Law professor Anita Hill

The law professor reflects on the 20 years since her controversial testimony in Justice Thomas’ confirmation hearings and shares what she makes of the changes to the Supreme Court in the last two decades.

As a young law professor, Anita Hill found herself in a media storm 20 years ago, during Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas' confirmation hearings, and sparked a national debate on sexual harassment and gender equality in politics and the workplace. With more than three decades of legal and academic experience, the Yale law school graduate has worked in private practice and for the federal government and is currently professor of social policy, law and women’s studies at Brandeis. She's also the author of Speaking Truth to Power and Reimagining Equality.


Tavis: Anita Hill is a professor for social policy, law and women’s studies at Brandeis. She was, of course, a former adviser at the U.S. Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, EEOC, that led to her testimony, of course, on the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas.

Believe it or not, that was 20 years ago. She is a noted author whose latest book is called “Reimagining Equality: Stories of Gender, Race and Finding Home.” Professor Hill, good to have you back on this program.

Professor Anita Hill: Thank you so much for having me back.

Tavis: You and I were just talking before we came on the air. With the advent of the Internet and 24-hour cable news, stuff never seems to rest. It never seems to die, never seems to go away, so that it doesn’t ever seem like as long as it has been, at least not for me, because there’s always some reference, some passing reference, some footage, some something that hearkens back to whatever the historic moment is. I say all that to ask whether or not it seems like 20 years for you.

Hill: Sometimes it seems like 20 years. When you’re living it every day, of course, you live those 20 years, and sometimes it seems like yesterday. I think it’s a combination of things. I think it’s the media coverage of it, but the other thing that makes it seem shorter to me is that I hear from people regularly who say, “I remember where I was when those hearings occurred, and I remember how I felt at the time of those hearings,” and I think that’s what brings it back to us and makes us think it’s not that long ago.

Tavis: I think I asked you this question at the 10-year mark, and I’m going to ask it again because I wonder if the answer has changed in 10 years, and that is whether or not it was worth it. If you had to do this all over again, would you? The testimony, that is.

Hill: Yes. Well, the reason I did it was because the Supreme Court was at stake, and the rights of individuals throughout the country were at stake, and that hasn’t changed. The integrity of the court was why I was there, and it still remains critical to all of us.

So no, and the other thing that I would say is that in the past couple of weeks I’ve had a chance to see and hear from women at a couple of conferences, one in Georgetown Law Center and one at Hunter College, and then recently, even more recently, in Columbia, South Carolina, and just visit with women who’ve talked about what the hearings meant to them and how it changed their lives.

When you take all of that into account, the reason that I was there to start with, as well as the impact, the positive impact that it’s had, no, the answer is no, I wouldn’t change a thing.

Tavis: In part, the impetus for this book is 25,000 letters and counting that you’ve received from women all over the world about your testimony in those hearings, and we’ll get to the book, I promise, in just a few minutes.

I want to ask you a question, Professor Hill, not about Clarence Thomas the man, but since you have taught law for a number of years, about Clarence Thomas the jurist, the justice. That is to say what his impact has been on the court as you see it.

Hill: Well, let me say one thing. You said 25,000 letters from women.

Tavis: Yes, right.

Hill: I’ve received letters from women and men.

Tavis: Women and men, okay.

Hill: So, that –

Tavis: There’s the law professor coming out.

Hill: No, well, it’s not just that –

Tavis: She got me on a technicality. No, you’re right, you’re right.

Hill: But it’s not a technicality –

Tavis: No, I got you.

Hill: – because it’s significant, because the event was significant for men and women.

Tavis: Fair enough. I accept that.

Hill: Equality is significant for all of us.

Tavis: I accept that.

Hill: About Clarence Thomas as a justice, there are a lot of people who comment on his jurisprudence. You can read articles, and really, I don’t study Clarence Thomas as a justice. But I can say that many people find that he is the architect of a very conservative, extremely conservative jurisprudence that is finding support and resonance among a lot of political conservatives, and that in fact he may be a leader in that sense.

Tavis: Let me ask you this question another way, then, again, because you’ve been a law professor for so many years. What do you think of the court and its shift or swing one way or the other – or maybe not in your point of view – over the 20 years since you offered your testimony, because you said earlier you went to give your testimony because the Supreme Court was at stake?

Hill: Right.

Tavis: So what do you make of the court. Let’s get off of Mr. Thomas for a second.

Hill: Right, right.

Tavis: What do you make of the way the court has swung or not over these 20 years?

