Angela Wright-Shannon is a freelance writer and editor living in Charlotte and a senior facilitator with the OpEd Project.
Joe Biden doesn’t owe me an apology. Only Anita Hill can speak to what he owes her, but as “the uncalled witness” in the 1991 Senate confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, I believe we have more pressing issues than whether Biden has sufficiently apologized for what did or did not happen almost three decades ago.
Let’s get our priorities straight. We can discuss ad nauseam whether Biden acted appropriately during those 1991 hearings, and whether he’s too touchy-feely now. But why allow those issues to derail his presidential bid when the vulgar, always inappropriate current occupant of the White House has bragged about groping women and entering dressing rooms to ogle half-naked girls during the Miss Teen USA pageant? At stake is the 2020 presidential election, and if we don’t keep our eyes on that prize, we might find ourselves trumped again.
As chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee 28 years ago, Biden performed poorly; his lack of support for Hill was appalling. Hill says Biden promised her that she would be allowed to testify first. Everyone knows now that didn’t happen, a turn that allowed Thomas to frame the hearings to his advantage. Biden could have done more — or at least tried — to moderate the heartless grilling of Hill by his Senate colleagues. He could have called me to speak to Thomas’s behavior, thus backing Hill’s testimony. Yet he chose not to. For Hill, Biden was about as useful as an umbrella to a skydiver.
But let’s keep things in perspective. The Thomas hearings were extraordinary for any number of reasons. Hard as it might be to imagine now, there was no national conversation about sexual harassment before the hearings. Secondly, the all-white, all-male Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991 had not the first clue about how to handle the accusations of a clearly accomplished, reputable, African American female law professor against an equally accomplished, African American male appeals court judge. Sensing the senators’ unease, Thomas played his race card in his opening remarks, declaring that the hearings were nothing more than “a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves.”
And, with that, he managed to neutralize any white man on the committee who dared to oppose him, turning the debate from one of sexual harassment into one of racist politics. By linking questions about his sexual behavior to his race and labeling it a lynching, Thomas put every man on that panel on the defensive. I understand why Biden turned into a prattling, ineffectual lump of nothingness. I don’t excuse it, but I do understand.
I disagree with those who say only Biden is to blame for the way the hearing unfolded. More condemnable are Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and former senators Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), who interrogated Hill and challenged her credibility. But none of them are running for president, and all are members of a party that cares little about how men treat women, as evidenced by whom it nominated for the White House.
Biden’s candidacy makes him an easy target for all the feminist wrath that was unleashed in 1991, reignited in 2016 and compounded during the Brett M. Kavanaugh hearings last year. That ire is misplaced. If anyone other than Hill has cause to be furious with Biden, it would be me. I, too, was pilloried and dismissed by Thomas and never allowed a chance to defend myself. But I don’t share the wrath.
Instead of scapegoating Biden, we should take aim at the men who have been accused of sexually harassing women, who have risen to positions of power and influence, as well as the people who put them there. Thomas and Kavanaugh have lifetime appointments to the Supreme Court, and the power to affect the rights of women for decades to come. Impeaching them might be impossible, but we can remove the senators who voted them in, along with the man in the Oval Office. That is our moral imperative.
Biden is not a #MeToo villain. He wrote the Violence Against Women Act of 1994, which survives despite Republican attempts to cut funding and a Supreme Court decision gutting a key provision that allowed women the right to sue their attackers. That law was recently reauthorized by the House and awaits Senate consideration. The law was a measure of Biden’s character, and what he now proposes as a candidate should be judged just as carefully.
This is not the time to ask Biden to answer for what happened 28 years ago. We need him to carve us a pathway forward. He doesn’t owe me an apology. But I will tell you who does: Clarence Thomas.