BOOK REVIEW / The witch, the judge and the Pepsi: 'Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence

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IN OCTOBER 1991, the US Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings to determine the suitability of President Bush's Supreme Court nominee, Clarence Thomas. A 43-year-old black conservative, equally undistinguished as scholar and judge, Thomas was presented to the Senate as the ideal candidate for appointment to the highest court in the land. The early hearings established that he had mysteriously never expressed an opinion on Roe v Wade, the crux of abortion law in America, and that he had risen Horatio Alger-like from childhood poverty in Pin Point, Georgia. 'Nobody here was raised in a shack for seven years without plumbing,' said Senator Danforth. 'Nobody has experienced that. Clarence Thomas has.'

In the course of the Senate hearings, Clarence Thomas was to experience much more. Within days of the opening round, an FBI report was leaked to the press in which a former member of the judge's staff, law professor Anita Hill, swore that he had harassed her sexually. The committee was forced to call her as a witness, and the ensuing debate was carried live on television. Before long, the whole nation was talking about pubic hairs on Pepsi cans.

Hill agreed to a polygraph test; Thomas refused. But by the end of the hearings, after Thomas complained that Anita Hill had subjected him to a 'high-tech lynching', his nomination was approved, with polls indicating that Americans, both male and female, believed Thomas over Hill by a margin of two to one. Judge Thomas took his position on the Supreme Court bench with a longer potential incumbency than the average life-expectancy of black men in many American cities.

The Hill-Thomas controversy has been variously characterised as 'the first decisive national debate in the post civil rights era', 'a hurricane that whipped across the landscape of our lives', and 'something uncomfortably close to a gang rape.' Liberals, feminists and blacks are still reeling from the event, among them one of the nation's leading novelists, Toni Morrison. Appalled by the hearings - in which white male Senators interrogated a black man and a black woman about their sexual encounters in the workplace - Morrison has turned to black scholars of literature, law, government and history for an understanding of the affair. The resulting volume of essays provides unusual insight into the meaning of the Hill-Thomas debate.

What emerges is the profoundly verbal nature of the clash. Feminist Paula Giddings points out that Thomas's offence was not a physical transgression 'but a verbal one masked in pornographic language'. The evidence boiled down to Hill's word against Thomas's. And the whole affair depended on the unspeakability of certain words. As Claudia Brodsky Lacour argues, Thomas's race was the essential factor in his nomination, but the word 'race' could not be mentioned, and opposition to Thomas would automatically be understood as 'racism': 'The word 'racism' and not the thing . . . was the object of concern.'

Morrison's introduction argues that American blacks are seen as either harmless, servile guardians or as dangerous, sexual subversives. As the Senate committee and the television audience tried to pick which cliche to assign to each protagonist, Thomas introduced the metaphor of lynching, a strategy that figured him as a racial victim and Hill as a racial traitor. 'A black woman absolutely does not indict a black man in front of a white one,' Professor Gayle Pemberton writes, 'as this act is hopelessly entangled within a welter of images and symbols from slavery'. Thus Americans were treated to the irony of a black conservative who had actively worked to undermine affirmative action and civil rights claiming refuge from attack on the grounds of racial aggression from a black woman.

The book contains several essayistic gems. Judge A Leon Higginbotham Jr's public letter to Judge Thomas patiently instructs him in the historical processes that brought him from Pin Point to Washington. Novelist Michael Thelwell explores Thomas's character as 'false, fleeting, perjured Clarence'. And Patricia J Williams, a rising star in American law and letters, takes on the persona of a witch to simulate the state of mind required for Anita Hill to be guilty: 'It is settled law in our land that witches are those who fly upside down. Thus it is that Anita Hill is dispositively a witch. Everything she touched inverted itself . . . Lie detectors broke down and the ashes of 'impossible truth' spewed forth from her mouth.'

If this book corrects the impression that the Hill-Thomas debates were a matter of American puritanism about sex, they nevertheless present America as a land of puritan 'readers', a nation of decoders besotted by the Word.