Kimberlé Crenshaw: How Society Embraces Male Denials, from Clarence Thomas to Brett Kavanaugh

StoryOctober 01, 2018
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When President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh testified last week before the Senate Judiciary Committee, he called Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s accusations against him and the subsequent fallout a “circus” orchestrated by the Democrats. His language echoed Clarence Thomas, who nearly 30 years ago said of the Anita Hill trials, “This is a circus. It’s a national disgrace. … It is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves.” We speak with Kimberlé Crenshaw, professor of law at UCLA and Columbia University who assisted Anita Hill’s legal team. She is the founder of the African American Policy Forum. Her piece for The New York Times last week was headlined “We Still Haven’t Learned from Anita Hill’s Testimony.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. Our next guest argues when senators questioned Dr. Blasey Ford last week, they showed they had failed to learn from Anita Hill’s 1991 testimony against Clarence Thomas. But first I want to play some of the testimony from both confirmation hearings: President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh testifying Thursday before the Senate Judiciary Committee that he did not sexually assault Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, then Clarence Thomas testifying he did not sexually harass Hill.

JUDGE BRETT KAVANAUGH: This whole 2-week effort has been a calculated and orchestrated political hit, … revenge on behalf of the Clintons, and millions of dollars in money from outside left-wing opposition groups. This is a circus.

JUDGE CLARENCE THOMAS: This is a circus. It’s a national disgrace. … As far as I’m concerned, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we go to Los Angeles, where we’re joined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, professor of law at UCLA and Columbia University. She’s the founder of the African American Policy Forum. She assisted Anita Hill’s legal team. Her piece for The New York Times last week was headlined “We Still Haven’t Learned from Anita Hill’s Testimony.”

So, welcome to Democracy Now!, Professor Crenshaw.

KIMBERLÉ CRENSHAW: Thanks for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: This is now after the testimony—

KIMBERLÉ CRENSHAW: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: —of Dr. Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh. Your assessment of it?

KIMBERLÉ CRENSHAW: Well, my assessment is that both parties learned a lesson about optics, but not much about substance. I thought that the fact that the Republicans realized that they could not themselves be in the position of interrogating Dr. Ford, and therefore outsourced that responsibility to someone else, was a reflection of their understanding. I also think that the Democrats truly understood that one of the things that went so wrong in the last hearing was that Anita Hill had no support. There was no indication whatsoever that the Democrats actually believed her. And, of course, the Republicans pretty much raked her over the coals. So, we didn’t have either of those things happening this time.

But I think what we still found out is that there is a huge lack of balance between the discursive capital, the ability to speak and be taken seriously, between men and women, and then also between whites and nonwhites. So, those who have more power have a broader range of possibilities. So Kavanaugh can go in and pretty much lose his mind, and people think that he’s still credible, whereas Dr. Ford had to walk a very, very narrow line to be found to be credible. And even after she was found to be credible—I mean, to the extent that even Fox News was saying, “Oh, we think the Republicans are in trouble”—there was just a brief pause, and then Kavanaugh comes in and sheds his tears, and suddenly we’re back to square one again. Last week, Kate Manne called that “himpathy,” where men have more, powerful men have more. And I think this is, effectively, what we saw playing out.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to Dianne Feinstein. Controversy over the confirmation of Clarence Thomas at the Supreme Court triggered a wave that swept Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California into office in 1992, among other women. And that was a year after that confirmation. Now Senator Feinstein is a key player in Kavanaugh’s confirmation as the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. She noted Thursday the FBI carried out an investigation into Anita Hill’s allegations that Thomas had sexually harassed her.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN: In 1991, Anita Hill’s allegations were reviewed by the FBI, as is the normal process and squarely within its jurisdiction. … In 1991, the Senate heard from 22 witnesses over three days. Today, while rejecting an FBI investigation, Republicans are refusing to hear testimony from any other witness, including Mark Judge, who Dr. Ford identified as being in the room when the attack took place. … In 1991, Republicans belittled Professor Hill’s experience, saying—and I quote—”It won’t make a bit of difference in the outcome,” end-quote. And the burden of proof was on Professor Hill. Today, our Republican colleagues are saying this is a “hiccup,” Dr. Ford is “mixed up,” and declaring, “I’ll listen to the lady, but we’re going to bring this to a close.”

AMY GOODMAN: So that was Senator Dianne Feinstein during the hearing. This is Anita Hill making her opening statement in the 1991 confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, when she testified that he sexually harassed her.

ANITA HILL: After approximately three months of working there, he asked me to go out socially with him. What happened next and telling the world about it are the two most difficult things—experiences of my life. It is only after a great deal of agonizing consideration and sleepless number—a great number of sleepless nights, that I am able to talk of these unpleasant matters to anyone but my close friends.

