AFAM 162: African American History: From Emancipation to the Present (2010)

Lecture 23

 - Public Policy and Presidential Politics (continued)


In this lecture, Professor Holloway discusses the connections between media and high politics during the late 1980s and 1990s and reveals the ways that race was replaced by a series of keywords–such as crime, drugs, and welfare–that acted as racial signifiers in our national discourse. An examination of the political rhetoric from the George H.W. Bush/Michael Dukakis campaign, including the infamous Willie Horton advertisement, as well as racially-infused persons and incidents such as Bernhard Goetz, the “Subway Vigilante;” Charles Stuart; the Central Park jogger case; Senator Jesse Helms’s “Angry Hands” advertisement; the murder of Latasha Harlins by Soon Ja Du, a Korean shopkeeper; the Rodney King beating; and the riots and rebellion in South Central, Los Angeles following the acquittal of the white policemen who beat him all reveal the special coding that linked people’s awareness of race and crime and the ways that the media reinforced the stereotype that crime was the special province of the black male. In the remainder of the lecture, Professor Holloway discusses the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill controversy, essentially a manifestation of the three-ring circus that was racial politics in the 1990s.

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African American History: From Emancipation to the Present (2010)

AFAM 162 - Lecture 23 - Public Policy and Presidential Politics (continued)

Chapter 1. The Political Rhetoric from the George H.W. Bush/Michael Dukkakis Campaigns [00:00:00]

Professor Jonathan Holloway: On Monday I was talking about looking at the cultural politics and the high politics of the nineteen–well, canvassing from the mid sixites, but really covering the 1970s and into the eighties through Jesse Jackson and his presidential–well, his politics, political rise and his presidential ambitions. I want to jump off from that point, from Jesse Jackson’s eighty-eight campaign. I might dip a little bit back in the eighties, but mostly we’re moving forward here, still focusing on the world of high politics, but, but then coming around to the connections between media and high politics, and the way in which they have this sort of bizarre embrace of one another, and I think how it’s also caught in a vise. So you remember of course eighty-eighty, Jackson’s presidential campaign, his second one, and he’s running via the politics of the Rainbow Coalition, you know, a grand patch–a grand quilt made up of a series of patches that, at least in forms of his words–the form of his words, transcended race politics. Now Jackson, as you saw in the, in the video clip on Monday, still speaks in the grand tradition of, of the black minister. So one could, you know–some critics were saying, “Well, he speaks about a Rainbow Coalition, but he’s still talking to black America in a black voice.”  Now be that as it may, we can debate that till we’re blue in the face, I already told you that Jackson stuns the nation by being a Democratic front runner for a short while. But in the end, of course, rhet–you know, rhetoric, rhetorical devices aside, political agenda or strategy aside, the fact is, he doesn’t secure the nomination; Dukakis does.

So you go into the fall election campaign in eighty-eight with George H. W. Bush and Michael Dukakis–George Bush at that point appointed the Vice President of the United States–in a campaign for the presidency. And you see in this campaign a remarkable evolutionary moment, I suppose, of–You see emerge a new discourse on race. It’s almost a discourse about race more than anything else. As I’ve already made clear, beginning really at the end of the 1960s with Nixon’s presidential campaign that called for law and order, and obviousing–obvious positioning of Nixon against the activists, the peaceniks, the pinkos, the reds, the student anarchists and black revolutionaries, you see in the late sixites, in the, in the very clear ways, a subversion of racial conversations, in the sense that we can’t talk about race. It’s the third rail of politics. Cause if we talk about race, we’re going to be damned–we’re going to be associated with being, being racist, and that’s a political charge that’s very hard to survive.

