Dr. Barbara Ransby: 27 Years After Attacks on Anita Hill, Patriarchy & Misogyny Are “Alive and Well”

Web ExclusiveSeptember 24, 2018
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We continue our interview with historian, author and activist Barbara Ransby, who is professor of African American studies, gender and women’s studies and history at the University of Illinois, Chicago. News that Dr. Christine Blasey Ford will testify Thursday against Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh has prompted many to warn senators not to repeat the mistakes of the Anita Hill hearings of 1991, when Hill was questioned by an all-male, all-white Senate Judiciary Committee over her allegations that then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her in the workplace. Ransby describes how, in the weeks after Hill testified, she spearheaded a manifesto signed by nearly 1,600 black feminists organized as “African American Women in Defense of Ourselves,” and published it as an advertisement in The New York Times.

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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. News that Dr. Christine Blasey Ford will testify Thursday about her sexual assault allegations against President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh has prompted many to warn senators not to repeat the same mistakes made during the confirmation process of Judge Clarence Thomas in 1991, when Anita Hill was questioned by an all-male, all-white Senate Judiciary Committee about her allegations that Thomas sexually harassed her when he was her supervisor. This is Anita Hill being questioned by Republican Senator Arlen Specter.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: The New York Times says this: quote, “In an interview, Ms. Barry suggested that the allegations were a result of Ms. Hill’s disappointment and frustration that Mr. Thomas did not show any sexual interest in her.” Now, aside from saying that Ms. Barry doesn’t know about you on the social side, what about the substance of what Ms. Barry had to say?

ANITA HILL: What exactly are you asking me?

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Well, I’ll repeat the question again. Was there any substance in Ms. Barry’s flat statement that, quote, “Ms. Hill was disappointed and frustrated that Mr. Thomas did not show any sexual interest in her”?

ANITA HILL: No, there is not. There is no substance to that. He did show interest.

AMY GOODMAN: In the weeks after that hearing in 1991, black feminists organized a manifesto titled “African American Women in Defense of Ourselves” that was signed by nearly 1,600 women who raised $50,000 to publish it as an ad in The New York Times. It read in part, “We are particularly outraged by the racist and sexist treatment of Professor Anita Hill, an African American woman who was maligned and castigated for daring to speak publicly of her own experience of sexual abuse. The malicious defamation of Professor Hill insulted all women of African descent and sent a dangerous message to any woman who might contemplate a sexual harassment complaint.”

For more, we continue with Part 2 of our conversation with Barbara Ransby in Chicago. She was one of the initiators of “African American Women in Defense of Ourselves” in 1991, now a professor of African American studies, gender and women’s studies and history at the University of Illinois, Chicago, author of the award-winning biography Ella Baker & the Black Freedom Movement and a new book, just out, titled Making All Black Lives Matter: Reimagining Freedom in the 21st Century.

Thank you for continuing this conversation, Professor Ransby. First I want to get your response to Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations, now Deborah Ramirez’s allegations that just came out in The New Yorker. Interestingly, both of these women have spent their lives working on trauma. Dr. Christine Blasey Ford is at Palo Alto University. She’s a research psychologist, and Stanford, she teaches. And Deborah Ramirez now works with domestic violence survivors. Both alleging Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted them, when he was 17 in the case of Ford and 18 in the case of Ramirez.

BARBARA RANSBY: Well, the Ramirez allegations have, as you know, just come out. And I’m not surprised, because often there is a pattern of men who engage in this kind of behavior, which there are many. And there are others who participate in a kind of code of silence, who don’t think it’s a serious transgression and who either watch or hear about and don’t share that information with others.

But I’m not surprised that now we have two people making these kinds of allegations, and women who are sensitized to a set of feminist issues, women who are sensitized to the larger issue of sexual assault and sexual violence, who had the courage to come forward. I think that so many women experience sexual harassment and sexual violence on a continuum and choose to, still to this day, in 2018, to keep quiet about it, because often the price is very high for speaking out.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to Joe Biden, who many may not realize that the Senate Judiciary Committee of 1991, the Anita Hill hearing, was Democratic. It was chaired by a Democrat, yes, the former, well, now vice president—former vice president, then Senate Judiciary chair, Joe Biden, questioning Anita Hill back in 1991.

