Invisible Woman

Political divisions within the black community are extremely rare. Not only do the overwhelming majority of black Americans vote Democratic in presidential races, but a majority also express fairly uniformly liberal views.

Yet when President Bush nominated black conservative Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, early opinion polls showed blacks uncharacteristically divided. And when Anita Hill's allegation of sexual harassment became public, even more blacks came to favor Thomas. By the end of the special hearings, not only did opinion polls show that a majority of black Americans as well as whites believed Thomas over Hill, but blacks also sided with whites in favor of Thomas's confirmation.

In the Thomas hearing, black opinion carried perhaps more weight than usual. In the final 52-48 vote, a number of his swing Southern Democratic backers in the Senate attributed much of their decision to Thomas's strong support in the black community. Black women's opinions were also crucial here. Had black women turned against Thomas, feminist supporters of Anita Hill might have had more influence in the outcome.

Why did black Americans, the vast majority of whom are liberal, support Thomas? Why did Hill's charges actually strengthen black support for Thomas? And why were black women not as believing of Hill as other groups?

Evidently, Hill appeared neither more credible nor more heroic to black women than to black men or to whites. Observers have offered a variety of explanations. Perhaps black women, a majority of whom are working class, could not identify personally with Professor Hill or her ordeal, since many such black women themselves had experienced and survived even worse sexual assaults in the workplace. Another theory holds that black women are not particularly sympathetic to feminism; or that they ascribed to Hill jealousy of Thomas's white wife; or that black women's general protectiveness of black men explained their surprisingly unsupportive reaction to Hill. The real story is tangled, complex, and revealing.

* * *

The black majority's liberal interests and its stakes in the judicial process would have predicted an almost uniform opposition to Thomas. Blacks, after all, had been opposed to Robert Bork, whom both civil rights and feminist organizations viewed as a dangerously extreme conservative. In a 1987 Gallup poll, while 34 percent of whites thought that Bork should have been confirmed, only 14 percent of blacks thought so. Moreover, in contrast to most whites, a majority of blacks desire a more liberal Supreme Court. Another 1987 Gallup poll found that 53 percent of blacks surveyed favored a more liberal Supreme Court, compared to less than 30 percent of the white respondents.

Blacks have rarely supported black conservatives in the voting booth, and surveys show a majority opposed in principle to racial voting. Black Republicans have obtained no more than a quarter of the black vote in statewide or national races. Bill Lucas, a black Republican who ran for governor of Michigan in 1985, got only 21 percent of the black vote. Black Republicans have tended to do better in working-class and poor black areas, however. For example, Alan Keyes, another black Republican, received 41 percent of the vote in the majority-black city of Baltimore in his 1988 Senate bid compared to Bush's 25 percent. However, he received only 30 percent of the vote in Prince George's County, a middle and lower-middle-class suburb of Washington that is half black.

But Thomas was not running for office, and there was no opposition candidate to him. Rather, he faced an up or down vote of confirmation to the Supreme Court. And this reality apparently led to greater black ambivalence toward Thomas than had he run for an elected office. In the absence of concerted black opposition, Thomas undoubtedly did better among blacks than most black conservatives. The NAACP was the only civil rights group to oppose him. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference favored his confirmation, while the national black Urban League remained neutral. Thomas had also distanced himself from some of his more controversial past policy statements, maintaining that speeches made in the past were political statements, not declarations of judicial outlook or philosophy. Many blacks nursed the hope that despite his conservatism, Thomas, as the lone black on the Court would not forget his humble origins from Pin Point, Georgia, his roots, and most of all, his race. Others simply viewed Thomas's confirmation as perhaps the only opportunity to maintain black representation on the Supreme Court, with Thurgood Marshall stepping down. In the end, the symbolism of having a black on the Supreme Court greatly outweighed other considerations for many blacks, including Thomas's conservative record.