So you see a very clear development amongst politicians of all stripes, certainly at the national level–and I’m speaking at the national level for this particular course–this, this lecture–development of racial code words that make clear politicians’ agend–political agenda vis-à-vis race, but never talking about race. We saw this when, with Ronald Reagan declares his candidacy, you know, the great communicator, about states’ rights in Philadelphia, Mississippi. And I honestly, I was younger at the time, not paying complete attention, but I honestly don’t recall Reagan saying in public any critical or racist comment that one could say is literally racist or literally racialist in this kind of critical way, even though quietly, and behind the scenes, Reagan’s racial politics left much to be desired as far as black America was concerned, of course. Reagan’s famous, most famous sort of racial outreach would be signing of Martin Luther King Day into a federal holiday, something he was opposed to, by the way, for a variety of reasons, he claimed. But he was opposed to it, and then it became politically clear that he needed to let it happen, and he was going to let it just sit on his desk and therefore become a law after the course of ten days, once Congress passed it. But then it became clear to his advisors, you can actually get a lot of political mileage out of signing this law–into law, in, into law. He’s going to sign it in his office. They said, “You can get more political mileage out of a rose garden ceremony.”  And so there you have Ronald Reagan, who is opposed to the bill from the very beginning, signing into law MLK Day as a federal holiday, an individual he referred, referred to jokingly with his advisers as “Martin Lucifer King.”  Perhaps an innocent joke, perhaps something quite different.

But that was Reagan, the great communicator. His Vice President, George Herbert Walker Bush, was not a great communicator, not in the least. He didn’t have the verbal skills to sway hesitant voters, and in his case, he’d already lost to Reagan before. And he lost because Reagan was able to convince people who were, I mean, you know, moderate Democrat’s that Reagan’s agenda is the one that served them best. So the question is–I’m sorry to interrupt. [Looks at Student]  You’ve got to finish that candy bar. It’s incredibly distracting. Just take it all out. Thank you. All right, cool. Now in order to appease the conservative arm of the Republican Party, the party that Bush is going to have to rely on for his base, Bush starts marching rightward. He was actually a moderate Republican. Starts marching rightward, especially against Dukakis, who is a rather progressive liberal as far as mainstream elective politics are concerned. Bush and his advisers, his campaign, campaign team, makes a big deal out of calling Dukakis a card carrying liberal, which, I mean if you think about it, actually made–it made no sense, but in the world of politics that doesn’t really matter. He’s a card carrying liberal, which harkens back to, you know, the, the specter of being a card-carrying Communist. So for a generation, this actually resonated in a powerful way.

They also said–this is really the most effective point on, on Dukakis in, in terms of tarring him with a certain kind of politics–is that he was soft on crime. That’s the important phrase, he’s soft on crime. You have, during this moment, during the, the 1980s, this moment leading up to the Bush/Dukakis campaign, the age old links of black, especially black men to crime, are sort of further and deeply embedded into the nation’s subconscious. There was a war on drugs, you know, the rhetoric, “we’re going to have a war on drugs.”  There was the crack ec–epidemic that was ravishing–ravaging, excuse me, ravaging so many of our nation’s inner-cities. It was actually still going on in the early nineties. I lived in New Haven then and was–it had torn apart this city as well. You have gang warfare going on almost seemingly uninterrupted. These are very real things, but also popularized in our media in very fantastic ways.

Chapter 2. Bernhand Goetz, the “Subway Vigilante” [00:07:55]

You have in the mid eighties, 1984, a white man named Bernhard Goetz who’s a–New York City–who’s approached by four black teenagers, who later confessed that they were on the way to break into video machines for some cash, these four teenagers go up to Bernard Goetz and ask him–or panhandling and threatening, offering threatening remarks. And Goetz pulls out a thirty-eight revolver and begins firing, in the subway, in the car. He hits all four, sees two on the ground moving, approaches them, and asks if they’d had enough, and tries to shoot them again, but the revolver is empty. This is horrifying. But what’s fascinating though, in a clinical sense, not to diminish this, is that Goetz is hailed as the “Subway Vigilante.”  It’s like, “finally, someone is standing up to the people who are taking apart–taking control of our cities.” “The people.”  These black men, these teenagers, these criminals; that the white–the angry white man is standing up and doing what we all want to do. Now I’m not saying everybody felt this way, but I’m saying this is the way that the press whips this up into a hysteria.