SEN. JOE BIDEN: Can you tell the committee what was the most embarrassing of all the incidences that you have alleged?

ANITA HILL: I think the one that was the most embarrassing was his discussion of pornography involving these women with large breasts and engaged in a variety of sex with different people or animals. That was the thing that embarrassed me the most and made me feel the most humiliated.

AMY GOODMAN: Now I want to turn to an interview with former senator, Vice President Joe Biden about the Anita Hill hearings in 1991. This aired just Friday on NBC. Biden was questioned by Craig Melvin.

JOE BIDEN: Anita Hill was vilified when she came forward by a lot of my colleagues. Character assassination. I wish I could have done more to prevent those questions and the way they asked them. I hope my colleagues learned from that. … My biggest regret was, I didn’t know how I could shut you off if you were a senator and you were attacking Anita Hill’s character. Under the Senate rules, I can’t gavel you down and say you can’t ask that question. Although I tried. And so what happened was she got victimized again during the process.

CRAIG MELVIN: Seems like you get it now, versus back in ’91.

JOE BIDEN: Well, I think I got it in '91. I don't think it—well, that—people have their own opinion.

AMY GOODMAN: OK, that’s Joe Biden on Friday, saying he got it then. Your response, as you go back, deeply involved with the Anita Hill hearings, Professor Ransby?

BARBARA RANSBY: Well, yeah, I mean, I’m disappointed that he doesn’t think he could have done anything else, because I think, in any formal hearing, there are rules of engagement. There’s protocol. Of course senators are free to ask questions, but asking her was she a woman scorned, implying in very snide ways that she was lying and that she was unstable, that she had sexual desires for Clarence Thomas and therefore was making this up—so, I mean, all of that should have been nixed, should have been checked in the context of that hearing. And so I think however Joe Biden might have done that, that’s what should have happened, to have a fair and respectful hearing.

Anita Hill was there with her family. She’s one of 13 siblings. Her aging mother, I believe, was also in the audience. And she was challenged to recount these really lewd and raunchy statements by Clarence Thomas in the course of making her case, and then being asked questions to unsettle her, to make her feel humiliated in that context. You know, it was just—I’m sure more could have been done.

The other thing is that there were other witnesses that weren’t allowed to testify, so that was another omission and error on Joe Biden’s part. Ultimately, 11 Democrats voted to confirm Clarence Thomas despite these very compelling and disturbing allegations about him. I mean, Biden was not one of them, but there were 11 Democrats that voted to confirm Clarence Thomas, who, as you know, was confirmed by one of the narrowest margins since the 19th century.

AMY GOODMAN: So, now talk more about how you did what you did at the time, how you organized in 1991—1,600 women, African-American women, signed on to your letter—that you raised enough money, $50,000, to get a full-page ad in The New York Times, and why you felt compelled to do this, and what you were doing, Barbara, at the time. You weren’t a professor of African American studies, gender and women’s studies and history at University of Illinois.

BARBARA RANSBY: Right. I was actually finishing my dissertation on Ella Baker at the time. I was teaching also in Chicago, but I wasn’t at University of Illinois. But it was myself, it was Elsa Barkley Brown and Deborah King. We were all three academics who were watching this. I was also an organizer. I was very involved in the anti-apartheid movement, very involved in black feminist organizing efforts, very much involved in progressive and left organizing for a number of years. So organizing was not unfamiliar to me.

So, we felt that it was important to have a collective voice and not just individual voices in response to what we witnessed in the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas spectacle. We wanted particularly black women to have a voice, because we didn’t hear our voices heard. There was sort of this false juxtaposition between race and gender. In fact, a number of people said, “Well, it’s white women who are coming forward to support Anita Hill,” which was not—you know, I mean, white women did, black women did, Latinx women did. But also Clarence Thomas invoked this idea of a high-tech lynching, which kind of gave him the mantle of the black experience and completely invalidated Anita Hill’s experience as a black woman who was experiencing both sexism and racism.