The Thomas-Hill confrontation took an emotional toll on Americans generally. In spite of some analysts' assertions of silver linings, few actually saw anything good in the event; an ABC-Washington Post survey that 58 percent had considered the proceedings a public embarrassment. But for black Americans, the event was especially painful. To paraphrase one black commentator, here were two upstanding, attractive, and articulate black professionals "beating up one another" in a publicly televised forum. Hill's allegations about Thomas were graphic and disturbing. But in the end, the issue boiled down to credibility and evidence. In the absence of definitive proof -- of tape-recorded conversations and eye witnesses to the fact -- most people based their opinions on prior judgments about Thomas's fitness to be on the Supreme Court, their beliefs about the fairness of the confirmation process, and their views about the pervasiveness and social relevance of the issue of sexual harassment.

The Centrality of Race
Throughout the Thomas hearings, race remained a pervasive factor, sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit. Race was a central issue in Thomas's qualification for the position -- was he selected merely because he was black? Race was made an issue in confirmation proceedings -- featured most prominently in Thomas's "lynching" remark, but also evident in the uneasy, even gentle, way liberal interests attacked the nominee and the exultant and sly way conservative interests rallied around him.

Even the sexual harassment charge was racialized. Hill's allegation of sexual harassment was complicated by the fact that she, a black woman, had been harassed by a black man, a charge that would have altered public opinion dramatically if it had been made by a white woman of Hill's professional stature and personal history. White opinion might not so readily have condoned the sexual debasement of a white woman by a black man, while the debasement of a black woman could be passed off by many as an aspect of the black subculture. In those circumstances, blacks would have rallied to Thomas's defense. Moreover, faced with a hotter, more racially polarized conflict, the committee might well have insisted on a dosed session. Race, therefore, permeated every aspect of the proceedings, visibly, from beginning to end. It most critically affected black opinions of the process and accounts for Thomas's high level of black support.

Thomas received roughly equal support from black women and black men, even after Hill's accusations were publicized. The absence of a gender gap in the black community and the lack of majority support for Hill led some analysts took to suggest black indifference, if not hostility, to feminists, who had emerged as Hill's principal defenders. The notion of black anti-feminism is sometimes carried to an extreme by feminists and anti-feminists alike. Supposedly, black American women have no need for women's liberation, having better rapport and relations with their male counterparts than do middle-class white males and females. Orlando Patterson, for example, a black sociologist at Harvard, suggested in The New York Times that the brand of sexual harassment raised by Hill -- a supervisor talking dirty to a subordinate and suggesting a sexual relationship -- reflected unrepresentative preoccupations of white feminists from the professional class, and was not a primary concern for most black people or for the working class generally. Hill's complaint, Patterson wrote, reflected a "legalistic, neo-puritanical and elitist model of gender relations promoted by the dominant school of American feminists." Thomas was merely practicing a "down-home style of courting..."

Yet countless opinion polls have shown that a majority of black women do support feminist objectives. Most black women consider sex discrimination to be a pressing problem. In a 1984 national telephone survey of black Americans, 69 percent of the female respondents felt that sex discrimination was a serious problem for women today, while only 27 percent felt that it was not. Moreover, data gathered by political scientist Jane Mansbridge show that black women, in fact, are more likely than white women to identify themselves as feminists. For example, in a 1986 Gallup survey, 69 percent of the black women polled identified themselves as feminists in contrast to 55 percent of the white women. And when asked in a 1989 Yankelovitch survey, "Do you consider yourself to be a feminist?" 42 percent of the black women respondents said "yes," as opposed to 31 percent of the white women respondents.

The Paradox of the Black Superwoman
It seems clear enough that black women do not reject feminism. Rather, a better partial explanation of black public opinion on Thomas and Hill is the myth of the black matriarch or black superwoman. Black matriarchy has often been characterized as an unfortunate or negative trait, as in the controversial 1965 report by Daniel Patrick Moynihan. But lately the view of black women as matriarchal has been seized upon in some quarters as a source of strength: Black women, supposedly, are "super-tough" and generally can take care of themselves. They know how to survive and endure. Some black women are flattered by the myth, and they can drastically overestimate their individual strengths relative to men. Given the presumed strength of black women -- as illustrated by Hill's own cool dignity -- many people simply could not understand why Hill, as a strong black professional woman, had not reported Thomas at the beginning. As Orlando Patterson wrote:

My own daughter, Barbara, a post-feminist young woman brought up by two feminists who came of age in the 60's, believes along with her friends that Judge Thomas did say those raunchy things, should have been told at once what a "dog" he was and reported to the authorities by Professor Hill if his advances had continued to annoy her.

