This post originally appeared at justinccohen.com.
Until this year, a script existed for America’s reaction to women accusing powerful men of sexual misconduct. That playbook was perfected in 1991, on the eve of confirming Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, when the United States Senate’s Judiciary Committee asked Professor Anita Hill to testify.
Professor Hill alleged that Thomas had sexually harassed her when they both worked at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The committee put Hill and her credibility on trial under the guise of hearing her testimony. Given the recent shift in how sexual misconduct is treated in the public sphere, it’s no surprise that America is revisiting this questionable chapter in our shared history.
The televised interrogation of Hill – a black woman – by the Senate Judiciary committee – 14 white men – is an unforgettable symbol for how power works in America. The committee degraded Hill, confirmed Thomas, and set the tone for a generation of abusive men sidestepping accountability. Hill reflected on that experience during an interview with The Washington Post last week.
“I wanted to be on the record. I wanted it to be in my words … We understood that this was a big moment in terms of the issue of sexual harassment,” said Hill, demonstrating a resilient willingness to stand for all women, even when her personal reputation was at stake.
The Post interview includes accounts from five women who were members of Congress at the time of the hearing, revealing important details about the machinations of power. Congresswoman Pat Schroeder of Colorado recalls the role played by then-Senator Joe Biden, who chaired the Judiciary Committee, before later becoming vice president.
“We went to see Biden,” Schroeder said, “And he literally kind of pointed his finger and said, you don’t understand how important one’s word was in the Senate, that he had given his word to [Sen. John Danforth (R-Mo.), Thomas’ chief sponsor] in the men’s gym that this would be a very quick hearing.”
I was 9 years old in September of 1991, when the United States Senate Judiciary Committee, under Joe Biden’s leadership, dragged Professor Hill. That hearing constituted a formative political experience for many people of my generation, but I did not then appreciate the totality of the stakes. Given the current national discussion of sexual misconduct, now is an opportune time to revisit Hill’s treatment. I regret that I waited almost 30 years to learn more about Professor Hill’s story, and I recognize that as a white man, it is my personal choice to remain oblivious to issues that involve the intersectionality of race and gender.
In that spirit, there is another white man in our country who I hope will revisit this episode with greater understanding: Joe Biden. Professor Hill has been explicit about Biden’s role in the hearings. Biden has expressed some regret in private, but Hill wants a deeper and fuller reckoning:
I still don’t think it takes ownership of his role in what happened. And he also doesn’t understand that it wasn’t just that I felt it was not fair. It was that women were looking to the Senate Judiciary Committee and his leadership to really open the way to have these kinds of hearings. They should have been using best practices to show leadership on this issue on behalf of women’s equality. And they did just the opposite.
Joe Biden possessed extraordinary power over an issue involving women’s equality, and at that particular moment, he blew it.
From one white man who is a work in progress to another, I ask Joe Biden to apologize to Anita Hill in public.
I like Joe Biden. I’m a lifelong Democrat, and I grew up 30 minutes from Wilmington, Delaware. My first political act as a young person was a synagogue field trip, wherein we took a bus from Cherry Hill, New Jersey to Washington, D.C., to lobby Biden and his colleagues to pass the Violence Against Women Act, which he had sponsored. I had the privilege of voting for Biden and his boss twice, in 2008 and 2012. I can trace my penchant for political activism to his Senate doorstep. It is because of these things, not in spite of them, that I want Biden to apologize.
Our current national discussion about sexual misconduct demands that powerful men reckon with their role in the status quo. By apologizing Biden could do three things simultaneously. First, he would show other men how it’s done. He shouldn’t say, “I’m sorry if she was offended,” or, “I’m sorry if she interpreted my role in a particular way.” He should say, “I’m sorry, and I was wrong.” It’s rare, especially for a politician, to apologize without caveat. Biden could use his credibility to show men that it is possible to err and then accept responsibility.
The second thing that a Biden apology would offer is an opportunity to have a national discussion about how men with significant political power, even progressive ones, play a role in disenfranchising women. While some of Biden’s mistakes in 1991 were overt, like allowing Senate republicans to interrogate Hill as if she were on trial, there are other eyebrow-raising details in the Post account, including the fact that Biden was cutting deals in the gym. Given that our current president once used the “locker room” to signify a space where men say awful things about women, we must examine these subtler abuses of gendered power. Biden was a powerful man, even among other powerful men. He used his perch to exculpate another powerful man, who now is serving a lifelong term on the United States Supreme Court. In the meantime, Professor Hill still struggles to reclaim her name and place in American history.
Finally, in revisiting this episode, Biden could accelerate a national conversation about gender and racial diversity in political leadership. Congress remains one of the whitest and most male corners of American power. While half of the people in the United States are women, only 20 percent of the members of the Unites States Senate identify as such. The current Congress is over 80 percent white; while that constitutes an improvement in racial representation over prior years, both chambers are still disproportionately white relative to the demographics of the United States. The symbolic potency of 14 white men interrogating a black woman seems obvious now, but we still acquiesce to similar dynamics in professional spaces. Considering the experiences of Kamala Harris, Maxine Waters, Sally Yates, Hillary Clinton and many others, the legislatures of the United States remain inhospitable to any sort of power that is neither white nor male.
Biden will not change history when he apologizes. He will not erase the fact that he presided over a show trial, nor will he reverse the appointment of an accused serial harasser to the United States Supreme Court. That said, in a country that does not know how to have a serious public conversation about the intersectionality of race, gender, and power, Biden could use this moment to encourage other white men to be honest about their role in perpetuating immoral political structures. If he does take that opportunity, it will still be too late, and he shouldn’t reap rewards just for doing the right thing. But I will be the first person in line to recognize him for his honesty and integrity.