Chapter 3. The Willie Horton Advertisement [00:09:08]

So you–that’s just one moment, but it is a motif for much of the 1980s, thinking about crime and race. So now when Bush’s campaign decides to paint Dukakis as soft on crime, they hunted for the perfect image. This is what political campaigns do; this is what political activists do, and they found one. And they found one in the narrative and the image of Willie Horton. Excuse me, I just want to queue it up. Who’s Willie Horton?  Willie Horton, African American male, criminal, in the state of Massachusetts, a violent criminal. He’s given a forty-eight hour furlough, as it turns out by accident. He’s given a forty-eight hour furlough as part of Massachusetts’ policies about trying to help rehabilitate criminals. They can, they can therefore become functioning parts of society. He’s given a forty-eight hour furlough in June of 1986 and doesn’t return. He just skips out. A year later, he attacks a Maryland couple, raping the woman, flees, is caught in October of eighty-seven. He’s sentenced in Maryland and by April 1988, two years, not quite two years after he was furloughed, the furlough program is over in Massachusetts. Race is never mentioned when, when, when the Bush campaign starts to talk about this history. Race is never mentioned, but this is the ad that they run. The sound will probably be a little bit high. And I’m sorry, it’s, it’s, it’s rather pixilated. It’s the best version I’ve, I’ve been able to find, actually.

[Narrator:]  Bush and Dukakis on crime. Bush supports the death penalty for first-degree murderers. Dukakis not only opposes the death penalty, he allowed first-degree murderers to have weekend passes from prison. One was Willie Horton, who murdered a boy in a robbery, stabbing him nineteen times. Despite a life sentence, Horton received ten weekend passes from prison. Horton fled, kidnapped a young couple, stabbing the man and repeatedly raping his girlfriend. Weekend prison passes. Dukakis on Crime.

Professor Jonathan Holloway:  Not very subtle. Well, the ad, if you’re listening, never mentions race at all. It shows the image of Willie Horton, his mug shot. And it–and I know it’s grainy in this, in this projection you saw on, in the classroom, but the image was always grainy, never really a high quality image. The ad actually only runs a few times. Activists are beside themselves. Not even just activists; you know, Dem–Democratic loyalists are horrified. They’re not trying to defend Willie Horton, and they aren’t actually even trying to defend the Massachusetts rehabilitation program. Al Gore, who was, who had when he was in the, the, the primary campaign, had attacked Dukakis repeatedly on this very issue, but never made an advertisement out of it. Anyway, liberals are horrified because it’s quite clear that what the Bush campaign is actually trying to do is trying to connect, or reconnect, or reaffirm the notion that the black male is the person to be feared, feared; that if Dukakis is in office, that it’s the black male who will, who will benefit. Now again, the ad only runs a few times. It gets incredible attention, and you’ve grown up in a different era, when this is actually a literal part of the campaign strategy in the twenty-four hour news cycle. The twenty-four hour news cycle was still fairly young, and the ad just gets repeated over and over again by the talking heads and news anchors. It’s free advertising.

Bush himself comes out against the, the advertisement right away–well, within a day–and he says, “I’ve never advertised this. I denounce it. This is the worst kind of, of racial politicking.”  He calls it what it was. “I want nothing to do with it.”  And Bush actually had–I mean, he was a moderate Republican for a very long time–had a pretty reasonable record, at least at the interpersonal level, on race issues. Now was he a friend of the race?  I leave that to other people to make a declaration and determination about it. But he comes out against the ad. Did he know about it beforehand?  Wouldn’t be surprised if he did, if it’s all orchestrated, but I don’t know. The fact is that Bush, that, that the campaign was speaking to the phenomenon that had become heightened during the 1980s, the special coding–coding, C-O-D-I-N-G–that linked people’s awareness of race, crime and underscored the belief systems that was, crime was the special province of the black male. The code words are accompanied by an image in this case, that’s figuratively saying “Watch out!  Put Dukakis in office, Willie Horton will come get you next.” 

Well, Dukakis doesn’t win. I’m not saying the ad is the difference, but it’s one of the more notorious ads in modern political campaigning. But the–Dukakis doesn’t win, so, you know, I think we’re in a new era perhaps of more tough on crime approaches. But the racial hysteria that’s part of tough on crime is really hard to beat down.

Chapter 4. The Carjacking of Charles Stuart [00:15:23]

In 1989, just up the road in Boston, Carol Stuart, white woman, very pregnant, is on her way with her husband to hospital, and they are carjacked. She’s shot in the head, husband’s shot in the gut. He survives. Carol  Stuart doesn’t. Ultimately the baby doesn’t either. When Charles Stuart recovers, he claims that–he knew it was dark out, it’s hard to see–but a black man with a raspy voice in a track suit did it. A huge manhunt ensues. This was a horrible crime. A huge manhunt ensues where the Boston police basically start detaining large numbers of black men who fit the description. They had a raspy voice, they owned a tracksuit. They had no visual to go on.

