In the hierarchy of bigotry, women still come bottom

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FOUR YEARS ago, when an articulate black American woman accused an influential black man of improper behaviour, the woman was publicly ridiculed and disbelieved. After televised Senate hearings which riveted the nation, the nomination of Judge Clarence Thomas to the US Supreme Court was confirmed. His accuser, law professor Anita Hill, was openly accused by Thomas's wife of acting from motives of jealousy and revenge.

Virginia Thomas told People magazine that Professor Hill's allegations of sexual harassment reminded her of the character played by Glenn Close in the movie Fatal Attraction. According to this scenario, Hill smarted for years before coming forward with fabricated claims that her former boss had pestered her for dates, described scenes from pornographic films in the office and boasted about his sexual prowess.

It was his word against hers and, from the evidence of opinion polls taken immediately after the Senate hearings into Hill's accusations, nearly 60 per cent of Americans believed Thomas. This was in spite of the fact that Hill was a calm, credible witness while two other women, both former employees of Thomas at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1984 and 1985, came forward with similar allegations about his behaviour.

My immediate purpose in reviving this case is to point out the fallibility of public opinion, especially in the aftermath of emotive and highly publicised events. Like virtually everyone I have spoken to since Tuesday evening, I was shocked and dismayed by the outcome of the OJ Simpson trial; listening to the not-guilty verdicts, I was moved by the muffled sobs of the victims' families; I was struck by the sense of unreality in the courtroom, Simpson mouthing "thank you" to the jury like a ham actor in a Hollywood drama. There was even a perfect closing shot, the handsome hero exchanging congratulations with his defence team. Cue theme music, a haunting hit single by Bruce Springsteen or Michael Jackson in his most lyrical "Stranger in Moscow" mode. Credits roll.

IT IS, unfortunately, the theatricality and the emotion - the sour, so-called whitelash versus the "free the Juice" celebrations in predominantly black areas - which stay in the mind and encourage the notion of an irreconcilable polarisation in American society as the cornerstone of the Simpson case. White Americans tend to the view that a guilty man has walked free because of his race; blacks, taking their cue from the jury, think Simpson was framed by a racist police force or that a paranoid white cop distorted the evidence to a degree which created reasonable doubt.

This analysis tells us a great deal about the suspicion and distrust between Americans of different racial origin; it tells us almost nothing about the case itself. In October 1991, under the headline "Taking sides against ourselves", Newsweek carried an anguished article by Rosemary L Bray about the Clarence Thomas controversy in which she argued that Anita Hill had breached a series of taboos in the black community so profoundly that she never had a chance of being believed. Her penalty, wrote Bray, was "to be read out of the race".

This was a brave and important insight into a case which, at the time, convulsed and divided America almost as much as the Simpson verdicts have done. By appropriating the language of the civil rights movement in his defence, Judge Thomas - a noted right-winger - succeeded in transforming a conflict that hinged on gender into a trial of American race relations, metamorphosing overnight into a defiant standard-bearer of his race. So successful was he in distorting the public perception of what was at stake that Americans found themselves being told to choose between the rights of blacks and the rights of women - regardless of the fact that both protagonists were of the same race.

What had happened to him, Thomas thundered in a speech widely credited with swinging public opinion behind him, was "a hi-tech lynching for uppity blacks. It is a message that you will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the US Senate rather than hung from a tree". There was irony upon irony here, for the classic target of the lynch mob was a black man unjustly accused of violating a white woman, which could not have had less to do with the position in which he found himself; indeed Thomas, with his white wife and opposition to positive discrimination to help other blacks in employment law, was initially as vulnerable to the charge of deracination as OJ Simpson with his mansion in Brentwood.

IT IS HARD to believe that Simpson's defence team, in adopting almost identical tactics, had not learnt from Thomas's skillful repackaging of himself as a victim in 1991. Their task was both easier and harder: easier in that the jury was predominantly black, unlike the senators Thomas had to win over, and harder in that their client was accused of the gravest criminal offences. If they calculated that playing the race card would silence the testimony of the woman in the case - battered, beaten Nicole Brown, who left taped and photographic evidence of her ex-husband's violence towards her - as effectively as Thomas countered Professor Hill, their assessment could not have been more dismally accurate.

In an essay about Thomas and Hill, I suggested that the most significant legacy of their public confrontation was to reveal the existence of hierarchies even of bigotry; race trumps gender, a conclusion which this week's events in Los Angeles have done nothing to disturb. The real issue in the OJ Simpson trial is the escape from justice of a wealthy, famous man who, without a shadow of a doubt, repeatedly threatened and viciously assaulted his terrified ex-wife. As I wrote in 1991: pace Lennon and Ono, woman is not even the nigger of the world. Not yet, anyway.