AMY GOODMAN: So that was 1991. Speaking in Houston Friday night at an event where cameras were not allowed, Anita Hill noted she had watched Dr. Blasey Ford testify, and, quote, “I was struck by the doctor’s openness to say how terrified she was to be there and talk about something that had had a profound impact, and knowing there would be hostility. I was also impressed by how calm she was, how careful she was and how it affected her,” Anita Hill said Friday. Describing Kavanaugh’s testimony, she noted he had projected anger, a lot of aggression and that, quote, “No female candidate for a Supreme Court position would ever have the license” to speak with similar fury.

Professor Crenshaw, you walked in with Anita Hill to her hearing. You accompanied her. So, talk about the parallels now. And this point that Professor Hill also made, that if you were to reverse the disposition of these two people, the rage, the anger, the evasiveness, the attacking judge, if that were Christine Blasey Ford, and Christine Blasey—and Kavanaugh was apologetic, soft-spoken, cooperative, I mean, could you imagine if Dr. Ford acted like Judge Kavanaugh did at the hearing?

KIMBERLÉ CRENSHAW: Well, it’s absolutely unimaginable. And that’s the deeper reality behind sexual harassment, sexual abuse, gender injustice, that it’s not just the acts that happen. It’s the broader context in which men have far more power not only to create harm, but to deny responsibility for the harm they create. And then, equally importantly, I think, that we see happening right now is, when they are called to be accountable for what they’ve done, when something that happened 27 years ago, perhaps in a context in which Kavanaugh didn’t think that there was any social sanction to have to worry about, ultimately catches up with him, what we get is the righteous indignation, the raging, the finger pointing, the blaming of so many people.

Now, the real problem isn’t just that there is room for him to do that, but that his doing that is effective, so many people thinking that, “Well, of course we understand that level of rage.” So, overlooking, basically stepping over Dr. Blasey Ford’s trauma, in a rush to embrace him, that’s the part about this moment that’s so frightening. We’ve seen this kind of anger playing out in the stadiums that President Trump is going to. And I think a lot of us can distance ourselves from that because we don’t see it moving into the halls of power. Well, this kind of sentiment, this “my aggression is justified by my self-defense, even though I’m defending against being held accountable for something that I’ve done,” that’s come now into the Senate, it’s come to the Judiciary Committee, and it may be going into the Supreme Court. This is a very dangerous moment for our society and for our democracy. And it’s important to try to draw the line in the sand at this very moment.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, you wrote, in the end of a piece for The New York Times, that “The Hill-Thomas conflict has gone down in history as a colossal failure of intersectional organizing.” You say, “It’s not too late, as the Kavanaugh nomination fight enters its next phase, to write a better history.” Explain.

KIMBERLÉ CRENSHAW: Well, my argument there was that one of the reasons why Clarence Thomas was so successful in galvanizing so many African Americans, members of the civil rights community, with his denunciation of this as a “high-tech lynching,” is because people didn’t understand that the history of sexual harassment actually came from African-American women. It was part of the civil rights freedom struggle. So, not knowing that history put feminists and anti-racists at odds. And that created this huge intersectional failure that led to the confirmation of Clarence Thomas.

I think we have a similar opportunity to get it better and get it right this time, but we have to be able to change our framework. Right now the real struggle is to try to make it clear that the claims that Kavanaugh is making, the attempt to rally the family, circle around the endangered now white male, with all of the dog whistles all the way to the bullhorn that you heard there—”I worked hard, I didn’t get a handout”—all the way to Graham basically saying what’s really going on—”I’m a single white man, and I’m not going to shut up anymore”—we don’t have to look hard to see what the claims that are being made here really are. So now the challenge is for women of all races, but especially white women, who recognize in Brett Kavanaugh that rageful response of someone who’s being held accountable, who heard in Dr. Blasey Ford a truth, to resist the appeal to now gather around and protect him. I think that is the new moment for intersectionality, to really denounce this use of whiteness, maleness and power, the intersection of power, and to say, “We deserve better than this.”

AMY GOODMAN: Do you believe Kavanaugh will be confirmed?

KIMBERLÉ CRENSHAW: I think that one of my lessons that I learned from the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill situation—we were in the senators’ offices on that last day, and everybody was saying that they had the votes, and we knew for a fact that they didn’t. So, this is going to go down to the wire. Every effort to contact all of the senators, and especially those who may be leaning in the direction of no, should happen until the very last vote is cast.

AMY GOODMAN: Kimberlé Crenshaw, we want to thank you for being with us, professor of law at UCLA and Columbia University and founder of the African American Policy Forum. We’ll link to your column in The New York Times headlined “We Still Haven’t Learned from Anita Hill’s Testimony.”

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