Now, local newspapers’ headlines are screaming about these racially, these racially motivated shooting. This is an era of carjackings and again gang warfare and racially motivated shootings in people’s minds. Two months go by. People start–I mean, liberal progressives are upset at this dragnet being dropped down by the Boston police over black Boston. But two months go by, there’s a break in the case. Charles Stuart identifies a black man as the person who pulled the gun. He’s arrested. He has a long criminal record, but he has a very strong alibi, and the only evidence against this alibi is Stuart’s claim. People start poking around, investigative journalists, and start wondering. And Boston police do not have a strong record–well, they had a strong record, a negative record, when it came to racial issues in the community. People start poking around, they start discovering things about Charles Stuart that don’t really sound that—well, they sound strange: there’s a large insurance policy taken out against his wife not long before she was murdered; allegations that Charles Stuart was, you know, drinking issues and that he might have had a girlfriend on the side; maybe he wanted a divorce, it wasn’t quite clear; tensions in the marriage. January 1990 now, Stuart’s car is found running on a bridge in Boston and a suicide note’s found inside. It turns out he murdered his wife, he shot himself in the gut. He made up the entire story. There was that huge insurance policy. His brother, with whom he developed this plan, is the one who finally came clean and, and gave all of the back story.

Stepping away from the Stuart family themselves, they’re a very tragic family, a larger question was raised about the presumption of guilt and the racial–racialization of crime, the sensationalization by the media of the linkage between race and crime in this case. Questions were raised again about police ineptitude and insensitivity or intransigence.

Chapter 5. The Central Park Jogger [00:19:08]

While all of this is happening in the Charles Stuart case, you have down in New York City a very famous case involving the Central Park jogger case. A white woman goes jogging in Central Park at night, investment banker. She’s attacked by teenage boys. The press likened it to–the boys to a “roving pack of wolves.”  This is literal, a “roving pack of wolves.”  There’s hysterical reportage. Donald Trump took out full-page ads calling for the death penalty. The mayor referred to them as monsters. At the time the trial was going on, a gang of thirty Italian American boys from Ben–Bensonhurst cornered sixteen year-old Yusef Hawkins in a used car parking lot and shot him dead. Press, press referred to that gang simply as “white young men” and the mayor referred to the incident as “an enormous tragedy,” as it was. But there was, there were no full-page, page ads calling for the death penalty.

You may remember that in 2002, some thirteen years after the fact, Matias Reyes confesses to raping the young woman, and his DNA matched. Another instance of profound police ineptitude because they had the guy the whole time, essentially, and the young men who were kind of raising hell in Central Park, but they weren’t rapists, many of them languished behind bars for quite some time. And it’s, and I don’t want to make the connection to the Scottsboro boys’ case, but there are linkages all the same. This is the state of affairs. You have, in an era of racial hysteria and racial code wording–now one thing I forgot about the Central Park case, one of the phrases used that these. these young boys who are like wolves on a hunt were going wild. So “wilding” was a catchphrase for adolescent boys, Latino or African American, up to no good, that they’re going wilding.

Chapter 6. Senator Jesse Helms’ “Angry Hands” Advertisement [00:21:08]

1990, in the same moment when–same year that Charles Stuart comes clean–well, kills himself and then comes clean about murdering his wife–you have an unusually tense campaign developing in North Carolina. Jesse Helms, senator from North Carolina, very conservative, once a Democrat, had left the Democratic Party to become a Republican, very powerful. Jesse Helms is facing an unexpectedly strong challenge from Harvey Gantt, a black candidate, former mayor of Charlotte. Gantt is ahead of Helms through much of the campaign. As we’re getting close to election day, he’s clearly ahead of Helms two weeks before the election. Helms used an infusion of capital to start–of, of cash–to start running television ads. They were full of visually coded language and outright language that were essentially racist. The clip I’m about to show you is the most famous of them. Simply referred to in media circles as “Angry Hands.”

