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Race resonates on 'Frontline'


You might think that you have heard everything there is to say about Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill.

But, if you are white, you probably haven't. And everyone ought to see "Frontline's" "Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill: Public Hearing, Private Pain" at 9 tonight on MPT (Channels 22 and 67).

It is a rare and superb piece of reporting that goes beyond the usual blinders of mainstream-press, white-dominated thinking and actually listens to what African-Americans have to say. What is said about Thomas and Hill and the televised hearings, which seemed to have mesmerized the nation last year at this time, is going to surprise a lot of folks.

The big news is that for many African-Americans the hearings were not so much about gender as they were about race.

The conventional wisdom in the press is that the hearings were about 14 men (the senators) looking down on one woman (Hill) and "just not getting it." But that's what white women -- the feminists who were interviewed as "experts" on TV and in newspapers -- saw while watching the hearings.

"Frontline" producer Ofra Bikel found that many African-American men and women saw something very different. For African-Americans, it became a story of race with moments that resonated clear back to slavery. It was a far more complicated and painful story with no easy heroes and villains.

"Everyone I knew was watching, many of us in anger . . . anger at all the men we've known who just didn't get it," Bikel says. "For a few days there seemed to be a state of war between men and women, as one man and one woman told their different versions of what had happened 10 years before. The fact that the man and woman testifying were black seemed not to matter. This was beyond race -- or so I thought. This was before I spoke with African-Americans I knew."

Bikel went beyond interviewing African-Americans she "knew" to listen to black students, feminists, doctors, ministers, cab drivers, hair stylists, professors, lawyers, civil rights leaders and friends of Thomas and Thomas' late grandfather, the man Thomas spoke so movingly about at the hearings as he recounted his childhood in Pin Point, Ga.

She got at taboos and conflicts in the black community that are almost never explored in the mainstream press.

A Spellman College student says, "It's evident that there's a conspiracy against the black man. And it's very difficult as a young black woman to be able, on the one hand, to support the black man, and, on the other, support myself."

Patricia King, a Georgetown law professor, says, "It's been drummed into us . . . since birth, you don't betray black men, and I think many saw Anita Hill as a traitor. She was a traitor to him and a traitor to the community because she washed all that dirty linen in public. [But] . . . I'm glad she did it."

A black feminist explains how "angry" she and others were "to see the issue of race ignored by white sisters" in their mainstream analyses of the hearings.

Sam Williams, the friend of Thomas' grandfather, says the grandfather "was disappointed" in Thomas because he didn't do more with his talents on behalf of civils rights for blacks.

Bikel listens to searing critiques of the continued exploitation of black domestic workers by some white feminists. She hears enlightening analyses of the historical relationship between matters of sex and the lynching of black men and raping of black women. And all of that is needed to truly understand the hearings.

Bikel's work goes so far beyond what usually passes for reporting in such one-year-later pieces that it is closer to ethnography and anthropology than journalism. It's followed tonight by another installment of Bill Moyers' "Listening to America" series at 10. But Bikel is the one doing the real listening to America on PBS tonight.


What: "Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill: Public Hearing Private ,, Pain."

When: Tonight at 9.

Where: MPT (channels 22 and 67).

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