Hill: I think there’ve been some good years and good decisions in the court. I think Sandra Day O’Connor’s opinion in the Michigan affirmative action cases was a significant mark in the court’s history, and a positive mark. The shift now I think is clearly toward more conservative opinions, more cutting back on rights.

Cutting back procedurally in terms of how people can go forward and bring their claims. The Walmart case this summer was an example of that. The inability of lawyers to bring class action cases, huge class action cases, in some case, that are representative of issues that a lot of women will face in the workplace.

That was a setback, not that those class actions won’t go forward and those cases won’t go forward, but I think that these are all indicators that we are pushing back on rights that all of us who have been lawyers and practicing lawyers and teaching lawyers believed were secure. So I am not encouraged by that.

Tavis: Speaking of gender equality over the last 20 years, it occurs to me now that a couple of women have been elevated to the U.S. Supreme Court during this time period since your testimony at the Clarence Thomas hearings. What do you make of the increasing gender balance, if I can put it that way, on the Supreme Court?

Hill: I’m excited about that. Three women on the Supreme Court, we do represent now in incoming classes in law schools about 50 percent of the students going into law schools are women. That is, of course – it’s been steady for the past 10 years or so.

We’re quite well represented in the bar. We have ways to go in terms of some of the leadership roles in law positions, at law firms, for example, but you know what? The Supreme Court, our representation on the Supreme Court is important. It’s important symbolically, but it’s also important in terms of the perspective and wisdom that those women bring to the court.

Tavis: Chief Justice John Roberts is pretty young and as best we can tell, in pretty good health. But if I had a dime for every person I’ve heard say, “I never thought I’d see a Black president in my lifetime,” I’d be independently wealthy.

What say you, then, about how long or whether or not it will eventually happen where we will see a woman be the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court?

Hill: Well, it’s already been done in Canada, and I think it’s not something that we can foresee right now, but certainly we have three women on the court now who are well qualified to be the chief justice. Anyone who will be going through those processes, especially women who will go through that process, get to the position where they can be on the court, I will suspect that anyone who can succeed at that level could move on to be the chief justice.

Tavis: You probably know better than I do, and it may have been when you contacted the police, I don’t know, and I don’t know how this story got public, but we now know, thanks to somebody or some department, that Clarence Thomas’s second wife, Jenny Thomas, left you a voicemail asking you to apologize to her husband.

What did you make of that phone call when you received it, and do you have anything for which to apologize to Clarence Thomas?

Hill: Absolutely not, to answer your last question. There is no call for apology, no need to apologize. I told the truth during my testimony. It was an important truth to be told during those proceedings, and there won’t be an apology.

When I received the call, of course, I absolutely did not even believe that it was her. I thought it was a prank call, and just to finally find out what was going on it was a voicemail left on my workplace voicemail. I wanted to know who it was, so I did turn it over to campus police.

Tavis: Did you feel intimidated by that phone call, scared by it?

Hill: I felt as though it was an attempt to intimidate. I did not feel intimidated. I guess when I – there was a part of me that felt annoyed and that I didn’t want to walk into my office and know on any day that this was going to be happening again, and it was in all those senses that I just decided look, let’s have it investigated.

I’ll find out what’s going on, and then maybe I’ll figure out what the best response is. Of course, you know what happened then, the story did get out, and what I did find out after that was that the issue of those hearings continue to resonate with women.

That was about a year ago, and so what I said when I got all those messages that responded to her phone call was that look, let’s take this hearing back. Let’s don’t let it be left as a story about a voicemail message from Mrs. Thomas. Let’s figure out where we can move the issue, let’s capture some of the passion that I got when I got responses to the voicemail, and let’s move forward with the issues of sexual harassment and the other gender issues the hearing raised.

Tavis: Will you ever get tired, or are you tired now, of answering these kinds of questions, or have you accepted the fact that for as long as you live there are going to be questions to you about a man named Clarence Thomas?

Hill: There will be those questions, and what I tell people is that it was an event in my life, it was a critical event, a pivotal event, if you say, and I think it shaped the way I think about a lot of things, but it was one event. It’s not who I am.

Tavis: Let’s talk about “Reimagining Equality.” I think the first question I want to ask about the book is how, before I get into the text itself, how does reimagining equality, specifically for women – I know it’s broader than that – but where women are concerned, how does reimagining equality for you differ from the way you thought of these issues 20 years ago?

Hill: I think we’re always in the process of reimagining equality. Twenty years ago we thought if we could just get into the workplace, if we could just get that door open and walk through the doors, then we would have achieved enough so that we could say we had equality.