[Narrator:]  You needed that job, and you were the best qualified, but they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota. Is that really fair?  Harvey Gantt says it is. Gantt supports Ted Kennedy’s racial quota law that makes the color of your skin more important than your qualifications. You vote on this issues next Tuesday. For racial quotas, Harvey Gantt. Against racial quotas, Jesse Helms.

Professor Jonathan Holloway:  Again, subtle?  I don’t know. Well, the effect of this is really quite stunning, of this campaign wave. You have the white working-class hands holding this paper. He lost his job. You heard the–I don’t need to summarize what you saw. North Carolinians go into the ballot booth, the voting booth, and they’re going in talking about how they’re voting for Jesse, excuse me, Harvey Gantt. It looks like Jesse Helms’ day is, is now done. Helms emerges as a clear victor. I don’t, I confess, I didn’t put it down in my notes, but the swing is something like eight or ten percent between what he goes in as and what people come out as. And I raise the issue of, of anxiety, cultural anxiety,  “Do I, as a white North Carolinian, walk into–see a reporter who asks me who I’m going to vote for, and I say, ‘Well, I’m going to vote for the black guy’ because I’m racially progressive?”  But then you go in the booth, like “Oh hell no. I got–I can’t do this.”  Or you just lie, flat out. You know you’re going to, you know you’re going to vote for Helms right away, but you don’t want to be seen as being somehow angry or bitter or whatever. So the “Angry Hands” ad is used, pointed to, by media experts as–it doesn’t even have to be deft; It’s like deft with a sledgehammer–a way of pooling together anxieties about position in society, life chances, and connecting, connecting it to race.

Chapter 7. The Rodney King Beating [00:24:52]

So the climate of race relations at the level of, of national rhetoric, essentially as I’m trying to pull together here, is just depressing. And then Rodney King decides to get behind the wheel of his car while under the range–a range of illegal, well legal and illegal, influences. On March 3rd, 1991, there’s a high speed chase in Los Angeles. King refuses to get into–I’m just realizing, 1991, how we’ve–things have changed. How many of you were born in 1991?  [Surveys Students]  Oh my god. Okay, sorry, it’s just the passage of time. It’s just rather traumatic for some of us. You’ll be there too soon. Anyway, at the moment some of you were born, Rodney King jumps into a car and a high speed chase ensues. He’s finally pulled over. A whole gang of police is there. King refuses to get into a prone position and seems to charge an officer. He’s beaten by the police, subdued and beaten, and he’s arrested; arrested, I should put on record, for every good reason. But the beating was real. He suffered a fractured skull and internal in–injuries from this beating. Now I will not ever equate Rodney King with a civil rights activist, ever. But the beating’s in line of the civil rights beating–of the beatings that people like John Lewis received at the batons of the sheriffs and defuties–deputies when they tried to cross the bridge in–out of Selma, Alabama.

And I should say for–I mean, you all were actually too young–this is actually a radical moment in the world of media and politics, because, I’m forgetting the man’s name now, but, you know, the beating was captured on, on a video camera. It’s the beginning of a video camera age, and really the, the start of, of reality culture, so called reality programming culture in our society. That video changed the way we understand news, and who we are, and, and what should be known and not known. Anyway, two weeks later, after the arrest, four police officers are charged with assault. There’s an investigation going on, because black citizens are saying, “Look, this happens to us all the time. Yeah, this is excess, but there’s a history of police brutality against blacks and Latinos in Los Angeles.”  A report–a, a commission is formed; they start investigating these claims and dis–and release a report in July of that same year about widespread police brutality, and excessive force, and institutionalized race–racism within Los Angeles. Hold on to that moment, okay? 

