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October 18, 2018

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Claims about Clarence Thomas netted results — just not right away

History repeats itself these days, first as tragedy, then as a made-for-TV movie.

It may be only coincidental, but this is a good time to revisit two racially charged dramas: The O.J. Simpson double-homicide case and the confirmation hearings for now-Justice Clarence Thomas’ nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Watching HBO’s two-hour docudrama “Confirmation,” a retelling of the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings, after watching FX’s 10-part “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” series, reminds me of an unexpected element that these two seemingly unrelated events shared in common: the race card.

In Simpson’s case, as one of his high-priced lawyers lamented after the verdict, that card was played “from the bottom of the deck.” But in my experience that’s how the race card is usually played, whether out of desire or desperation, and no race has a monopoly on it.

As the FX series shows, Simpson’s legal team essentially won by distraction: It turned the jury’s attention away from Simpson and proposed the far-fetched possibility that police had conspired to frame Simpson out of racial animus.

The jury, which in the end had 10 women and two men (nine were black, two were white and one was Hispanic), seemed to be primed by other outside events to listen to that narrative. Rodney King’s videotaped beating by four Los Angeles police officers and the riots that followed their acquittal on charges of use of excessive force and assault with a deadly weapon by a Simi Valley jury were still fresh in local minds, including those of the jurors.

In similar fashion, then-federal Judge Clarence Thomas played a different sort of race card to save his Supreme Court nomination in 1991. He faced charges of sexual harassment made by law professor Anita Hill, who had worked for Thomas in two government agencies years earlier.

Because both were black, the charges did not concern race but rather sexual harassment, still a new concept in most public discussions then.

Yet everyone also knew that Thomas was chosen by President George H.W. Bush to replace the retired Thurgood Marshall, the high court’s first black justice and a civil rights icon. Race mattered and, because of Hill, gender now mattered, too.

Thomas reversed the hemorrhaging of his Senate support with his memorably passionate blast at the hearings as a “high-tech lynching.”

The Hill-Thomas movie, with those lead roles played powerfully and sympathetically by Kerry Washington and Wendell Pierce, predictably has rekindled old arguments over the he-said-she-said dispute.

One of the best recent attacks against Hill comes from a Wall Street Journal op-ed by Stuart Taylor, a Brookings Institution senior fellow who covered the hearings. “(W)hile it is hard to believe Anita Hill simply made the whole thing up,” he concludes, “she was far from credible.”

Yet I am more convinced by an op-ed in The Guardian by Jill Abramson, former New York Times executive editor and co-author with Jane Mayer of “Strange Justice.” Based on evidence they unearthed, the authors’ exhaustive probe of the Hill-Thomas saga concludes that, as Abramson puts it, “Hill was the truth-teller.”

At one point the movie “Confirmation” mentions a poll that found the public to be narrowly in favor of granting Thomas the benefit of the doubt, if there were any serious, unresolved questions about his culpability.

That sounds about right to me. Men and women often fail to hear the offense in their own remarks, unless someone else tells them. Such a misunderstanding may well have happened between Thomas and Hill. They would hardly be the first.

“What Confirmation reminds us,” Abramson’s concludes, “is that Washington, D.C., has rarely been a place that respected women’s words, or their authority. Perhaps this is the year that finally changes.”

We can only hope. After the Thomas-Hill hearings, the sexual harassment claims filed with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission — ironically the same agency Clarence Thomas directed and where Anita Hill said he had sexually harassed her — more than doubled between 1991 and 1998.

In 1992, “The Year of the Woman,” four Democratic women were elected to join the only two women in the Senate. Twenty-eight other women were elected to the House of Representatives, more than doubling their number to 47.

Hill lost her attempt to stop Thomas’ appointment to the high court, but she gave a new importance to the need for men and women to respect each other’s words — and feelings.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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