Among some blacks, Hill apparently lost personal credibility because of her ten-year silence, since a "real" black woman would have taken the necessary steps to put a stop to her harassment. Some have speculated that black working-class women, subjected to far cruder and more physical forms of harassment, were scornful of Hill and her belated claims of virtue wronged.

Yet, paradoxically, the framing of the issue as the strong black female against the more vulnerable black male tilted public sympathy away from Hill toward Thomas. Hill, after all, was now a tenured law professor at a large state university, while if her charges stuck, Thomas would suffer -- in his words -- a fate worse than death. As Patterson remarked: "There is no evidence that she suffered any emotional or career damage, and the punishment she belatedly sought was in no way commensurate with the offense." Despite their mixed feelings about Thomas, few in the black community really wanted to see him "shamed" in this way.

* * *

The myth of the greatly advantaged, black super-female versus the greatly disadvantaged and besieged black male has particular resonance today since public and scholarly attention has contrasted the plight of black males with the apparent success of black professional women. Black men currently have unemployment rates twice that of white men and life expectancy rates significantly lower than white men. Black men are over-represented in the prisons and more likely to be on death row. But even for those not in trouble, the 1980 Census revealed that black men take home to their families about 62 percent of what white men take home.

Concern in the black community over the plight of black males has recently led to the idea of separate schools for black boys in Milwaukee and Detroit. However, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) successfully challenged the constitutionality of publicly funded schools for black boys -- and it was a black woman who filed the suit with the ACLU. That woman apparently wanted the city to work to improve the educational opportunities for her daughter in the public school system, but in doing so, blocked the new educational opportunities for black boys. It is a tragedy that this issue of the educational needs of black children has pitted black females against black males, but the fact remains that black girls are as badly educated in Detroit's public school system, and have equally high drop-out rates, as black boys.

Furthermore, while black males indeed face the genuine, not imagined, threat of social annihilation given their high rates of incarceration and homicide, black females also face serious problems linked to their gender and race that often sentence them to a lifetime of poverty and welfare dependency. Still, the public has accepted the myth that black women are generally economically secure whereas black men are not. Many black people, therefore, felt it especially important to side with Thomas given the vulnerable position of black males in this country even if they found Hill to be credible. As one black woman said in an interview with a New York Times reporter:

I've got a husband and two sons. As a woman, I can relate to Anita Hill. God knows we've all been subjected to some form of sexual harassment in our lives. But as a mother and wife, I know this society has a history of mistreatment and abuse toward black men. You have to wonder, what if my son is accused of this. Is he going to get a fair shake?

What gives the myth of black women's economic prosperity its credibility are published analyses that began with the 1980 Census. These analyses indicate that relative to white women, black women's economic situation improved during the 1970s, while black men's economic situation relative to white men has not. One highly publicized finding based on the 1980 Census is that college-educated black women now take home slightly higher average annual salaries than college-educated white women. Such findings taken out of context are very misleading since significant race differences remain between black and white women. Most black women, of course, do not go to college. Black women's unemployment rates remain higher than those for white women, and in some instances, twice that of white women's. Moreover, as heads of households, black women are often the ones in poverty. Nonetheless, because of the image of black women's improving economic status (relative to white women), rarely do they enter public policy debates nowadays.

Invisible Woman
In the few instances when they do appear in policy discussions, black women are likely to be stigmatized as welfare queens and vaguely implicated in the problems black men face in the inner-city ghettos. It is revealing that during the confirmation process, few liberals took much notice of the way Judge Thomas characterized and then belittled his own sister as a hardcore welfare recipient. (See article below.) In the 1991 fall issue of Tikkun, Kimberle Crenshaw, a black UCLA law professor, faulted white liberals and feminists for missing the way that gender and race interact in the black community to the particular detriment of black women. When the supposed cure for social problems in the black community is "strong men" and "loyal, subservient women," wrote Crenshaw, there is a special kind of oppression that even white feminists fail to perceive.

