[Illustrations by ALEX FINE]
EDITOR’S NOTE: This interview originally published on December 7th, 2011. We are re-posting it now, for obvious reasons.
BY JONATHAN VALANIA In advance of her reading at the Free Library to promote her 2011 book Reimagining Equality: Stories Of Race, Gender And Finding A Home, we were afforded the opportunity to speak with Anita Hill, professor of social policy, law, and women’s studies at Brandeis University. Discussed: The fantasia of a Post-Racial America; the mendacity, narcissism and hypocrisy of Clarence Thomas and Herman Cain; the right wing’s racializing the blame for the 2008 financial crisis; how she passed the lie detector test Clarence Thomas refused to take; the emancipation of her grandfather from slavery; the shady backroom deal that silenced the Congressional testimony of three more women who came forward to accuse Clarence Thomas of grossly inappropriate behavior; the cruel partisan blowback and dirty tricks she weathered in the wake of her Congressional testimony that immortalized her as the Rosa Parks of sexual harassment.
PHAWKER: Your grandfather was a slave — which kind of blows my mind, that only two generations ago slavery was the law of the land in America — is this something you discovered when you were working on the book?
ANITA HILL: It blew my mind, too, to think that I’m only one generation away from slavery. If you think about that, if any of us think about it we tend to think about history as something well in the past and so remote and I guess the saying is correct, ‘History isn’t the past, it is present.’ I had heard that my grandfather had been born a slave and that his mother had been separated from his father, my great grandparents, at some point towards the end of slavery. But I had no way of documenting it until I went back and looked at the census record. We, as scientists and scholars, think we have to document everything. I had all the anecdotal information, but in fact I did wanna go back and document and find out exactly if it was true and it was true, my grandfather was born in 1864 before the slaves were officially freed. He fathered my mother when he was in his 50s and my mother was born in 1911. So he was a bit older than he was supposed to be, I guess, if I’m doing my math correctly. My mother was 45 when I was born, and that’s how what would have been a span of maybe two or three generations of slavery occurred within one generation.
PHAWKER: What do you make of black conservatives that spend most of their careers minimizing the impact of race on society in the modern age, and then when they get into trouble they immediately cry racism? I’m thinking of Clarence Thomas calling his nomination hearing a ‘high tech lynching’, I’m thinking of Herman Cain saying there’s this huge conspiracy against him to smear him – I’m curious what your take is on that.
ANITA HILL: I think unfortunately it does indicate a certain kind of narcissism if you will, but at the very least a double standard, that if things that happened to other people are denounced or denied as racism, any kind of thing that they perceive as being a miscarriage then is turned around and called racism. I’m not quite sure what the psychology of that is, I’m not in psychology by training, but I’m sure there are plenty who are who could tell us exactly what kind of personality creates that. But on a more serious note, I think the injury then that it does is that these people, individuals like Clarence Thomas are seen as spokespeople for African-Americans and the denial of our lived experience as African-Americans, when we do see and experience racism is really an insult to us as well as having the potential for setting all of us back, the entire society whether you’re an African-American of European-American or Latino or any other races that live in this country.
PHAWKER: Briefly, if you could confirm a few things I’ve read about the hearings, you took a polygraph test and passed it. Justice Thomas refused to take one, is that correct?
ANITA HILL: That is correct, I took a polygraph test administered by Paul Minor who was an FBI agent, a director of the FBI, not the head director but he was high up in the FBI, and who was an expert in the administration of polygraph tests.
PHAWKER: And there were three more women that were going to testify to similar behavior by Justice Thomas but as part of a back room deal between Republicans and Democrats basically the testimony was shut down at the end of your testimony, is that correct?
ANITA HILL: I still do not know why or how the testimony was shut down, I do know that there were three individuals who were ready to testify that I and my team were waiting for to testify, they had experienced similar behavior or had observed it, they were completely independent of me, so they weren’t just corroborating my story, except that their stories were very similar to mine and the experiences they had were very similar to mine.
PHAWKER: Just a couple things about the fallout afterwards, you went on to teach at the University of Oklahoma, it’s my understanding that there was a women’s group that raised money nationally to start a scholarship fund in your name. This angered conservative lawmakers in Oklahoma who first of all demanded that you resign, failing that they tried to pass a law that would make it illegal for the university to accept money from out of state, failing that they tried to dismantle the university? Is all that true?
ANITA HILL: Yes. They tried to dismantle the law school, it was a lot of political shenanigans if you put it in a nice way. It was amazing because I don’t know many institutions or legislators who have refused to accept donations that came from all over the country from individuals who would send in five, ten dollars, some would try to send in money monthly, some were from the state of Oklahoma who were really behind the effort. Ultimately what happened was that the higher regions of the state of Oklahoma did approve the fund, but the president of Oklahoma University at the time issued a ruling that there could be no over-fundraising for the fulfillment of the private donations. So again, the politics continued, the pressure was there, and ultimately there was some negotiated deal and much of the funds were removed from the state and given to Brandeis, where I am now.
PHAWKER: But you were pressured to resign and you did eventually five years later. Why were they asking you to resign? On what grounds? What did you do wrong besides testify truthfully under oath?
ANITA HILL: You know, again it was all political pressure. It’s something I talk about quite a bit in Speaking Truth to Power, I can’t even get into all of the details at this point. But I will say this, I have very supportive colleagues, and I did ultimately leave the university but I left the university because I had an opportunity to come to Brandeis to work on issues related to gender equality and racial equality and I have a very happy existence. Had I not made that move, I’m not sure that I would have been able to write Reimagining Equality certainly in the way that I have written it not only with an understanding of the law, but an understanding of sociology and pop culture and the number of policies that have contributed to housing inequality in this country.
PHAWKER: How do you react to being called ‘The Rosa Parks Of Sexual Harassment’?
ANITA HILL: That’s a name that has been thrown around, of course any mention of my name in the same sentence as Rosa Parks is high praise and flattering. She was such a beacon for me when I was growing up and the idea that you’re with this woman who was just absolutely committed to equality and willing to put her own well being at risk to stand up for what was right. What I hope is whatever people call me is that my desire really is that my effort to help other people find their voice and be able to stand up and to resist discrimination, whether it’s in the form of sexual harassment or any of the number of other forms people experience.
PHAWKER: If you had to do over any of this, would you do anything differently?
ANITA HILL: Oh gosh, who knows if you would do anything differently but I can say this – I would certainly do it all over again. And I would do it because of why I did it to start with. The integrity of the court is what was at stake in 1991 when I testified. The integrity of the court believes that it’s the integrity of the individual to serve on the court. I had information about Clarence Thomas that went to his integrity, his belief in the law, a law that he was bound to enforce as the head of the EOC and that hasn’t changed. I do believe that in the long run, even though people say, “Well, he ended up on the court anyway,” in the long run we started a conversation, many people demanded change, and we have moved forward.