1. Anita Hill


The Clarence Thomas hearings exemplify how an accomplished African American woman is susceptible to attack when she challenges the truthfulness of an accomplished African American man. In October 1991, Professor Anita Hill testified before the United States Senate Judiciary Committee that Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her. Immediately, senators judged her veracity and character. Shortly after hearing her testimony, Senator Arlen Specter (R. Pa.) accused her of committing "flat out perjury." He even argued, suggesting a "prompt complaint" requirement, that Hill's allegations must not be true since she came forward years after the asserted sexual harassment. Senator Specter, however, failed to consider that Hill's story was not voluntarily disclosed. It was the result of reports from friends and acquaintances who learned of the harassment when it occurred. Professor Hill only came forward to testify after she was interviewed and heavily lobbied by investigators from the FBI and staff of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"Hill received [a] verbal lashing [from] other senators, and was portrayed not just as unworthy of belief, but as mad (a Jezebel-Sapphire combination)." Why was she so distrusted? Author and Professor Toni Morrison explained,

she was contradiction itself, irrationality in the flesh. She was portrayed as a lesbian who hated men and a vamp who could be ensnared and painfully rejected by them. She was a mixture heretofore not recognized in the glossary of racial tropes: an intellectual daughter of black farmers; a black female taking offense; a black lady repeating dirty words.

Hill herself later recognized that African American women are not trusted to tell the truth, at least in instances when it comes to sexual misconduct. Others have speculated that if Hill had been white, she would not have been treated the same way because "the complaints of [w]hite women are more likely to be believed, or at least cared about." Many people in the African American community resented Hill for "airing our dirty laundry in public." They believed that Hill broke what Charles Lawrence describes as the "unwritten code of silence." This unwritten code prohibits the reporting of African American male violence against African American females, and it keeps the "intra-community oppression of [African American] women suppressed." Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson similarly defended Thomas's right to deny Anita Hill's claims even if they were true and characterized Thomas's behavior as a "down-home style of courting." Despite his concern that this public spectacle caused the protagonists "inhuman, and undeserved pain, tragic pain" and his suggestion that "they will never be quite the same again," Patterson notes that "the hearings were perhaps the single most important cultural development for [African Americans] since the great struggles of the civil rights years," proclaiming "the culture of slavery is dead." Despite his conclusion that Thomas was justified in denying his actions by utilitarian moral philosophy, Patterson points out that the "airing our dirty linen" at the hearing, behavior so often condemned in the African American community, contributed to breaking down stereotypes, even while generating stereotypical accusations against an African American woman.

Not only do some members of the African American community resent African American women for "airing our dirty laundry," some African American women who themselves have been sexually harassed or assaulted often feel that it is wrong to report these incidents. They feel that they would be putting another "brother" in prison. These women have been told by their mothers and grandmothers to be strong, this has happened before, just go on with your life. They have been programmed to believe that racism always trumps sexism, and that the "hierarchy of interests within the Black community assigns a priority to protecting the entire community against the assaultive forces of racism." Many of these women also fear feeling disloyal, shunned or vilified.

A fundamental question remains: Is this problem of unbelievability unique to African American women? Is it peculiar to controversies involving sexual abuse? Monica Lewinsky was believed, although her statements were not intended (by her) to be personal accusations of sexual abuse. But Patricia Bowman, Gennifer Flowers and Paula Jones, three white women who made public accusations of sexual misconduct against powerful men were disbelieved . . . but were they? Has the absence of meaningful vindication for them and for other similarly situated claimants been the result of the operation of sexist stereotypes, or has it been because of their political and economic positions vis-a-vis those of their alleged attackers? A combination of class and gender is undoubtedly involved on some level. When the question is one of simply gender and class, stereotypical notions of a desire for notoriety or an expectation of an out-of-court settlement or money damages arise. But when James Carville referred, however obliquely, to Paula Jones as "trailer trash," his remark was understood to refer to economic differences, not chastity. Gennifer Flowers acknowledged that her affair with President Clinton was consensual, but she is still considered in some circles to have been the victim, the defiled. Likewise, although her age may have much to do with it, Monica Lewinsky is viewed in much the same manner. Recent attention to the late Pamela Harriman routinely reports on her notoriety as the lover of powerful men. In later life, she became Ambassador to France. Think of the consequences had any of these women been African American, branded with age-old stereotypes about their behavior, sexuality and credibility.