Although surveys show that the majority of black women are concerned about sex discrimination, their support of feminist causes is limited by their mistrust of white feminists, partly for historical reasons stemming from white women's participation in the larger system of racial oppression. Furthermore, many white feminists tend to heighten that mistrust by overstating the similarities between the conditions and status of white and black women, ignoring what black women perceive to be their more marginal position in society as a result of the double negative associated with being female and being black. (In this respect, Patterson has identified a genuine split, though he wrongly attributes it to the "Puritanism" of feminism and his claim that some forms of harassment don't really bother ordinary women.)

The narrow framing of women's issues on the part of some white feminists has also worked against the development of a viable feminist union between black and white women. Indeed, throughout and even after the Thomas hearings, sexual harassment was articulated by some prominent white feminists as a "special problem" of women professionals. For example, in a Washington Post op-ed column, Naomi Wolf, a white feminist activist, maintained that women professionals had "the most to lose" in sexual harassment battles. However, sexual harassment is a concern of every working woman, not the exclusive domain of professional women. Working-class women, not professional women, may well have the most to lose in such matters. Working-class women today face declining job opportunities. At the entry level and for positions requiring limited skills, they are the most expendable. Furthermore, the incomes working-class women bring home are often critical for their family's survival. As the 1980 Census revealed, a majority of black women are the sole economic providers for their family. In addition, research has shown that even black professionals often misidentify themselves as working class, presumably because their middle class status is precarious. But in illustrating sexual harassment, women reporters often portrayed professional women of their own social class, and the media picture of sexual harassment as predominantly a professional women's issue probably kept a large proportion of black women from identifying with Hill. Many black women found it easier to believe the three women who testified on Thomas's behalf -- and this was undoubtedly a calculation in the decision by Thomas's "handlers" to give them prominence.

Race Trumps Gender
In the Thomas hearings, the focus on race and racism overwhelmed and diminished the black gender issues. Thomas's "lynching" remark made the actual substance of Hill's charges seem irrelevant just as attention to the urgent plight of black men has shifted public focus from the multiple economic and social problems black women also face. Thomas's impassioned opening statement during the second round of the judicial hearings, in which he accused the Senate of participating in a "high-tech lynching," was pivotal for his majority-black support. His choice of the lynch metaphor could hardly have been more devastatingly effective, for the lynching of black men has come to symbolize the sum total of black people's oppression in the United States. Michele Wallace, reflecting on this history in Black Macho and Myth of the Superwoman, writes: "Obsession with the lynchings of the black man seems to leave no room in the black male consciousness for any awareness of the oppression of black women." The lynch metaphor, therefore, subtly reinforced the popular view of black men's greater vulnerability relative to black women.

Moreover, although few commentators have dared to discuss the relevance of Thomas's white wife, undoubtedly her visible position behind Thomas throughout the proceedings lent a degree of authenticity to his lynching claim since few watching could fail to comprehend (consciously or unconsciously) that most black men had been lynched because of alleged affections or intimacies with white women. In interviews given after the confirmation, Thomas and his wife disclosed that they had greatly feared being attacked during the hearings because of their interracial marriage. Rather than disapprobation, Thomas may have gained sympathy from the black community, who could well believe that an "uppity" black man might be resented and suffer professionally for having a white wife.

Thomas's cry of foul play generated sudden but deep sympathy from most people in the black community, a community that has long experience with injustice. Few wanted to be associated with such an injustice. However, the political significance of the Thomas-Hill confrontation lies not with the question of whether Thomas should have been confirmed in light of Hill's charge of sexual harassment, but how his use of the lynching symbol was able to transform the hearings into a race loyalty test for blacks, concealing the significance of sexual harassment in the process. The event revealed the way black women's interests can be and have been sacrificed for the sake of the race and how easily the stakes of black women in the promotion of gender equality can be ignored.

* * *

Ironically, although tens of millions of Americans were introduced through Anita Hill to the world of the black professional woman, the Hill-Thomas hearings in the end underscored the political invisibility of black women today. As Rosemary Bray, a black editor, wrote in The New York Times, "As credible, as inspiring as she was, most people who saw her had no context in which to judge her. The signs and symbols that might have helped to place Hill were long ago appropriated by officials of authentic (male) blackness, or by representatives of authentic (white) womanhood. Quite simply, a woman like Anita Hill couldn't possibly exist."