Chapter 8. The Murder of Latasha Harlins by a Korean Shopkeeper [00:27:49]

Now, March 16th, the day after the officers in the Rodney King case are charged with assault, Latasha Harlins, black teenager, gets into an argument over a, over a carton of orange juice, a dollar and seventy-nine cents, in her neighborhood. She’s in a local store. This is in South Central Los Angeles, more famously coded as Watts, which I’ll be talking about later on, but that coding–store that after the, the riots in 1965–I mean, a, a neighborhood that the riots after sixty-five, where the stores were, were burned out. Koreans, Koreans came in in force and started occupying a lot of the stores, and so they were one of the major business forces in this part of the city. A history of great tension between African American and Latino citizens in this part of the city, and the Korean store owners. Latasha Harlins goes in and buys–and, and goes to get some orange juice and there’s a dispute over whether she paid, whether she didn’t pay, whether she’s trying to take something. The shopkeeper, Soon Ja Du, after there’s an ex–there’s a camera captured–after an exchange of heated words and some pushing and pulling, Latasha Harlins turns to go. Soon Ja Du reaches out behind the bullet proof screen–the place had been robbed several times–pulls out a pistol and shoots Latasha Harlins in the head, kills her. All captured on the store camera.

That fall, Soon Ja Du is sentenced for murdering Latasha Harlins, and her sentence, six months of community service. Black community is astonished. How could this be possible?  Whether Latasha Harlins even hit–whether she hit Soon Ja Du or not, whether she was trying to steal the car–carton of orange juice or not, how can you only give six months of community service for shooting somebody in the back–for shooting somebody, but in the back of the head from point blank range?  But that was the sentence. You take this racial tension. You take the police report–the commission report of police brutality, you add these things together, and take yourself to April 1992 when all four police officers who were charged with assault are cleared of their charges. Los Angeles erupts. Fifty-four people die over the course of several days of rioting. There’s looting, attacks against whites and Asians, against property. Thousands are injured, twelve thousand are arrested. More than one billion dollars of property damage, destruction covering an area larger, I think, I think larger than San Francisco, if I remember one little factoid correctly. During the riots, an inarticulate King is brought before the camera, trying to appeal for peace, and stuttering through the phrase, “Can’t we all just get along?” 

There’s another important current to know about this story is that there is, in thinking about the connections of, connections between media and politics–I learned a lot about the media during this particular riot. I was actually in what is now Au Bon Pain, which used to be a family sort of bar here. And I was studying–I was pursuing my Ph.D. here in history, having moved from L.A. a couple of years ago. I’d heard from some friends that the officers had been acquitted, and I walk into this restaurant, and, you know, there’s TVs up around. We’re at this bar-restaurant, and everybody’s looking up. You look up, look up at the TV set, and you start seeing–and the sound is off, but you see the scroll going across the bottom of the screen. You’re seeing all of these images, and there’s talking about African Americans rioting in South Central, summing up collectively what the scroll is doing. And I’m watching from the perspective of the, the camera in the helicopter, and I’m realizing that what I’m seeing is actually not black people but brown people. And then what I’m also seeing is the intersection about four blocks from where I lived in Los Angeles three years earlier.

Anybody here from L.A. or knows L.A.?  One or two lonely hands. Well, welcome east. The–South Central is an area south of downtown Los Angeles, south of the freeway, the ten. I lived north of the ten and west of Los Angeles on the northern edge of Koreatown, which was populated by Nicaraguans and El Salvadorians at that time. The camera was floating above the intersection near where I lived, but it was coded as South Central Los Angeles. The place was wrong, the people were wrong, but the narrative that people are seeing, as they’re watching this image, all silent, is black people are rioting in South Central. It’s a moment in which you see a racial codification, codification, a national racial script of “blacks are criminals” and Watts, having been, you know, burned into our minds through a lot of the cultural politics in the 1980s, with the, with gangs going crazy, the Cripps and the Bloods. It’s a “Watts phenomenon,” that this is where it’s happening all over again. The fact is, the riot was happening everywhere.

Another moment of media representation of race, far more famous than my, my–actually, my moment’s not famous at all. I just happened to have witnessed it–revolves around the individual—the, the, the history of Reginald Denny. A white guy hears that his friends are in trouble, caught near the vortex of the riot. He’s going to go help them. He’s a truck driver. His truck is stopped, and some thugs pull him out, and they start beating him, taking a brick, try–I mean, trying to kill the guy. Black guys attacking the white truck driver, the true innocent, and he was a true innocent, and the blacks were nothing but criminals in this case. Cameras focusing, watching this thing happen. People are transfixed and horrified. Denny survives, he does survive, but the phenomenon of black kids beating up on an innocent white person is what the, the script read. What the script didn’t read is the fact that the people who saved Denny were some older blacks who saw this happening on T.V., knew the intersection, got in the car, ran over to him, saved him, got him in the car, took him to the hospital. The script also didn’t read the fact that Denny was telling people afterwards, you know, “Quit using me as a political football. I don’t want to be used in this way. Stop it.”  But he had lost control over his own virtual projected image. So you have in the wake of—I mean, there’s many different narratives to tell you about the L.A. uprising, L.A. riots. I want to use it for the, the coming together in the most gruesome way of the racialization of crime and also the media representations of race during the late eighties and early nineties.

