Thomas, Hill: Ironies abound


Clarence Thomas, the president's nominee to the Supreme Court, has spent much of his political career accusing blacks of using racism and discrimination to excuse their failures.

He has criticized civil rights organizations for fostering a crippling sense of "victimization" in its followers, and he has blasted black leaders for their incessant whining.

So what do you suppose happened when Thomas found himself under the gun this weekend -- in the spotlight, on television -- responding to damning charges that he had sexually harassed a female subordinate 10 years ago?

I'll tell you what happened: This so-called self-made man who allegedly raised himself up from poverty and discrimination immediately fell back to the racism defense.

"And from my standpoint, as a black American, as far as I'm concerned, it's a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves," proclaimed Thomas in a passionate statement before the Senate Judiciary Committee Friday.

"You will be lynched," he said, "destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the U.S. Senate rather than hung from a tree."

He referred to graphic testimony from his accuser, Anita F. Hill, that he had boasted of his sexual prowess and of the size of his sexual organ: "That kind of language," he said, "has been used about black men as long as I've been on the face of this Earth. And these are charges that play into racist, bigoted stereotypes."

What, I asked myself, would Clarence Thomas have to say about Clarence Thomas if he were somehow separated from himself and able to watch these hearings on television?

He'd probably say something cynical like, "Uh-oh! Here we go again with that same, old tired song!"

Or he'd say something contemptuous like, "For God's sakes, quit whining and admit you were wrong!"

Scornful references to Clarence Thomas, I suspect, would have figured prominently in the next Clarence Thomas speech before cheering conservatives.

Thomas' abrupt and apparently new sensitivity to racism was but one of many ironies during last weekend's Really Big Show.

Here's another: The three-day hearing contained dramatic and controversial themes that resonate with particular force in black America: an intelligent black man held up to particularly painful and public ridicule; the fact that a black woman was the chief agent of a black man's downfall while a panel of white men sat in distant judgment; the focus on sex and sexual organs. This seemed to be the Marion Barry affair all over again.

Yet, Thomas' speech notwithstanding, race did not seem to be a factor this weekend. I never got the sense that this was a black man pitted against a black woman -- perhaps because both accuser and accused were treated with deference and respect throughout the proceedings.

This was a man and a woman being judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. This was a lamentable drama involving two individuals who just happen to be black. Both Thomas and Hill have their supporters and detractors, but the biggest divergence of opinion seems to be along sexual rather than racial lines.

There were other ironies as well. Keep in mind, for instance, that this was a case that supposedly raised the nation's consciousness about sexual harassment in the workplace, a case that highlighted the role of women as second-class citizens.

Yet, all weekend, NBC ran a commercial for an episode of a new program called "Pacific Station" in which a man apparently boasted to his colleagues that a female co-worker slept with him.

"Do you know what you did to my reputation?" demanded the woman with outrage.

"No need to thank me," replied the man, fluttering a hand in dismissal. Yuk, yuk.

Meanwhile, another commercial for a movie called "Other People's Money" featured Danny DeVito in an apparent position of power behind a desk leering at a seemingly professional woman (she wore a suit and carried a briefcase) and growling something about wanting to get her "between the sheets." Ha, ha.

My guess is neither Thomas nor Hill, nor their families and friends, nor anyone who endured the painful testimony these past few days, finds anything funny about sexual harassment in the workplace now.

But the people who selected the scenes for these commercials apparently did. I bet they were guys.

You might also note that the networks decided that these hearings were so important to the nation that women could sacrifice their soap operas on Friday, and children could sacrifice their cartoons Saturday. Broadcast of the sporting events, however, went on pretty much as planned.

Care to take bets on who made that decision?

Perhaps the greatest irony of all, in my view, proved that the ranking members of the Judiciary Committee probably were right when they decided last month not to make these charges public.

We have now witnessed the public humiliation of a man and a woman. The spectacle made for dramatic television. But are we really any closer now to an objective determination of which of the two told the truth?

I don't think so and, failing a clear resolution, it was unfair to make these charges public.

Thomas was right. He was lynched by whoever leaked the FBI report to the press. It may not have been a racial lynching, but he was lynched just the same.

But, once the accusations were leaked, a public hearing, however damaging, was the only fair thing for Congress to do. We had to see for ourselves. We had to make our own decision about who has lied.

For good or ill, whether Congress votes the Thomas nomination up or down this evening, the fact is, in the end, the system worked. We may not have liked what we saw and heard, but we needed to see and hear it.

Democracy is a tough, chaotic and often painful way to run a country. Sometimes the process disgusts us. Sometimes it fills us with rage. But it works.

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