Anita Hill addresses her appointment with history

The current state of sexual harassment -- with references to Paula Jones, was the first topic on Anita Hill's agenda when she spoke here April 15 as a guest of the Afro-American Studies Program.

But she also spoke about the conversation on race in America and the pain of testifying at the Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

Hill, widely known for her testimony accusing Thomas of sexual harrassment, came here to promote and sign copies of her book, "Speaking Truth to Power."

The media coverage of the hearings distorted the meaning of her testimony, Hill told the capacity crowd of 500. "The way that we were pitted against each other really served neither of us." The hearings, said Hill, "are told as a story of Clarence Thomas's race and my gender, as if his gender and my race were unimportant."

Anita Hill

Photo by Tommy Leonardi

Hill was introduced by Mary Francis Berry, the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of History and chairperson of the U.S. Commission for Civil Rights, who suggested Hill's place in history was comparable to Rosa Parks'.

Hill wondered if she would have been treated differently if she had been a white woman testifying against Thomas. "I think of one senator, Strom Thurmond. How might he have reacted differently if I were a white female? Would he have been so anxious to embrace Clarence Thomas wholeheartedly, and would the attack on me have been so vicious had I been viewed as one of his constituents?"

The race and gender subtext, she said, served to distract from the true issue -- the qualifications of Clarence Thomas to sit on the Supreme Court.

Hill blamed the public for its tastes and blamed the media that catered to those tastes. "The public is much more interested in talking about sex than talking about discrimination," she said.

She also expressed concern about the backlash against affirmative action. The statistics emerging from California following the passage of Proposition 209 reduced minority admissions of blacks and Hispanics at a "shocking" rate, she said. Berkeley's admission rate for minorities dropped from 23 percent to 10 percent, and University of California Los Angeles dropped from 20 to 13 percent. "One African American entered U.C. Berkeley law out of a class of 268."

After the talk, she answered a question about affirmative action: "I don't see people who are incompetent being hired to do the job."

At the book signing that followed, Hill had a warm word and sympathetic ear for the stories confided by her admirers. "You have to know what you're comfortable and not comfortable with," she told someone with a story about on-the-job harrassment. Most of those in line just thanked her for her courage.

Originally published on April 30, 1998