During this event, black civil rights activists, mostly men, not only kept silent regarding Hill's rights in this matter but maintained their silence on the larger issue of sex discrimination as it affects black women and, therefore, the black community. In this silence, feminists, mostly white, presented the sexual harassment issue as uniquely their concern. Not only were the gender concerns of black women unrepresented throughout, but the Thomas-Hill hearings probably helped to reinforce that old and dangerous stereotype of black women, that black women (like Hill) have "remarkable strength and courage." The hearings reinforced the popular belief of black women's "uniqueness," their ability to absorb a host of injustices against them rooted in class, gender, and race, without crying out.


Sidebar:
Clarence Thomas's Invisible Sister

Clarence Thomas presented himself to the American public as a self-made man. His journey from poverty in Pin Point, Georgia to prominence in Washington, D.C., was held up as an example of bootstrap social mobility that makes government equal opportunity programs unnecessary. There was only one little problem with the story: how to explain his sister, Emma Mae Martin, who still lives in a dilapidated frame house with a hole in the roof in Pin Point, Georgia.

Many successful African-American professionals have a sibling who exemplifies the "other" America. Some do what they can to help, perhaps sending money. Some try to forget, and cut off all contact. I don't know whether Thomas did try to help, but he certainly did not forget. He excoriated his sister publicly and used her to exemplify the perversity of the liberal welfare system. "She gets mad when the mailman is late with her welfare check. That's how dependent she is," Thomas told a San Francisco audience. "What's worse is that now her kids feel entitled to the check, too. They have no motivation for doing better or getting out of that situation."

This is an appallingly callous statement and contrary to the facts. As reported in The Los Angeles Times on July 5, Judge Thomas's father deserted the family when the children were small. The mother supported the family by picking crabs at five cents a pound. When a fire destroyed their home and belongings, the mother, who could no longer support the children cleaning houses at $15 a week, sent the boys -- not the girls -- to live with their grandfather, an independent small-business man.

Judge Thomas's sister, Emma Mae, stayed home and graduated from high school. She got married and had children, and then her husband deserted her. While the judge was attending Yale Law School, she supported her family with two minimum-wage jobs. Her mother worked as a nurse's aide at the local hospital, and an aunt took care of the children.

Then the aunt suffered a stroke, and Emma Mae Martin had to quit work to take care of her. This was when she went on welfare, where she remained for about four and a half years. Now she works as a cook at the local hospital, reporting to work at 3 a.m. She has three children. One works as a carpenter; one was just laid off, and the fifteen-year-old is in school.

* * *

This is hardly a story of welfare dependency. The women of this household worked hard at low-paying jobs, took care of one another, and raised their children. It is a story not only of race and poverty, but also of sexism -- desertion by husbands, lack of child support, giving boys, not girls, the opportunities to get ahead.

And when the elderly aunt needed care, the adult female relative, not the man -- again, typical -- assumed the burdens and at that point went on welfare. What was she to do? Can you imagine the long-term care that might have been available to an elderly African-American woman in rural Georgia?

Ms. Martin has since left welfare, again works hard, and her three children are in the labor market or in school. In other words, in the face of great odds, she did exactly what Charles Murray and other conservatives have asked: She completed school, she worked, she got married. She has suffered because of irresponsible men, male preferences, lack of an effective child-support system, lousy jobs, and a lousy health care system.

What can we say about her brother? He had the advantages. Yet he cruelly distorted her situation and publicly humiliated her and her children. Is this the kind of person we want as justice of the Supreme Court? In contrast, Emma Mae Martin has retained her dignity, tolerance, and generosity -- qualities one would like to see in a justice. She holds no malice toward her brother. Nor does she blame her poor family or the government or anybody else for her life situation. "You make your life choices for yourself. I had the opportunity to go to college if I wanted to, but I made the choice. I took care of the older people."

It's too bad she was not nominated for the Court.

-- Joel F. Handler

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