Deja Vu All Over Again Decades before Christine Blasey-Ford testified before lawmakers, the country had another reckoning with sexual misconduct set against the backdrop of a Supreme Court nomination. This week: what we have — and haven't — learned in the years since the Anita Hill hearings about identity politics, sexual harassment and power.
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Deja Vu All Over Again

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Deja Vu All Over Again

Deja Vu All Over Again

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GENE DEMBY, HOST:

Hey, y'all. Just a heads up. The following podcast contains descriptions of sexual assault.

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CHUCK GRASSLEY: Do you swear that the testimony you're about to give before this committee will be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help you God? Thank you very much. Please be seated. And before you give your statement...

DEMBY: You're listening to CODE SWITCH. I'm Gene Demby. Shereen is out reporting this week. Millions of people tuned into coverage of Christine Blasey Ford's testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week. Ford, who was a psychology professor at Palo Alto University, reluctantly came forward to detail how she was allegedly sexually assaulted as a teenager by Brett Kavanaugh, a nominee for the Supreme Court.

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CHRISTINE BLASEY FORD: I don't have all the answers. And I don't remember as much as I would like to. But the details about that night that bring me here today are the ones I will never forget. They have been seared into my memory and have haunted me episodically as an adult. When I got to the small gathering, people were drinking beer...

DEMBY: For four hours, Professor Ford emotionally recalled the night in 1982, when she said she went to a small gathering in a Washington, D.C., suburb. That's where she said Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her.

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FORD: Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter, the uproarious laughter between the two and their having fun at my expense.

DEMBY: That's Ford referring to Brett Kavanaugh and his friend Mark Judge who was allegedly in the room during the assault. After professor Ford testified, she left the Senate chamber. Then, Judge Kavanaugh had his chance for rebuttal.

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BRETT KAVANAUGH: This confirmation process has become a national disgrace. The Constitution gives the Senate an important role in the confirmation process, but you have replaced advice and consent with search and destroy.

DEMBY: The next day, after a preliminary committee vote that split along party lines, Judge Kavanaugh's nomination was passed through to the full Senate, which is expected to vote this week on whether to confirm him. These hearings have powerful echoes to another public reckoning on sexual misconduct against the backdrop of another Supreme Court nomination that involved Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill. This week, what we have and haven't learned since Anita Hill about identity politics, sexual harassment and power. My CODE SWITCH teammate Karen Grigsby Bates is here. She wrote about those hearings in 1991. Hey, KGB.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Hey, Gene.

DEMBY: All right. So take us back to 1991. What was going on back then?

BATES: Well, in June of that year, Justice Thurgood Marshall announced he was retiring from the Supreme Court after nearly 25 years because he was in failing health.

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THURGOOD MARSHALL: My doctor and my wife and I have been discussing this for the past six months or more. And we all eventually agreed - all three of us - that this was it. And this is it.

BATES: Thurgood Marshall was a civil rights icon as a lawyer. He argued and won Brown v. Board of Education, which, as you know, made segregation in schools unconstitutional. And as a justice, Gene, he had been one of the Supreme Court's most reliable liberals. But Marshall was stepping down when George H.W. Bush, a Republican, was president. George H.W. Bush was not going to appoint a liberal or even a moderate to the court. And so there were concerns that Marshall's legacy on civil rights would be undone by whichever conservative judge was picked to replace him.

DEMBY: So Bush decided to replace Marshall with a black justice.

BATES: Right - the optics would have been janky to have had no ethnic diversity on the court in 1991.

DEMBY: Right.

BATES: And so Bush nominated Clarence Thomas but denied that race had anything to do with his choice.

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GEORGE H W BUSH: The fact that he is black in a minority has nothing to do with this in the sense that he is the best qualified at this time. And we had a very thorough screening process...

BATES: Civil rights groups all came out in opposition to Thomas's selection because he staunchly opposed affirmative action programs and civil rights laws. In a symbolic vote, the Congressional Black Caucus voted 19-1 to oppose his nomination. Regardless of his politics or his race, others thought he was simply unqualified. He'd only been on the bench for a very short time. The American Bar Association gave Thomas a qualified rating, but it was the lowest one it could give. And it was not a unanimous recommendation.