Professor Darlene Clark Hine reminds us that African American women likely would not have been in the position of Patricia Bowman, Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones or Pamela Harriman. We should remember that Anita Hill did not put herself in that position. Professor Hine writes of Hill:

The magnitude of her courage to tell her story is revealed most effectively when viewed against the historical reluctance of Black women to draw attention to their inner lives. Because of the interplay of racial animosity, class tensions, gender role differentiation, and regional economic variations, Black women as a rule developed a politics of silence and adhered to a cult of secrecy. They cultivated a culture of dissemblance to protect the sanctity of the inner aspects of their lives. The dynamics of dissemblance involved creating the appearance of disclosure, or openness about themselves and their feelings, while actually remaining enigmatic. Only with secrecy, thus achieving a self-imposed invisibility, could ordinary Black women acquire the psychic space and gather the resources needed to hold their own in their often one-sided and mismatched struggle to resist oppression.


As noted above, in legal parlance, the Cassandra curse is ascribed to those who are not perceived to be credible. In a 1995 article in the American Bar Association's Judges' Journal, Lynn Hecht Schafran, after defining the term "credible" as "encompass[ing] many meanings: truthful, believable, trustworthy, intelligent, convincing, reasonable, competent, capable, someone to be taken seriously, someone who matters in the world," describes three types of credibility--collective, contextual and consequential:

As a group we are perceived as less competent than men; the context of the harms for which we seek redress in the courts is often completely foreign to the trier of fact; and even when the harm is acknowledged, it is often minimized by a de minimis punishment for those who injure us.


Although Schafran uses Anita Hill's encounter with (mauling by?) the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991 as an example of "contextual credibility," she fails to recognize that the contemporaneous opinion poll figures suggesting that respondents believed Thomas rather than Hill may have resulted from factors other than the public's inability to put her failure to report the harassment into context. An alternative theory is that initial preferences for Clarence Thomas' credibility over Anita Hill's in some segments of the population could as easily have been caused by long held stereotypes about the truthfulness of African American women generally, particularly when they report instances of sexual assault and sexual harassment. The public's attitudes were merely reflective of the behavior of the Senators on the Judiciary Committee. As noted by several commentators, on the subject of relationships between Black men and Black women, the rift between the sexes so very evident in reactions to Anita Hill's testimony in the Thomas confirmation hearings had been in the making for some time. It continued into the 1980s with the publication of Alice Walker's The Color Purple and Shahrazad Ali's The Blackman's Guide to Understanding the Blackwoman.

Perhaps the most important context, however, for white viewers of this drama was that they were confronted with a scene that they just did not understand. Confronted with a docile, smiling, dark-skinned, conservative, Republican federal judge, who publicly denounced his own sister in his discussions of welfare reforms and what was wrong with the nation and who was about to become a United State Supreme Court Justice, they could not compare him to any public figure they knew. Justice Thurgood Marshall, the firebrand freedom fighter, on the other hand, reminded the nation on its 200th birthday that the celebration did not mean the same thing to all Americans. In the space of a very few days, white viewers experienced incredulity when confronted with an equally well-educated, equally conservative, equally articulate African American law professor who, despite her soft manner and religious background, would go on national television and talk about large penises and pubic hair. To then, in rebuttal, have the smiling, docile Republican judge turn into a preacher and martyr confused the issue even more for white viewers. But it made the choice of who to believe just that much clearer for the white public. Thomas subtly reverted to type; this they could deal with. She, too, they likely thought, must have been masking her true self; she was Jezebel and Sapphire mixed together. She appeared to be Claire Huxtable when she was really Nola Darling.