October 27, 2010
I had a visceral reaction to the news that Virginia Thomas had called Anita Hill and asked her for an apology. In 1991 I was a college freshman, and the televised Hill-Thomas hearings were my adult initiation into the public vilification of black women. I watched as white male senators and conservative commentators exploited the common myth of black women as promiscuous to cast Hill as oversexed and delusional. I remember when Thomas draped himself in the history of America's racial violence by angrily referring to his confirmation process as a "high-tech lynching." Although there is no history of white men forming a posse to punish those who sexually assault black women, Thomas deployed the lynching trope to great effect. After the comment, his approval ratings rose sharply among black Americans, many of whom maligned Hill as a race traitor who allowed her story to be used by powerful white opponents to harm the credibility of an African-American man. The Hill-Thomas hearings were an object lesson in the joint complicity of black communities and white power structures in the public humiliation of black women to meet conservative ends: being both black and a woman means you can be maligned by both racist and sexist discourse.
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