But Republicans liked Thomas. They thought he would be a conservative vote on issues like abortion and the judiciary committee was split across party lines on Thomas. Despite that, they thought he would be confirmed in relatively short order. And then this happened.

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NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: A woman who served as personal assistant to Clarence Thomas for over two years has accused him of sexually harassing her. National Public Radio has learned that the woman brought her accusation to the Senate Judiciary Committee last month, but it was not investigated until the week of the committee's vote.

BATES: That woman was Anita Hill. NPR broke her story in 1991. Hill had worked for Clarence Thomas at various government posts. She said that Thomas, her boss, would hit on her, ask her out and make sexually explicit remarks to her. She was 25 at the time of the alleged harassment. And she said that she was so stressed by it that she became physically ill. She had stomach pains. Here she is talking to NPR in 1991.

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ANITA HILL: I felt as though I did not have a choice, that the pressure was such that I was going to have to submit to that pressure in order to continue getting good assignments, being able to work and be comfortable in the work environment, that if I did not submit, that I was not going to be - continue to be a good employee.

BATES: Hill told NPR's Nina Totenberg, who covers the Supreme Court, that she was reluctant to come forward because she didn't want to relive this ugliness and feared she'd pay a very high, personal price for having spoken up. And she did. She and her family were harassed and threatened. Here she is talking to NPR's All Things Considered last month.

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HILL: But in the end, for me, what it has come down to is that I felt that I had an obligation to come forward. I felt that I had relevant information about the character and fitness of the nominee. I had an obligation to the truth. And I had an obligation as a member of the bar to the court.

BATES: Clarence Thomas responded to Hill's allegations with outrage.

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CLARENCE THOMAS: This is a circus. It's a national disgrace. And from my standpoint, as a black American, as far as I'm concerned, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves.

BATES: On Thursday, Ford testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Like Anita Hill, she said she came forward out of a sense of civic duty. Several other women have also made allegations about Brett Kavanaugh and sexual misconduct. After a lot of back and forth, the White House ordered an FBI investigation to look into these allegations. President Trump says he wants it to be done by the end of the week. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has indicated he'll call for a vote on Kavanaugh this week.

DEMBY: When we come back, we're going to talk to the legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw. She was part of Anita Hill's legal support team back in 1991 during those hearings that riveted the nation. She wrote an op-ed in The New York Times titled "We Still Haven't Learned From Anita Hill's Testimony."

KIMBERLE CRENSHAW: Her responsibility to remain silent was greater than his responsibility not to have done it in the first place.

DEMBY: Stay with us.

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DEMBY: Gene.

BATES: Karen.

DEMBY: CODE SWITCH. Our guest, Kimberle Crenshaw, is a law professor at UCLA and Columbia. She wrote an op-ed in The New York Times entitled "We Still Haven't Learned From Anita Hill's Testimony." Kimberle, welcome to CODE SWITCH.

CRENSHAW: Thanks for having me on.

BATES: So are you feeling deja vu all over again?

CRENSHAW: That and then some.

(LAUGHTER)

BATES: I'll bet.

CRENSHAW: It's more like Groundhog Day.

BATES: Over and over and over again.

DEMBY: So did you watch Christine Blasey Ford's testimony last week?

CRENSHAW: Oh, yes, of course.

DEMBY: What were you thinking while you watched?

CRENSHAW: I was thinking, I can imagine how she's feeling right now. I was thinking, is this a reset? And will there be a different conclusion? I was thinking as I was listening to the pundits - when she concluded, everybody was of the mind that she was credible. I wasn't shocked when after just a brief pause of reflection and affirmation of her that literally, like, the next scene comes the repudiation and the response. And everybody thinks it's come back to a draw.

And I've been really struck by how few commentators say anything about the dog-whistle politics of what Kavanaugh was saying and nothing about just the out-of-the-pocket Lindsey Graham claim. I mean, he stated clearly that, you know, this is about single - a white man. And he was saying, you know, I've been told I'm supposed to shut up, and I'm not going to do it.

What did that have to do with this issue other than the fact that they realize that they're speaking to a particular politic and a particular constituency? And that's where the race and gender is playing out. It's playing out at the top, as opposed to at the bottom. And that's when I felt like, OK, this is Groundhog Day. This is not going to be reset.