Well, as a matter of fact, when you look at issues like sexual harassment, you know it’s not enough just to get in the door. So we had to think, okay, how, then, are we going to define equality? If just getting in is not enough, what more do we need to do?

So that’s one specific way that it differs today from what I thought 20 years ago. I thought 20 years ago, just open the doors and we will go in and we will be able to show our value and our worth, and that will be it. That was not enough.

Tavis: Is there something beyond harassment, something beyond patriarchy, that makes just getting in the door not enough?

Hill: Well, absolutely. One of the things that we have not paid enough attention to is the way that racism and sexism really are built into the culture of workplaces. A culture of workplace, for example, for women that’s not family-friendly, and we know that women now share much of the economic responsibility for supporting their family, so they’re in the workplace.

But we also know that women share more of the childcare responsibility for their family, and many workplaces just do not accommodate that at all. So it’s not just enough to get us in the door. We’ve got to have workplaces where the culture allows us to take care of all of our responsibilities.

Tavis: To what extent does the role of race still impact equality in America? I’m only raising this now because it was the line, as you’ll recall, at these hearings. Clarence Thomas, 20 years ago, said, “This is a high-tech lynching of a Black man.” Here’s a guy who’s about to be elevated to the Supreme Court, which had only happened for one Black man prior to him, using the race card or playing the race card, as one might put it.

So to what extent does race still hold us back from reimagining equality as we should?

Hill: Well, let’s just talk about some of the issues in the book, and that’s exactly what happened. I guess it was about six years ago now the banks and lending institutions across the country began to literally flood the market with subprime loans and predatory lending practices, and those were in fact targeted in communities of color.

Tavis: That’s right.

Hill: Specifically Hispanic communities, Latinos, were targeted, African Americans were targeted, but in fact eventually so were single women, women borrowing money on their own.

So to the extent that we can fast-forward now six years later, we know that in fact that targeting of communities of color has led to entire neighborhoods being boarded up, entire neighborhoods being left insecure, crime has been increasing in those places. We know that people have been left homeless, people have been foreclosed on and lost homes perhaps that they have had for generations, but even those that have only had for a few years.

That whole crisis occurred because banks really went into practices that were racist in many cases and in some cases that were based on a whole history of racism and sexism.

Tavis: One of the things that – probably the thing that most interested me about the text, I couldn’t wait to get through it, to get into it, is because I wanted to know how you made the link between reimagining equality and finding home, and I think you do a pretty masterful job of doing that, but I didn’t know how that link was going to be made.

What’s equality got to do with finding home? So when you say “finding home,” you mean by that what?

Hill: Well, I mean finding that place where it’s safe and secure and where you can shape your life and your future and take all the opportunities that this country has to offer, have access to those opportunities.

I use my family stories in this book because when my grandparents, my great-grandmother was a slave and gave birth to my grandfather, Henry Elliott, who was born a slave in 1864, when they did become free one of the things that they determined was if they could just get that home, that home place, then they could begin to secure economic independence and political and social independence for themselves and for their children.

That was almost sort of an agreement that they had with American society, that if they could find that home place. For them it was a farm. My grandfather and grandmother homesteaded 80 acres of a farm. If they could just do that, that would be the beginning of how they were going to define equality, and I think that’s a value and a message that has continued through families, African American families in particular, but all families since that time.

Now with this latest catastrophe in the housing market, which I call a crisis of home, we have lost that. Not only are we being set back economically, but we’re set back socially as well as entire neighborhoods are lost, have been really ravaged, and bankers and banks have gotten rich.

As far as I know, no one has been prosecuted for what they’ve done. But the link that I found in my own family to home and how we imagined equality is where I start with the story.

Tavis: You referenced a moment ago the economic touch point and the social touch point of the fight for equality yet in this country. Let me raise another touch point – the political touch point – and ask you, because you get into some of that in the text, to what extent the politics in Washington especially, but in state houses across the country, but especially in Washington, to what extent do the politics keep us, many Americans, from reimagining equality?

Hill: Politics are so divisive now, they’re absolutely divisive, and they keep us, really, from dealing with some very important issues, like housing. This is an issue for all of America. It started, it has its roots in racism and sexism and that’s what I show in “Reimagining Equality,” but it’s a problem for the entire country.

We can’t continue to think that if we isolate race or communities and sort of push women to the side that we will all be okay. America is in a crisis now, and the politics of today keep us from dealing realistically with those crises.

