Photo: JENNIFER LAW
In November of 1991, a few months after Clarence Thomas was confirmed to his lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court, the judge and his wife sat for a photoshoot with People magazine. It was a remarkable story, even by the standards of the time. The couple grinned on the publication’s cover, holding each other tight. In a 2,500-word confessional essay titled “Breaking Silence,” Ginni Thomas herself detailed the horror of the “spiritual warfare,” the battle of “good versus evil” suffered by the couple when Clarence was accused of sexually harassing Anita Hill.
This, of course, was before Ginni Thomas became a vocal, conspiracy-theory-addled activist, before she was sharing Facebook posts about George Soros’s intended “coup” or lobbying former President Donald Trump to dismantle trans rights. But her wild, defamatory essay for People prefigured the public persona she would come to embody, just as Clarence Thomas’s outraged denial over Anita Hill’s allegations would be a blueprint for how a conservative accused of serious misconduct could present himself as a victim—a way to successfully misdirect the narrative and muddle critique.
In her essay, Ginni twice alludes that racism was largely responsible for the–in her opinion, salacious and deeply untrue—testimony presented by Anita Hill. She alleges the testimony about her husband was “politically motivated,” that “his opponents had to keep digging deeper and deeper” for dirt on the judge because “something about Clarence, a conservative Black man, must threaten an important segment of our society.” She says that one of the most “bizarre” things about the accusations was that she herself had been sexually harassed at work, in a way she infers was more serious than what Hill alleged to have experienced because it was “physical” rather than verbal. “And for what that man did to me, I think Clarence could have killed him,” she writes. “How could all this happen to a man who is so intolerant of sexual harassment?” She compares Anita Hill’s testimony to the movie Fatal Attraction—“or, in her case, what I call the fatal assistant”—and says that Hill was, as Republican senators so painfully implied in the hearing itself, in love with the judge and “never got what she wanted.”
Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearing was a pivotal moment in the development of the conservative rebuttal that inverts identity politics, using the language of bias and protected classes as a shield. It’s how Donald Trump’s impeachable offenses became a “witch hunt,” why Steve King turned around after making a series of racist remarks and referred to his critics as a “political lynch mob,” an antithetical defense that would be absurd if it weren’t such a common practice for politicians who are reminded of things they have recently said and done. Democrat Krysten Sinema’s defense of her cheery thumbs-down to lifting the minimum wage owes something to this tactic too—like others, she found it’s easiest to frame dissent as a sexist “commentary about a female senator’s body language.” And it’s also, of course, the origin of the exhausting and cynical mess portraying Brett Kavanaugh as a good man who enjoys the occasional beer who had his good name spoiled by the harpies and the press.
Ginni and Clarence Thomas didn’t invent this tactic, but they did use it to staggering effect in 1991
Ginni and Clarence Thomas didn’t invent this tactic, but they did use it to staggering effect in 1991, paving the way for an entire generation of politicians to interpret allegations of professional or personal misconduct as smear campaigns orchestrated to beat minority voices down—a tactic that arguably made more sense coming from a Black man but which has been used by all manner of bad-faith figures since, bent as they are on pretending politicians are an endangered class.
As a lawyer involved in the hearing said in one of the many reconsiderations of Thomas’s confirmation published around the time Joe Biden became the Democratic presidential nominee, “What happened is we got really politically outplayed by the Republicans … Democrats did not coordinate and they did not prepare for battle.” One could argue that on that front, as well, not a whole lot has changed, particularly when criticism or fact-finding is met with the kind of moral outrage that attends this kind of identity war. “I hope we have set a new low, that Americans in their outrage can say, ‘No, there is a level at which this is disgusting, horrible, and wrong,’” Ginni Thomas wrote at the close of her essay.
Thomas’s repulsive victory lap in the pages of a celebrity magazine was really just a pointed reflection of the broader campaign to simultaneously smear Anita Hill and make it appear that she, or Democratic politicians, or the press, were in fact the ones orchestrating a targeted misinformation campaign. Thomas’s testimony was full of the kind of fury that’s proven to be more politically effective than contrition or objective calm, and draws heavily on the language of equality and justice that was the supposed objective of putting Anita Hill on the stand. In his testimony, to great effect, Thomas called the hearing at various points “Kafkaesque,” “a circus,” and a “national disgrace.”
“From my standpoint as a Black American,” he said, “ it is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas, and it is a message that unless you kowtow to an old order, this is what will happen to you. You will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the US Senate rather than hung from a tree.”
Clarence and Ginny, of course, have remained Washington fixtures for decades, enjoying a close friendship with our most recent president. They’ve been shielded from consequences when it comes to Ginny’s activism, unprecedented for the wife of a Justice, and conservatives still say he’s owed an apology. Anita Hill, meanwhile, can’t even get Joe Biden to definitively say what happened in 1991 was wrong.