Monday, October 31, 2011

The Ghost of Clarence Thomas: Herman Cain, Sexual Harassment, and “High-Tech Lynchings”

Politico posted a story alleging that Herman Cain, who is running for the Republican presidential nomination, sexually harassed two female employees of the National Restaurant Association while he was head of the Association in the 1990s.  Given that Cain is running for the Supreme Court, this story immediately brought to mind the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill dispute during Thomas’s confirmation proceedings to the Supreme Court and what, if anything, we have learned since then.  Thomas has publicly stated that he felt like he endured a “high tech lynching” and Hill, a respected law professor, also had her credibility and integrity attacked throughout the proceedings.  In the twenty years since Justice Thomas’s confirmation proceedings, I think that there are some powerful lessons that we (hopefully) learned that resonate in the Herman Cain controversy. 

The first is that men of power often abuse that power, and this is true regardless of race.  But black men who abuse their power (or are accused of doing so) have to factor in that it is going to be potentially more costly, even if the allegations are later proven to be false.  In fact, Justice Thomas referred to his confirmation hearings as a “high tech lynching” in part to give the impression that he was treated more harshly because he is a black man.  The reality is that there are still stereotypes about black masculinity that impact the public’s perception of black men who are accused of wrongdoing, independent of the actual truth of the allegations.  This has particular force in the context of sexual harassment, given that the stereotype surrounding black masculinity often turn on black men being portrayed as aggressive and sexually deviant.  Contrast this with Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was elected governor with 48% of the vote (with the candidate who came in second receiving only 32% of the vote) despite admitting to 25 years of sexual inappropriateness on various movie sets, but Justice Thomas was barely confirmed to the Supreme Court by a vote of 52-48.

The second lesson has to do with how the public treats the victims of black men who abuse (or are alleged to have abused) their authority.  What gets lost in the Clarence Thomas controversy is that his accuser is a well-respected law professor who was also crucified in the national media and by some leaders in the black community for telling her story.  There is a racial dynamic that is relevant when the harasser is an African-American who has “made it” and that success is potentially undermined by another African-American who should understand how difficult the journey is.  Thus, instead of Anita Hill’s background lending to her credibility, it was used to discredit her.  For this reason, I was very relieved to see that Politico opted not to publish the names of the women who filed sexual harassment complaints against Cain.  But I think that we should not be surprised if these allegations put an end to Cain’s frontrunner status to be the Republican nominee.               

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