It's now conventional wisdom that television coverage of Oklahoma University law professor Anita Hill--appearing powerless when verbally harassed by male U.S. Senators--was the catalyst for this political season's powerful surge of female candidates.
If so, this month's vast coverage of the one-year anniversary of the Hill/Clarence Thomas spectacle may be giving these women another boost, as the TV pictorials and retrospectives remind Americans anew of their government's intolerable gender imbalance. In effect, the anniversary coverage is a free campaign ad.
Hill herself is the most persuasive ad of all. In her quiet way, she sounded empowered and undaunted in a recent extended interview with Katie Couric on NBC's "Today."
Yet with each mention of the bitter, racially and sexually volatile hearings that led to Thomas being confirmed for the U.S. Supreme Court, an unpleasant mental replay clicks on. Sensory impressions flood your brain. You recall Hill making unproved charges of sexual harassment against an outraged Thomas, but you also recall the manner in which she was treated by the Senate Judiciary Committee's calcified white male monolith, with Republican members brutally counterattacking and Democratic members largely acquiescing.
It's natural to share the anger that veteran PBS filmmaker Ofra Bikel felt toward "the 14 men sitting there looking down at one woman" and "all the men we've known who just didn't get it." As it turned out, though, it was much of white America--whether supportive of Hill or Thomas--that just didn't get it, according to Bikel's "Frontline" documentary, "Public Hearing, Private Pain."
Like many white feminists, Bikel believed that the hearings involved gender and political issues that were "beyond race." She discovered that she was wrong, that while watching the same telecast, transfixed white Americans were seeing one thing, horrified African-Americans another.
Airing at 9 p.m. Tuesday on KCET-TV Channel 28 and KPBS-TV Channel 15, Bikel's program uses the hearings to strip away layers of complexity and expose the divisions facing African-Americans and "the racial psychology underlying whites' perceptions of them."
This is a shadowy area of the Thomas/Hill story that the mainstream media have covered only superficially, if at all.
"Public Hearing, Private Pain" is no friend to Thomas, unfavorably psychoanalyzing him--but, notably, not Hill. Moreover, it charges that he cynically played the race card himself--calling the hearings a "high-tech lynching"--to gain sympathy from both African-Americans and whites.
A friend of Thomas' late grandfather recalls about Thomas: "The only thing did he have was the black skin. Everything else is as white as a sheet." And a childhood friend of Thomas' suggests that he knew he would get an "easy ride" from even the Judiciary Committee's liberals because of his race. "I think he probably got a kick out of the fact," Lester Johnson says.
Much more compelling is how the African-Americans interviewed on "Public Hearing, Private Pain" speak of their own race-motivated ambivalence toward Thomas and the hearings that publicized Hill's sexual harassment charges in fairly graphic detail.
No one here accuses Hill of lying. In fact, her long delay in speaking out against Thomas--something she herself had difficulty explaining to the senators--gets validation from Georgetown law professor Patricia King: "It's been drummed into us . . . since birth: You don't betray black men." Consequently, even many African-Americans who opposed Thomas on philosophical grounds saw Hill as a traitor, or at the least an unwelcome presence, the potential truthfulness of her allegations notwithstanding.
"Here we go again," author Paula Giddings recalls thinking about Hill's testimony against Thomas. "They're going to put his penis all over TV."
"Two black people talking about sex . . . before a panel of all-white men?" says Roger Wilkins, a George Washington University professor. "I didn't want this guy on the court, but I didn't want him defeated for this reason. I didn't want a black man to go through this."
Underlying their concern was the age-old racist stereotype of blacks being sexually different from whites. "That kind of difference got people lynched," Giddings says. "That kind of difference got people raped."
No wonder, then, that African-American feminist Valerie Williams denounces her white counterparts for focusing on gender and omitting race from their analysis of the hearings and that she and other black females do not trust white feminists to speak for them.
Yet if African-American women are to be automatically condemned by other blacks for criticizing African-American men, isn't that also a form of discrimination? And is the concept of blacks supporting blacks regardless of the circumstances any more valid than whites automatically supporting whites? Latinos or Asians blindly supporting their own? Jews supporting Jews? Females backing females merely because of gender?
For many, the dilemma is a painful one. "When do I speak for me, and when do I subjugate my desires for the good of the race?" asks media consultant Emily Tynes.
Like many good documentaries, this one raises questions that it isn't prepared to answer. What it does make clear about the Hill/Thomas hearings is that President Bush got his man, feminists got their symbol and--in the view of many African-Americans--blacks got another lynching.