Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Clarence Thomas Tries to Rewrite History

Old argument against Anita Hill: “a little nutty and a little slutty.”

New argument against Anita Hill: a real ball-breaker – no one dared mess with her.

We shouldn’t be surprised that Clarence Thomas has settled on this tack. Much easier to turn the tables on his accuser than to defend himself. Anita Hill couldn’t have been offended by his behavior when she worked for him at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, says Thomas, because had she been, watch out!

“She did not take slights very lightly,” Justice Thomas told 60 Minutes’ Steve Kroft. “Anyone who did anything, she responded very quickly.”

Trouble is, back in 1981, there wasn’t much that Anita Hill or anyone else could have done about sexual harassment – treatment much more injurious than “slights.” Even today, 16 years after the infamous hearings and 26 years after the alleged misconduct, barriers remain for those who experience sexually offensive behavior at work.

The EEOC did not even draft a definition of sexual harassment until 1980, and for the first few years, the agency declined to hear cases based on one person’s word against another. A complainant had to have some corroboration in order to merit an investigation.

Had Anita Hill filed a complaint at the time, the intake staff would have turned her away. She, like most who describe sexual harassment, had neither witness nor evidence. Only in 1983 – two years after the alleged harassment – did the EEOC conclude that most sexual harassment cases involved conflicting stories. The agency finally began to hear such cases, relying on factors such as credibility, consistency, and detail to determine who was telling the truth.

Thanks to Professor Hill and others who broke the silence, we’ve made progress. Yet the majority of those experiencing harassment today still do not report it.

Why? Go back to those Senate proceedings, to the moment when Charles Kothe, dean of Oral Roberts University, was asked why he’d hired Anita Hill. Dean Kothe declared he’d supported her hiring after seeing the glowing recommendation from Clarence Thomas.

No one asked the obvious follow-up question: What if there’d been no recommendation? Would Kothe have even considered her for the job?

A powerful figure can impact your career for decades after you move on. The boss needn’t trash you. The absence of a favorable recommendation alone speaks volumes.

Fear of retaliation is just one of many reasons confident, tough women sit on their humiliation and rage and misery. They need the money, they like the work, they don’t know who to tell, they don’t think they’ll be believed – the list goes on.

In his book, Thomas ignores the fact that evidence about him emerged since the hearing – as Anita Hill recently pointed out, it’s no longer her word against his. Similarly, his claim of being the victim of a high-tech lynching leaves out a key reality: the woman involved is not white but African-American, a group of women raped at will under slavery and sexually vulnerable ever since.

If Clarence Thomas wants to rewrite history, the place to begin is with sexual harassment laws. We need to strengthen protections against retaliation. Employers should be required to have policies and post them, and to arrange awareness training for employees. Organizations need to establish an independent, outside investigation process when the accused is a high-level executive. Just as important, we need to change corporate culture to reward, rather than punish, those who stand up for decent treatment for themselves and others.

What we don’t need is to trivialize harassment or blame those who suffer it for failing to make it stop.

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