But you know what? We don’t have to rely on politicians. This is an issue that is so important and so critical, and the book is a call for action; and the call for action, I start with the White House and a recommendation that the White House Council on Women and Girls really take this up as an issue, but it doesn’t have to begin there.

It can begin in our own communities, with our places of worship, with our business places, even, because businesses, schools, everyone has an interest in this.

Tavis: This is a loaded question because the book covers so many sub-themes – gender, race and finding home – but since you referenced the White House and you reference him by name in the text, your sense of how the president is doing on helping us reimage equality, because there was a whole lot expected of him when he went to the White House on these very issues just a few years ago.

Hill: I believe that the president right now is in the mode of dealing with specific policies that relate to many of the issues that I’m talking about. We have a new policy now on education and forgiving student loans. That’s going to be important. We have reinvigorated policy of making homes affordable. That’s going to be important.

But what I am suggesting, really, is much more comprehensive than that, and I don’t have a road map in this, but what I do have is some ideas for how we can begin to analyze policies comprehensively to address the issues we face.

The president is dealing with existing policies, and I think he’s trying to make them work, but in order to really reimagine equality we’ve got to deal with things comprehensively and more broadly than what I’ve seen.

Tavis: What do these protests in cities across the country now and still counting, these Occupy Wall Street protests, what role do you imagine them playing or being able to play with regard to advancing the conversation about equality in the country? Because at the heart of what they’re saying is the notion of equality, or lack thereof.

Hill: Right. Economic equality is clearly the issue that they are making us very mindful of, and I think in a very effective way, that whole idea about the 99 percent of us that are not getting the benefit of our laws and policies. That’s important.

But I also know that 99 percent of us, not all 99 percent of us are going to camp out on Wall Street or in our cities, and so what can we do? What can the rest of us who are not going to be going out and camping, what can we do, or what can we do, or what can we do in addition to that? How do we deal with the specific issues of inequality?

Then I’ll just say this – if we want to think about the relationship between what the protestors and Occupy Wall Street are talking about, we think about the practices of the banks during the housing debacle, let’s call it now. What was happening was that housing prices and medical prices and education prices, costs were just escalating. Income was not.

It was because income was staying flat and that prices were going up on everything people started to use their homes, people said, well, they’re reusing them as piggy banks. Well, they were, in fact, borrowing, in some instances, on their homes.

But out there was this American dream that if you owned a home that you would have a part of that dream and be a part of America’s promise. All of those things were happening, but income wasn’t increasing. So if we start to deal with the fact that for example women still only make 80 cents on the dollar that men make, if we start to deal with the fact of other inequalities in income and in access to opportunities, we will begin to get at some of the issues that they’re raising.

But specifically what I want to talk about is what we’re going to do with issues related to the home.

Tavis: Let me close on this note, since you referenced it, by my count, three times in this conversation – that is these greedy bankers – that’s my phrase, not yours – these greedy banks or greedy banksters, have some have called them.

Again, because you teach law you know how this works, and you made the point earlier and you’re right about the fact that not a single one of them has gone to jail. Nobody prosecuted.

They’ve been arresting protestors left and right in cities across the country. We can arrest protestors, but not one bankster has gone to jail for these crimes. What do you make of the fact that the Justice Department hasn’t done anything about that? This is a legal question here, and if I had done that, I’d be in jail right now.

Hill: There are investigations now, I understand, by the state attorneys general in Delaware as well as New York. I don’t know what the Justice Department is doing. There may be an investigation there as well. But it’s a long time coming, and it cannot come quickly enough, as far as I’m concerned.

When you read in “Reimagining Equality” about some of the practices where lenders would say, for example, when they were going out to target elderly women, that they were going “granny hunting,” or they would describe certain kinds of loans as “ghetto loans,” or say that certain people didn’t deserve good credit, we know that it was built into the practices.

Lenders had an incentive to sell toxic lending instruments in communities of color and then throughout the society. That, in fact, in many people’s estimation, is criminal. Now, whether or not the Justice Department and the states of New York and Delaware will find them criminal remains to be seen.

Tavis: The book is called “Reimagining Equality,” something that the Justice Department ought to do. That’s my commentary, not Professor Hill’s.

Hill: Well, I think we all should. (Laughter) So I’ll accept that. I’ll accept that commentary.

Tavis: We agree, then. “Reimagining Equality: Stories of Gender, Race and Finding Home” is the new book from Brandeis Professor Anita Hill. An honor, as always, to have you on this program. Congrats on the book.

Hill: Oh, it’s a pleasure to be here.

Tavis: Good to see you.

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Last modified: October 27, 2011 at 1:00 pm