Chapter 9. The Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill Controversy [00:35:25]

We have come to the place by the early nineties where it’s become too easy, where it had become too easy for people to play the race card, like in the Reginald Denny case, like in, I mean, any number of cases I’ve already cited in the course of this lecture. You see the race card played to perfection though in the greatest theater of high politics. I’m not talking campaigns. That’s the gutter of high politics, often. In the grandest theater of politics, high politics, is that revolving around a Supreme Court nomination. Nineteen ninety-one, in the midst of all this stuff I’ve been talking about, Thurgood Marshall, exhausted for years, finally says, “I can’t wait for a Democrat to take office. I’m retiring.”  He retires, and on July 1st, George Bush nominates Clarence Thomas to succeed Marshall on the Supreme Court. Clarence Thomas, a onetime black nationalist, you know, he was a law school, law school student here. He was known for wearing his fatigues and talking about Malcolm X as the person who had it all figured out, but is someone who turned into an anti-affirmative action activist, anti-welfare as well, anti-abortion rights. And he can have these ideas. Those ideas are fine to have as a Supreme Court nominee.

Bush declares he’s the most nominated person he could find. He did a great search, and something that drew gasps from many lawyers, many regarding other politics. Thomas had barely been on the bench. He’d been a legislative staffer, then had become, under Ronald Reagan, the head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. He had just, just been elevated to the bench. The NAACP, the National Urban League, the National Bar Association, which is, quote, the “black” National Law Association, all oppose Thomas’s nomination. The American Bar Association refuses to consider him, quote, “well qualified,” which is one of their, their rankings. But a smooth nomination process ensues. They know it’s going to be a split vote, and, ultimately, when it’s in committee–I’ve skipped–when it’s in committee, it doesn’t send out a full–a recommendation to the full Senate, but they know it’s going to go smoothly, it seems. And then the Anita Hill allegation finally gets heard. Anita Hill, who had been assistant to Clarence Thomas when he was at the EEOC, had made allegations already, and people weren’t paying attention to it, about Thomas’s inappropriate behavior in a work environment. And I’ll quote from part of her testimony:

“My working relationship became even more strained when Judge Thomas began to use work situations to discuss sex. On these occasions, he would call me into his office for reports on education issues and projects, or he might suggest that, because of time pressures, we go to a lunch at a government cafeteria. After a brief discussion of work, he would turn the conversation to discussions of sexual matters. His conversations were very vivid. He spoke about acts that he had seen in pornographic films involving such matters as women having sex with animals and films showing group sex or rape scenes. He talked about pornographic materials depicting individuals with large penises or large breasts involved in various sex acts. On several occasions, Thomas told me graphically of his own sexual prowess. Because I was extremely uncomfortable talking about sex with him at all and particularly in such a graphic way, I told him that I did not want to talk about these subjects. I would also try to change the subject to education matters or to nonsexual personal matters such as his background or his beliefs. My efforts to change the subject were rarely successful.”

Skipping ahead in the same testimony:

One of the oddest episodes I remember was an occasion in which Thomas was drinking a Coke in his office. He got up from the table at which we were working, went over to his desk to get the Coke, looked at the can and said, “Who has put pubic hair on my Coke?” On other occasions, he referred to the size of his own penis as being larger than normal, and he also spoke on some occasions of the pleasures he had given to women with oral sex.”