BATES: Because you've been there before and done that before.

CRENSHAW: Yes, yes. So I was one of the people who supported Anita Hill's legal team in the 1991 hearings. And again, I remember that same sense that, you know, Anita Hill was credible. She was calm. She was responsive. They were not able to touch her testimony in any substantive way. And I remember thinking, well, how can he possibly say anything to this?

And we were in the back when he came out and, you know, denounced the hearings in the same language pretty much as we heard on Thursday which - you know, it was a travesty. It was, you know, all a conspiracy. His language of conspiracy was designed to rally the troops to his cause by throwing out a history that he had long since denigrated.

DEMBY: Clarence Thomas, you mean.

CRENSHAW: Clarence Thomas - sorry. He looms so large in my mind (laughter). But yeah.

BATES: You don't even have to name him. Yeah.

CRENSHAW: (Laughter) Exactly - the he who came forward and said this is a high-tech lynching. And we were floored.

BATES: Yeah. But was he not just doing this to rally the troops but also to kind of shake the all-white panel that was sitting in judgment of him? It seemed to me that he was pretty aware of the potency of the optics of that, this lone black man facing this phalanx of white guys who were going to decide his fate.

CRENSHAW: Absolutely. And you know, just the historical twist of that moment - right? So he was able to rise through the ranks very quickly by a willingness to set aside any kind of argument about racial equality that was grounded in the past. So he got to the front of the line that way, largely through the support of many of the senators and the Republican presidency that put him there. So the very thing that got him there is then the thing that he turned on to get himself out of trouble.

I don't like to use the frame playing the race card because many times it's used to deny the reality of racism. This was playing the race card because racism had nothing to do with it. And it worked both to split the women's movement from the civil rights folks. It worked to silence the liberal-leaning senators. And it worked to allow the judiciary committee, basically, to repackage him as a pro-civil rights, a pro-racial justice nominee.

BATES: It also took the focus off the women's complaints.

CRENSHAW: And it's such a classic move now that we've seen it repeated. I think seeing it happen again with Kavanaugh was an illustration of the fact that the discursive terrain that men have is wider, broader, deeper than the discursive terrain that women have. In other words, there's a very, very thin line that a woman can walk and maintain even the possibility of being seen as credible. She can't be angry. She can't look resentful or spiteful or unhinged. And yet, we see that the men can come on, in one instance, take a historical reference and turn it inside out; another instance, create a conspiracy - a broad left-wing conspiracy that includes the former president of the United States. You know, if either of the women had said that, that would have been the end of the hearing. They would have just, you know, been thrown out of the Capitol.

DEMBY: So Kimberle, what would you say to someone who is looking at Brett Kavanaugh and they see him fuming in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee - and they're like, look. Like, if I was falsely accused of sexual abuse, I would be this angry, too? Like, what would you say to someone who was looking at it through that lens?

CRENSHAW: I would say, so it just doesn't ring true for me. And then I would say - beyond that, credibility is based on a whole range of things. So you have a calendar that, you know, is basically being introduced as exculpatory evidence and right in it is incriminating evidence.

DEMBY: That's the calendar that Kavanaugh kept in high school that detailed his activity throughout the summer of the alleged assault. He said it never showed any such gathering. But there is an entry for July 1 that shows a planned get-together with at least two of the people that Christine Blasey Ford mentioned in her testimony as being present at the time of the assault.

CRENSHAW: That's the best you've got, something that almost has a big day on it? Like, this is the day. You know, so you have to measure credibility by all of the circumstances.

DEMBY: The title of the op-ed is called "We Still Haven't Learned From Anita Hill's Testimony." So what haven't we learned since 1991?

CRENSHAW: Well, I think the way that race and gender play out in shaping testimony and shaping narratives that people are willing to receive. In the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill situation, what was lost there was the race and gendered common history of the creation of sexual harassment. So notably, in the aftermath of Hill's testimony, there was an op-ed that had been written by a very well-known professor, Orlando Patterson, in The New York Times. And he was basically making an argument that many people believed that she was telling the truth technically. But functionally, she was lying by saying she was harassed by this behavior because this was simply a common cultural mode of interacting that she well-recognized. So it was basically, you're acting like a white woman.

DEMBY: What?

