Gwen McKinney and Emily Tynes share a decades-long friendship owing largely to their professional collaboration as media consultants and activists on progressive social issues. It’s not unusual for them to chat with each other about current events; lately, that’s been the avalanche of new allegations of sexual assault and harassment against powerful men across multiple industries.
The two women are all too familiar with the prevalence of sexual misconduct, but even they were surprised by their intense, visceral reactions to the multiple allegations of child sex abuse made against failed Alabama Republican senate candidate Roy Moore. As McKinney and Tynes watched the parade of women who divulged sickeningly similar stories, one thing became quite clear: the women seemed to be taken seriously because they are white.
“I was watching the news coverage and I noticed that all of these women are white, in their 50s or so, and talking about something that happened to them years ago,” said McKinney, an African American woman who runs a Washington, D.C.-based communications firm that works exclusively on social justice issues. “I don’t have anything against white women and I don’t doubt their stories or pain, but you don’t see or hear anything about black women.”
“You don’t see or hear anything about black women.”
As they watched the sordid events unfold, McKinney and Tynes became increasingly enraged, recalling all the black women they knew whose similar stories were ignored or dismissed. One woman in particular stuck out to them because her claims of sexual harassment were spectacularly overlooked 26 years ago, and the man she accused is still serving a lifetime appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“It made me think,” McKinney said with tense anger rising in her voice. “What about Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill?”
For Tynes, the accusations against Moore dredged up painful memories of the unsuccessful fight that she, McKinney, and an army of others waged more than a quarter-century ago against Thomas’ confirmation.
“My stomach got tight,” Tynes said during a recent interview, as McKinney nodded in agreement. “I realized these stories were unlocking the 26 years of fury I had inside me. Every time I see [Thomas’] image, I’m reminded of the lies he told to get on the bench.”
To fully understand the pair’s rage, revisiting a bit of U.S. political history — and the sexual harassment scandal surrounding the confirmation of Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court — is required.
In the summer of 1991, McKinney and Tynes were a cogs in a much larger, women-led movement working to prevent Thomas, then serving on the U.S Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, from being confirmed to a lifetime appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court. Thomas was nominated by President George H.W. Bush to replace retired Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first African American on the high court.
“Every time I see [Thomas’] image, I’m reminded of the lies he told to get on the bench.”
Thomas’ confirmation was a bitter fight, pitting the interests of largely white feminist groups, who feared Thomas’ views represented a threat to Roe v. Wade and abortion rights, against black community activists, who insisted Marshall be replaced by another black judge.
In graphic terms, Hill said Thomas made unwanted sexual advances toward her and engaged in pornographic sexual conversations that made her uncomfortable in her job as a young lawyer at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Though Hill was a very believable witness and she took and passed a polygraph test (something Thomas refused to do), Senate leaders were skeptical of her honesty. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) said her charges were “contrived” and “sick,” claiming her most salacious details about Thomas’ behavior were stolen from fiction and old court cases.
For his part, Thomas denied everything, saying Hill’s claims were political fabrications aimed at destroying his reputation, or as he put it, “a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks.” In the end, Thomas was confirmed, primarily because the Senate decided to believe Thomas over Hill and declined to take testimony from witnesses who could corroborate her claims.
Rather than simmering in their feelings, McKinney and Tynes were motivated to capitalize on attention generated by the ongoing #MeToo moment to launch a social media campaign that demands Thomas resign from the high court. In the process, they hope to draw renewed attention to Anita Hill and the black women whose stories of sexual abuse or harassment have gone unnoticed.
— Clarence Thomas Resign (@AnitaNotAlone) November 29, 2017
McKinney and Tynes kicked off their campaign last month. They said they didn’t reach out Hill, nor did they seek her cooperation. Rather, they took their efforts directly to the public via social media, starting with McKinney launching a blizzard of Facebook posts. The first of those posts — asking the question: “Who believed Anita Hill?” — generated an avalanche of responses and the @AnitaNotAlone movement was off and running.
Since then, they’ve picked up high-profile support from Dr. Mary Frances Berry, a chair of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, in their fight to force a place for black women into the current conversation about sexual harassment.
— Mary Frances Berry (@DrMFBerry) December 11, 2017
Hill reappeared in the news last week after she was tapped as the chair of the Hollywood Commission for Eliminating Sexual Harassment and Advancing Equality in the Workplace, a group that will grapple with issues of sexual abuses in the movie industry in the wake of revelations of accusations against former producer Harvey Weinstein and other directors, actors, and movie industry leaders earlier this year.
But the bulk of recent media attention and the ongoing national conversation about sexual assault and harassment has revolved around a few high-profile, wealthy white men and the typically privileged, white women who have accused them of inappropriate behavior. White women such as Taylor Swift, Gretchen Carlson, and Ashley Judd soon became faces of the #MeToo movement, squeezing out the all too common abuses of women in blue collar and minority communities.
Jocelyn Frye, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, makes the point clear that sexual harassment affects people across industries and at every level. In a recent report, she noted that “women — particularly women of color — are more likely to work lower-wage jobs, where power imbalances are often more pronounced and where fears of reprisals or losing their jobs can deter victims from coming forward.” (ThinkProgress is an editorially independent news site housed within the Center for American Progress.)
A few high-profile black women have used their platforms to speak out about the exclusion of black women from the current conversation. Actress Gabrielle Union, a rape survivor who promoted the #MeToo movement before its recent popular resurgence, recently told a New York Times interviewer that white women were dominating the conversation about sexual assault and that black women were being overlooked.
“I think the floodgates have opened for white women,” Union said in the interview. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence whose pain has been taken seriously. Whose pain we have showed historically and continued to show. Whose pain is tolerable and whose pain is intolerable. And whose pain needs to be addressed now.”
Anita Hill emphasized this theme in a recent interview, where she was asked about her reaction to the women coming forward with their #MeToo stories of sexual harassment. “After 26 years of hearing from women, I can’t say that I was entirely surprised with the ‘Me Too’ allegations,” Hill said on NBC’s Meet the Press. “But I am just shocked that we cannot look at those now and see that we have a widespread problem in this country… I think we’re really at the tip of the iceberg here.”
To be sure, sexual harassment and abuse knows no racial or economic boundaries. Studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests women of color experience a higher rate of sexual violence. Similarly, U.S. Bureau of Justice statistics reveal that lower-income women are at the highest risk of sexual violence in the nation.
McKinney and Tynes are realistic about the likelihood of their campaign to persuade Thomas to step down from his lofty perch. It’s a tall order, and highly improbable. Nevertheless, they are convinced that drawing attention to Anita Hill helps support other black women in the shadows and allow them to be heard in the public dialogue over sexual abuse.
To date, Thomas, who very rarely comments on or off the bench, hasn’t addressed the recent spate of sexual harassment issues. While one little-known conservative activist has called for Thomas to resign, no prominent political leaders have called for him to step down.
“What we do know is that this is a moment that makes revisiting Clarence Thomas worthwhile,” McKinney told me. “Why not demand that he resign? While some dismiss this proposition as a quixotic adventure, silence seals the status quo.”
And she’s encouraged that other, once-powerful men are being held accountable for their actions.
“If members of Congress, news anchors and executives, and Hollywood superstars can be brought down under the glare of public attention, why not Clarence Thomas?”