<> Nothing related to the testimony. [Students laugh] I’ve got an appointment to go to after class is over. [More laughter] A business appointment to go to after class is over. [More laughter] Raise the level, everybody, raise the level. Thomas denies these allegations, and this of course, you know, fascinates the press to no end and, in a clever yet cynical turn, silences all debate on the topic. And I read here from his rebuttal:

“I have complied with the rules. I responded to a document request that produced over thirty thousand pages of documents. And I have testified for five full days under oath. I have endured this ordeal for a hundred and three days. Reporters sneaking into my garage to examine books I read. Reporters and interest groups swarming over divorce papers, looking for dirt. Unnamed people starting preposterous and damaging rumors. Calls all over the country specifically requesting dirt. This is not American. This is Kafka-esque. It has got to stop. It must stop for the benefit of future nominees and our country. Enough is enough. I am not going to allow myself to be further humiliated in order to be confirmed. I am here specifically to respond to allegations of sex harassment in the workplace. I am not here to be further humiliated by this committee or anyone else, or to put my private life on display for a prurient interest or other reasons. I will not allow this committee or anyone else to probe into my private life. This is not what America is all about.

To ask me to do what I would be–to ask me to do that would be to ask me to go beyond fundamental fairness. Yesterday I called my mother. She was confined to her bed, unable to work and unable to stop crying. Enough is enough. Mr. Chairman, in my forty-three years on this Earth, I have been able, with the help of others and with the help of God, to defy poverty, avoid prison, overcome segregation, bigotry, racism, and obtain one of the finest educations available in this country. But I have not been able to overcome this process. This is worse than any obstacle or anything that I have ever faced. Throughout my life I have been energized by the expectation and the hope that in this country I would be treated fairly in all endeavors. When there was segregation, I hoped that there would be fairness one day or some day. When there was bigotry and prejudice, I hoped that there would be tolerance and understanding some day.

Mr. Chairman, I am proud of my life, and what I have done, and what I have accomplished, proud of my family, and this process, this process is trying to destroy it all. No job is worth what I have been through, no job. No horror in my life has been so debilitating. Confirm me if you want, don’t confirm me if you are so led, but let this process end. Let me and my family regain our lives. I never asked to be nominated. It was an honor. Little did I know the price, but it is too high.

Mr. Chairman, (later on in the excerpt) I am a victim of this process and my name has been harmed, my integrity has been harmed, my character has been harmed, my family has been harmed, my friends have been harmed. There is nothing this committee, this body, or this country can do to give me my good name back, nothing. I will not provide the rope for my own lynching, for further humiliation. I am not going to engage in discussions, nor will I submit to roving questions of what goes on in the most intimate parts of my private life or the sanctity of my bedroom. These are the most intimate parts of my privacy, and they will remain that–they will remain just that, private.”

When he read this testimony, he referred to it–his anger, his jaws are clenched–said “this is nothing but a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who deign to think for themselves.”  When Thomas does this, it is actually politically incredibly brilliant. Cynical no doubt, but incredibly brilliant. This is a person throughout his testimony, or the nomination process, that made it clear that he was opposed to racial set aside politics, affirmative action, even though he had benefited from it. He was opposed to the kind of racial thinking that had so much of all of us sort of trapped in ways that everybody understood in the early 1990s. He believed in a colorblind society, but at the moment of being caught in this web, and I cannot imagine what Thomas must have gone through–whether he deserved it or not, that’s up to your personal opinion–but it had to be miserable–that at the moment of his greatest misery, he turns around and kills the process by saying, “If you continue to do what you’re doing, you are essentially acting like a lynch mob in our electronic age.”  The Senate panel judiciary, judiciary committee, they can’t say anything at all, those who were opposed to his nomination. He freezes the conversation. It moves on and, ultimately, he’s confirmed fifty-two to forty-eight in October of ninety-one.

It’s a bell weather for racial politics in post-civil rights United States, and it actually may be even more important, if you look back historically, for the way that it changed conversations about gender discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace. Sexual harassment claims double in the wake of the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill imbroglio. The number of women in office–who run for office and who win seats shoot up dramatically. In 1992, Time would say at the end of the year, “This is the year of the woman.”  Now was it all related to Clarence Thomas. and his can of Coke. and Anita Hill’s reluctant testimony?  I’m not going to claim all of that, but you need to understand, this is one of the radical shifts happening in the wake of, or as a. a sideshow of this three-ring circus of what was Clarence Thomas’s nomination hearing. And it’s also sort of the three-ring circus of tragedy, of racial politics and covert racial politics in the 1990s. We’ll pick up on that happy note on Monday. Thank you.

[end of transcript]

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