CRENSHAW: And we all knew that this was just a brother hitting a sister who was aloof, and so he kept trying. You know, so it was kind of this argument that sexual harassment, you know, is sort of a white women's thing. Why would Anita Hill, you know, sort of drag that out to bludgeon him with? And to see so many people turn on a dime and become, you know, violently hostile against just the idea that a black woman would say that this black man had done something to her - her responsibility to remain silent was greater than his responsibility not to have done it in the first place.

And that worked, in part, because people just didn't know earlier chapters of black women's history. They had no idea that the early plaintiffs in sexual harassment cases were largely black women. They had no idea that Rosa Parks didn't walk into the scene to sit down on a bus but that she had been a rape crisis advocate for black women in the South. And this time, it's a question of whether people see race and gender playing out even in a situation that, A, involves white people and, B, involves no black character in the middle of the hearing.

DEMBY: After Christine Blasey Ford's testimony last week, a few pundits compared that self-possession of Anita Hill and the way she was treated by the Senate Judiciary Committee as she was being questioned to Christine Blasey Ford. They described Ford as vulnerable - I'm doing air quotes - "vulnerable," whereas Hill was, you know, self-contained. What are those descriptors? What do they signal to you?

CRENSHAW: They map onto an observable reality. So it was true that Dr. Blasey Ford was much more emotive, and professor Hill was directed. But I think the issue is what people make of the reality. People want to see women in trauma in order to believe they're truly traumatized. Or even more broadly, they want to see the trauma before they believe that anything happened. I also think that even credibility doesn't really change the narrative.

So she ran this gauntlet, Dr. Blasey Ford, to the point where pretty much, you know, everybody thought - this is looking pretty bad. And then - pause, skip a beat - and we're off to the next scene. And all of that credibility was for naught. And I think vulnerability, as to black women, simply produces the same kind of distancing that the idea that they're, you know, impenetrable produces. If they're othered, they stay that way. I don't think you can cry your way out of being othered nor can you steel yourself into being taken seriously. That's the problem of being seen as a walking stereotype.

DEMBY: So in your op-ed, you wrote, the Hills-Thomas conflict has gone down in history as a colossal failure of intersectional organizing. It's not too late, as the Kavanaugh's nomination fight enters its next phase, to write a better history. In the context of this nomination, what would a better history even look like?

CRENSHAW: I think a better history might come out of the ashes of that effort to do a scorched-earth defense that we saw Kavanaugh rolling out. If this is a moment where people could see - wow, they were really willing to ride over the trauma of a woman who shared the same sort of social biography as this guy. Yet she could be cast aside just as quickly as Anita Hill. If women see that and are able to be far more literate about the way that this is an intersectional politics as well - Lindsey Graham is doing identity politics. And it's an identity politics that's basically telling a woman like Dr. Blasey Ford and the millions of other women who heard in her story the same thing, the same threat - they're telling them to shut up about it.

So the question is, do we want a world in which abuse of any and all of us is taken seriously? And that's a cross-racial, cross-class sensibility.

BATES: Kimberle Crenshaw is a professor of law at both UCLA and Columbia University. She's writing a book about intersectionality, which is a term that she coined.

DEMBY: Thank you so much, Kimberle.

CRENSHAW: Thank you. It's been great.

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DEMBY: All right, y'all, that's our show. You can follow us on Twitter. We're @nprcodeswitch. We want to hear from you. Our email is codeswitch@npr.org. You can always send us your burning questions about race in America with the subject line Ask CODE SWITCH.

BATES: Sign up for our newsletter at npr.org/newsletter/code-switch. And subscribe to the podcast on NPR One or wherever fine podcasts can be found or streamed. This episode was produced by Leah Donnella, Maria Paz Gutierrez and Sami Yenigun. It was edited by Sami Yenigun and Leah Donnella.

DEMBY: And a shout-out to the rest of the CODE SWITCH team - Walter Ray Watson, Adrian Florido, Steve Drummond and Kat Chow.

BATES: Who's getting married this weekend - congratulations, Kat.

DEMBY: Our intern is Andrea Henderson. Shereen Marisol Meraji is back next week. I'm Gene Demby.

BATES: And I'm Karen Grigsby Bates.

DEMBY: Be easy, y'all.

BATES: Peace.

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