ON Oct. 11, 1991, I testified about my experience as an employee of Clarence Thomas’s at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
I stand by my testimony.
Justice Thomas has every right to present himself as he wishes in his new memoir, “My Grandfather’s Son.” He may even be entitled to feel abused by the confirmation process that led to his appointment to the Supreme Court.
But I will not stand by silently and allow him, in his anger, to reinvent me.
In the portion of his book that addresses my role in the Senate hearings into his nomination, Justice Thomas offers a litany of unsubstantiated representations and outright smears that Republican senators made about me when I testified before the Judiciary Committee — that I was a “combative left-winger” who was “touchy” and prone to overreacting to “slights.” A number of independent authors have shown those attacks to be baseless. What’s more, their reports draw on the experiences of others who were familiar with Mr. Thomas’s behavior, and who came forward after the hearings. It’s no longer my word against his.
Justice Thomas’s characterization of me is also hobbled by blatant inconsistencies. He claims, for instance, that I was a mediocre employee who had a job in the federal government only because he had “given it” to me. He ignores the reality: I was fully qualified to work in the government, having graduated from Yale Law School (his alma mater, which he calls one of the finest in the country), and passed the District of Columbia Bar exam, one of the toughest in the nation.
In 1981, when Mr. Thomas approached me about working for him, I was an associate in good standing at a Washington law firm. In 1991, the partner in charge of associate development informed Mr. Thomas’s mentor, Senator John Danforth of Missouri, that any assertions to the contrary were untrue. Yet, Mr. Thomas insists that I was “asked to leave” the firm.
It’s worth noting, too, that Mr. Thomas hired me not once, but twice while he was in the Reagan administration — first at the Department of Education and then at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. After two years of working directly for him, I left Washington and returned home to Oklahoma to begin my teaching career.
In a particularly nasty blow, Justice Thomas attacked my religious conviction, telling “60 Minutes” this weekend, “She was not the demure, religious, conservative person that they portrayed.” Perhaps he conveniently forgot that he wrote a letter of recommendation for me to work at the law school at Oral Roberts University, in Tulsa. I remained at that evangelical Christian university for three years, until the law school was sold to Liberty University, in Lynchburg, Va., another Christian college. Along with other faculty members, I was asked to consider a position there, but I decided to remain near my family in Oklahoma.
Regrettably, since 1991, I have repeatedly seen this kind of character attack on women and men who complain of harassment and discrimination in the workplace. In efforts to assail their accusers’ credibility, detractors routinely diminish people’s professional contributions. Often the accused is a supervisor, in a position to describe the complaining employee’s work as “mediocre” or the employee as incompetent. Those accused of inappropriate behavior also often portray the individuals who complain as bizarre caricatures of themselves — oversensitive, even fanatical, and often immoral — even though they enjoy good and productive working relationships with their colleagues.
Finally, when attacks on the accusers’ credibility fail, those accused of workplace improprieties downgrade the level of harm that may have occurred. When sensing that others will believe their accusers’ versions of events, individuals confronted with their own bad behavior try to reduce legitimate concerns to the level of mere words or “slights” that should be dismissed without discussion.
Fortunately, we have made progress since 1991. Today, when employees complain of abuse in the workplace, investigators and judges are more likely to examine all the evidence and less likely to simply accept as true the word of those in power. But that could change. Our legal system will suffer if a sitting justice’s vitriolic pursuit of personal vindication discourages others from standing up for their rights.
The question of whether Clarence Thomas belongs on the Supreme Court is no longer on the table — it was settled by the Senate back in 1991. But questions remain about how we will resolve the kinds of issues my testimony exposed. My belief is that in the past 16 years we have come closer to making the resolution of these issues an honest search for the truth, which, after all, is at the core of all legal inquiry. My hope is that Justice Thomas’s latest fusillade will not divert us from that path.
Anita Hill, a professor of social policy, law and women’s studies at Brandeis University, is a visiting scholar at the Newhouse Center for the Humanities at Wellesley College.