Can Anita Hill Forgive Joe Biden … and Work With Him?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because she says the process of vetting Supreme Court judges hasn’t improved since her ordeal three decades ago.
By Pallabi Munsi
Veteran law professor Anita Hill shook the U.S. with her allegations in 1991 of sexual harassment against then–Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. In the latest episode of The Carlos Watson Show, Hill has a candid conversation with OZY’s CEO and co-founder. Here are some of the most introspective moments.
ON BEING A TEACHER
Carlos Watson: How do you enjoy teaching? You’ve had a chance now to do it at a couple of different places across a couple of years.
Anita Hill: I’ve actually been teaching since 1983, so it’s been multiple decades now. And it changes. The way that I keep fresh is to dedicate myself to trying new things, learning new things, exploring different subjects.
Watson: And what kind of teacher are you? Are you animated, are you exacting, are you an easy A?
Hill: Well, I like everything except the easy-A part. But I also like to think that I’m somebody who wants to hear what my students are thinking and saying.… I want them to be able to have a positive intellectual experience and be able to give some different thinking that goes along with that emotion that they feel.
ON HER DREAMS BEYOND LAW
Watson: Had you not gone to law school, what might you otherwise have done, do you think?
Hill: I had different aspirations. I at one point thought that I would like to be a psychologist, and it was almost a toss of a coin.… And I didn’t make the decision in a very logical or scientific way. I took the LSAT and then I took the GRE, and I chose the one that I had the highest score on.
But I started out wanting to be a scientist, and when I got to my freshman adviser — this is before I had chosen a major — I said, “Look, I really want to be a scientist. I’ve done well in science, I’ve done well in math. This is what I want to do.” And my adviser said, “Well, the sciences are really hard. And I know you have good board scores, but they’re really tough. I think you should choose something easier.”
I’m speaking from a point of view of someone who feels like a survivor.… It should never have been a hearing in the way that it was.
Anita Hill, on her experience testifying before Congress
And the compromise was for me to get a Bachelor of Science degree in psychology. I often wonder if it was that this person looked at me, at that time I was 17 years old, from rural Oklahoma, Black and female, and said, “You can’t be a scientist. You should be something else.” And I don’t know whether that was the reason. But the joke I like to give is that he told me I should do something easier, so I decided to go to law school instead, which wasn’t in fact easier.
Watson: Did you like law school?
Hill: No, not particularly. The first year in particular I didn’t like. I learned to like it; I learned to understand it better. At first I found it alienating. I found that there was a little bit of dishonesty in the way that we’re told that the law is a set of neutral principles, when in fact if you really look at it and really study, you realize they’re principles that are designed to help certain people and from the perspective of certain people, and they’re not at all neutral in most cases.
Watson: So did the Yale experience at all make you think about running for office at some point?
Hill: Neither the Yale experience nor my time in Washington made me want to go into politics.
ON GROWING UP IN OKLAHOMA
Watson: Take me back to Oklahoma. Obviously Oklahoma has been in the news a lot as people have come to appreciate the Tulsa story more, and so maybe the broader Black-in-Oklahoma story.
Hill: Yeah. Oklahoma was interesting to grow up in. Actually, I still have family there. I still very much appreciate the feel of Oklahoma, the sort of warmth of it, but I also know that some of that warmth masked a very ugly history that’s now being revealed. I used to be friends with John Hope Franklin, a fellow Oklahoman, and a great historian. And we would, both of us, as ex-Oklahomans or expatriate, would talk about Oklahoma and what was different about it in terms of its evolution after the civil rights era.
Watson: Were you a loud youngster, a rebellious youngster, a quiet youngster? What was young Anita like?
Hill: I was very intense and relatively quiet. When you’re the youngest of 13, you can only be so loud.
ON TRAUMA AND SUPPORT
Watson: Did you find a good friend or three early on to make you feel comfortable, or did it take a while to get acclimated in this new land of Yale and New Haven, Connecticut?
Hill: I found friends that I still am friends with at Yale. And people who I consider to be good friends, not just acquaintances. And so having that camaraderie and friendships, real friendships, were just essential. I could not have done it any other way.
Watson: Did any of those friends sustain you as you went through that moment that we all remember or those moments that we all remember on Capitol Hill in the Senate, in front of the judiciary committee?
Hill: Yeah … one of my law school classmates, Sonia Jarvis, was there. Another, Kim Taylor, who’s now Kim Taylor-Thompson. There is something about that, but all of us, whether they were there physically in the Senate building with me, I’ve had great support from my classmates at Yale Law School. I could name many of them who, for example, organized and signed a letter of support for me in 1991.
Watson: What was your experience? Did you end up traumatized as a result of your experience filing a complaint and being asked to testify?
Hill: I’m not sure. I’m sure there was some level of trauma, but the weekend, I testified on a Friday, Monday was a holiday, Columbus Day, the following Monday. And then the following Tuesday, I was back in my class teaching. Now, I can tell you for sure that that was not my best teaching or my best teaching semester even, but I knew that I had to get back to work.
Watson: Have you had interesting conversations over the years with some of the male perpetrators of sexual harassment? And what, if anything, have you learned about either what motivates them, how they feel about it, how they feel about it later?
Hill: No, I haven’t done that kind of research. I haven’t done any interviews with it. I think that’s a great suggestion. What I do know from the research that’s out there on abuse and abusers is that there’s a range of, I’d say of levels of denial that they are in … but I haven’t done any interviews. I would love to do that.
Watson: Take me back, if you will, what do you remember about testifying and about all that happened back in ’91?
Hill: Well, let me just say this, and I’m speaking from a point of view of someone who feels like a survivor, that I survived the experience and it didn’t … evolve the way that I think it should have evolved.… It should never have been a hearing in the way that it was, that was controlled by a government body. Our government should never have represented the issue of sexual harassment in the way that it did. The investigation into the charges should have been more extensive. The language that was used — that could have possibly had a chilling effect on other people coming forward — shouldn’t have been allowed.
Watson: Have you seen the government, either our own government or others, do that well?
Hill: I have not seen it yet. But I am hopeful that we can see it. I think when you just look back to 2018 and you see that the Kavanaugh hearings follow some of the same play, pulled from the same playbook. So I think we haven’t done it yet, but it doesn’t mean that we won’t and it certainly doesn’t mean that we can’t.
Watson: If Joe Biden were to win the presidency and were to ask you to come and be attorney general or associate attorney general, and really say, “This is a problem we haven’t owned up to. I need help,” would you be open to taking on that kind of position, that kind of role?
Hill: I would be.… At this point in my life, having dealt with this now for three decades nearly, I’m willing to work with any leader who is really serious about this problem.… What we haven’t had is a leader who has prioritized it as a matter of public policy. So I’m willing to work with any leader that comes close to that, who will sit down and listen to me and be open to being convinced that that is where we are right now with the issues.
Be sure to catch the full episode here.
- Pallabi Munsi, OZY Author Contact Pallabi Munsi