted the #MeToo movement. And that is encouraging. However, we also saw what happened to Christine Blasey Ford in the Brett Kavanaugh nomination hearing. That's a very specific context where we have not progressed very far. What will Ketanji Brown Jackson be facing when she goes before the Senate?

Anita Hill:  Do not measure our progress by the progress of the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Charles Grassley, who chaired the Christine Blasey Ford hearing. And he was on the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991.

He’s no longer chair but he continues to have an influence over this committee. There's this resistance to hearing women and hearing Black women in particular. I believe it is still there. It's part of the history of that committee. 

I'm hopeful that they will be able to rise above that, but we all ought to be concerned. We must demand more from the Senate Judiciary Committee. It’s much more diverse now: there are women on the committee, there is one Black male on the committee. We're talking about a different body right now, but the history is still there. 

We haven’t forgotten 1991. We haven't forgotten 2018. We expect more for Ketanji Brown Jackson because she deserves more. She so deserves to be able to sit in that seat and to share her story, which she has already started to do beautifully, to share her wisdom and her knowledge.

She deserves to be able to show what kind of judge she will be and the contributions that she will be making to the court. All of these are so important. They're not just important for her success. They're important for the success of the Supreme Court. 

The evolution of Joe Biden. Photo: Reuters

Sara Lomax-Reese: You wrote a really powerful opinion piece that URL Media has been distributing. You started off citing the image of President Biden the day he announced the nomination.

This is a question from one of our members, Epicenter, one of our URL members: Joe Biden presided over the hearings in 1991 where you were really raked over the coals. And now he is making this historic nomination. How does that land for you given your history with President Biden? 

Anita Hill: Honestly, it was exciting for me to see what I believe is progress, absolutely progress. You have the vice president, the first woman of color, the first person of color, to serve in that role. You have the first Supreme court nominee, a Black woman. Who couldn't be excited about this?

Is that an indication that Joe Biden has evolved? I would like to think so. But whatever it is, and however it has happened, that is what I'm focusing on. I'm focusing on this moment that in my lifetime, I can see two glass ceilings broken, one political and one legal. For somebody who is a lawyer and who has had interactions with the political system that haven't gone so well, I don't think I could ever ask for more.

But I probably will. 

Sara Lomax-Reese: You should. (Both laugh.) This was a question we got from Twitter this morning: Did President Biden seek your counsel when trying to determine who of the three finalists he would go with? 

Anita Hill: No, I did not hear from President Biden. I had nothing to do with this. Maybe indirectly I did. But I never heard from him. The slate of candidates was really remarkable. It shows us just the kind of skills and competence and integrity that's out there, that we should be tapping into more broadly.

We need a more diverse judiciary to make sure that people have confidence in the court, that they can see themselves in the court. We often hear that there's a pipeline problem, that that's why it's not diverse. There is talent out there that is overlooked. 

We don't have a pipeline problem. We have a visibility problem. Now I believe that that diverse talent is going to be much more visible. Diverse competence is going to be much more appreciated because of the process and because in the pool were three Black women. 

Sara Lomax-Reese: Talk specifically about what you think a Black woman brings to the Supreme Court. What does Ketanji Jackson Brown uniquely bring to that space that would not be there otherwise? 

Anita Hill: She brings to that space: Experience. Education. Training. She brings to that space: A sense of herself. 

As President Biden mentioned, when he introduced her, she not only thinks about the law, she knows the law and understands that having clerked with Justice Breyer. She thinks about the impact of the law. She is well-grounded in her skills and her knowledge about the law.

So that's just the base line. I don't want us to forget that because I think there are people who are crying, ‘This is an affirmative action hire.’ They are ignoring the fact that she has what the other justices on the court have. 

Secondly, she brings the potential. She brings the potential by being in the room where decisions are made. She has an opportunity to inform the other justices about how the law they are making will impact certain groups of people from her own firsthand experiences.

As a Black woman, she can talk about how voting rights restrictions will impact Black women. She can talk about how restrictions on abortions will impact women in places like Mississippi, where there is a large Black population. She can talk about how the law is not just neutral in terms of its impact, that laws have a disproportionate impact on the equality rights of underrepresented and marginalized people, including people of color, all people of color.

We need that voice in the room. I believe a Justice Jackson can have that power and influence. 

We talk about diversity and this is more than symbolic. People need to see a court that reflects some of who they are. They need to see diversity on the court in order to have trust. If they are before a court at any level, especially in the federal system, that there will be someone in that system who understands their experiences. And so she gets to be the symbol, but also the living symbol of representation for people who have not been able to see themselves in that body before now. Trust in the system is so important. The last few years, the public trust in the Supreme Court specifically has plummeted.

Sara Lomax-Reese: You look at all the biases that are documented in the criminal justice system. There's so many, many ways that Black people get the short end of the stick …

Anita Hill: The work I do is primarily around sexual violence and sex discrimination. So many survivors and victims of sexual violence feel that the criminal justice system is treating them as though they are criminals. 

They do not feel that they're treated fairly or heard when they come forward. And this is particularly true of African-American women, Latinx women, and especially Native women. When we think often of the criminal justice system, we think of the horrendous murders of Black men and overpolicing. There really is an underserving role that is going on that is hurting victims of sexual violence, whether it's domestic violence or violence on the street. These issues have to be looked at.

Sara Lomax-Reese: Many people in the Black community do not see Clarence Thomas as an advocate for Black people. He replaced Thurgood Marshall , this towering progressive thinker, a brilliant man. Justice Thomas has really worked against the Black community and our interests on the Supreme Court.

How do you feel seeing what kind of a justice he actually is on the Supreme Court? 

Anita Hill: Well, I'm not surprised.

I'm not surprised. I believe in 1991 that what I testified to was an indication of how he viewed the law. We're talking about a man who was in charge of enforcing the law against sexual harassment. And he was behaving in ways that broke that law. 

It is clear to me he would not respect laws that are put in place to prevent discrimination. I didn't know the extent of what his philosophy was going to be as a judge. And I always give people room to grow, but I do think that he is fulfilling the role that he set out to fulfill many, many years ago.

On the good side though, look at what Sonia Sotomayor has done. She has come out as a defender of voting rights for low-income voters and people of color . In discrimination cases, she has been outspoken. So I do think that we have a voice. I'm grateful for that. 

Sara Lomax-Reese: Have you been asked to prep Judge Jackson for the hearing? What would you counsel her to say or do?  

Anita Hill:  I would give her the same instructions that I gave myself.

Understand that your job is to tell your story. To tell what kind of judge you're going to be, to tell your judicial philosophy, to tell why you love the law. Her job shouldn't be to convince people. 

Just say who you are and what you do and why you should be sitting on the court. Whatever is thrown at her, if she goes into that seat to really just present who she is and what she will bring to this position, she'll be fine.

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