So we wanted to articulate all of that in in our statement. We wanted to add some complexity to the conversation. And we wanted it to be in the public record. I have to say also, particularly galling was a New York Times op-ed by professor Orlando Patterson, who essentially said that this is the way that black people interact with each other, that Clarence Thomas didn’t do anything wrong even if he said some of these things, and that he should deny it even if he did it, because he would be subject to unfair and undue sanctions and punishment. And so that was particularly outrageous to us, that this would be put forward as a legitimate—as an acceptable analysis of the black experience in such a big forum as a New York Times op-ed. And so we wanted to respond to that, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: And what was the response to your ad?

BARBARA RANSBY: Well, we got a great response when we made the call for the ad. And again—I mentioned before—it was before the internet, so when I tell this to my students, they’re like, “How in the world did you do it?” We called people. We emailed—I mean, we weren’t using email. We called people. We—word of mouth. We set up an 800 phone line. We got letters. I still have shoeboxes with letters and notes from people saying either—”This happened to me. I completely believe her. I’m completely outraged by this. Thank you for taking this initiative.” And so, it really resonated. It really resonated. And after the fact, we heard from people who were upset that they didn’t know ahead of time in order to lend their names to it.

It was a lot to raise money, too, and I’m pleased that we were able to do it by very small donations from many women and some men who contributed to the campaign.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I wanted to bring this forward to what’s happening right now in the case of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. She’s set to testify Thursday, but Dianne Feinstein, the Democratic senator, has called for a delay in these hearings at this point, with another woman stepping forward, and then Michael Avenatti saying there may be another woman. And I wanted to ask you about the difference in the times, what difference it makes that this is all happening within the context of the #MeToo movement and how this has grown, which was begun by an African-American woman, Tarana Burke.

BARBARA RANSBY: Right. Well, we hope this makes a difference. I mean, I think—you know, as a historian, I study change over time, right? So there’s ways in which things change, and then ways in which things are all too familiar from 27 years ago. But I do think the #MeToo movement has made an important intervention. It has not only reiterated and underscored the fact that sexual violence and sexual harassment is pervasive in our society, but has made sure that men with enormous power and privilege were not exempt, were not insulated, were not protected by their privilege and power. And so, when you have a Harvey Weinstein, when you have the head of media outlets who are called to be accountable for their actions, I think that takes it to another level.

We also know that women of color, working-class women, women who are incarcerated are most vulnerable. Conversely, we know that men of privilege, white men of privilege, are often not held accountable. And so I think the #MeToo movement has crossed a threshold in that regard, and we hope that that makes a difference in this case.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Ransby, this brings us to your book, Making All Black Lives Matter: Reimagining Freedom in the 21st Century. I asked Alexis Goldstein earlier in the broadcast, who is organizing the letter of 1,100 women who went to Holton-Arms, Christine Blasey’s alma mater and high school—they wrote a letter, and I asked her—you know, she was very involved with Occupy Wall Street, and how that compares to what’s happening with #MeToo.

Let me ask you about this all taking place in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement, also what’s happening just in your city of Chicago. You have Jon Burge just died, who was the acknowledged torturer, the police commander responsible for so many young African-American men being imprisoned with false confessions after they were tortured. You have the Laquan McDonald trial underway, not the trial of Laquan McDonald—unfortunately, he’s dead—but of the police officer, Jason Van Dyke, who has been charged with first-degree murder. Talk about why you wrote this book, and make whatever connections you will.

BARBARA RANSBY: Well, the book documents the role of young black feminists in the Movement for Black Lives, the Black Lives Matter movement. And that was a really important fact—right?—that sometimes we gloss over, that from Ferguson to Chicago to New York City to L.A. and Oakland, Baltimore, young women activists with feminist sensibilities, influenced by earlier feminist movements, from “African American Women in Defense of Ourselves” to the Combahee River Collective to the abolitionist work of Angela Davis and Critical Resistance—those young women were at the very forefront of the movement against state violence, rallying, in the case of Michael Brown’s murder in Ferguson, but also holding up in the “Say Her Name” campaign, holding up the deaths of African-American women by various forms of violence, but state violence—the death in custody of Sandra Bland, the police shooting of Rekia Boyd.

And I wanted to talk about how black feminist politics, which are intersectional, which look at multiple forms of oppression and injustice and the way that they feed off of each other, why those politics were so pronounced, and why that fact was so important in sustaining the Black Lives Matter movement or the larger rubric, the Movement for Black Lives.

And that particularly is relevant in Chicago. In Chicago, we have a range of organizations, from Black Youth Project 100 to Assata’s Daughters to Black Lives Matter Chicago, who have been really relentless in challenging the Chicago Police Department around various instances of violence, Laquan McDonald being only one of those, and have been mainstays at this Jason Van Dyke trial. So, Chicago and the organizing that’s gone on here has been at the epicenter of the Movement for Black Lives and continues to be.

You mentioned Jon Burge’s passing. The campaign here in Chicago to get accountability for police torture that had a long history here under Jon Burge went on for many, many years. Several of his victims ended up on death row. There was a campaign to get all of them released, and most—all of them were released, and then a campaign for a city ordinance that would give some sort of compensation to victims who didn’t have that because of statute of limitations, but also set up a curriculum in the Chicago Public Schools and set up a center for people dealing with trauma from police violence. So, there have been victories. There’s been sustained organizing here in Chicago.

We have a historic mayoral race coming up next year, and these issues are fitting prominently in that. And the young women who have been a part of the Black Lives Matter movement will fit prominently in that campaign, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: And now you have Rahm Emanuel announcing he will not run for mayor again.

BARBARA RANSBY: Exactly.

AMY GOODMAN: Rahm Emanuel, who became mayor again in the last election after suppressing—after information was suppressed: the videotape of what happened to Laquan McDonald.

BARBARA RANSBY: Yeah, absolutely. And that’s changed the landscape. We also have several African-American women running for mayor in this current round. So, it was interesting and, I think, not inconsequential that Rahm Emanuel made his announcement that he wasn’t going to run for re-election just as the Jason Van Dyke trial, jury selection, was getting underway. That case was going to haunt him in this campaign, and I think he knew it.

And so I think the movement here in Chicago that has kept the Laquan McDonald case alive, that has said this young man’s life did matter, that someone will be held accountable, the person that killed him will stand trial, that all of that is really important in understanding the current political context and the current mayoral race that is unfolding here in Chicago.

AMY GOODMAN: Any final thoughts as we wrap up, this moment we’ve come to right now? I mean, you have Anita Hill weighing in at this point. This isn’t like a moment way back in history. You have the Black Lives Matter movement. You have the #MeToo movement. As a historian, do you think we are making positive change in this country, that there is a trajectory, if you will, a moral arc towards justice?

BARBARA RANSBY: Well, I do think so. I mean, I think the best of times, the worst of times. I mean, many of us have felt traumatized by this current occupant of the White House, because day after day there’s a new outrage. But it’s not just the recklessness of his behavior, it’s also the policies that are being pushed through, the programs that are being dismantled, the tax bill which was horrendous, etc.

But we’ve also seen more organizing, sustained organizing, direct action organizing, new coalitions forming. We’ve seen more of that than ever before. We see a whole crew of new progressive candidates coming into the electoral arena. So I’m very optimistic. I work very closely with a lot of young organizers here in Chicago and nationally. They are smart, they are committed, and they’re passionate about creating a different kind of country and building the movement that will get us there. And I’m hopeful that that will be the case.

AMY GOODMAN: Barbara Ransby, professor of African American studies, gender and women’s studies and history at the University of Illinois, Chicago. In 1991, she was one of the initiators of the “African American Women in Defense of Ourselves,” a black feminist ad campaign in support of Anita Hill. They got a full-page ad in The New York Times supporting Anita Hill in her sexual harassment allegations against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, who would be confirmed to the Supreme Court. Professor Ransby is out with a new book. It’s called Making All Black Lives Matter: Reimagining Freedom in the 21st Century.

To see Part 1 of our discussion, you can go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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