by Stephanie M. Wildman
September 27 marks the anniversary of a skirmish that ranks in the pantheon of modern civilian conflicts over what kind of society America will be. Many believed Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony one year ago about sexual assault she had endured at the hands of then-Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh. Her composed, measured statement during the confirmation hearing exemplified bravery in the face of adversity.
The Senate and the nation’s response to her testimony underscored the high stakes in the ongoing ideological conflict about who we are as a nation, beyond the obvious prize of a Supreme Court seat.
The hearing also provided an opportunity to consider race and American racial dynamics which society too often overlooks in the context of whiteness. In fact, the specter of race, America’s persistent issue, hovered above the proceedings, the unspoken ghost in the room. Race remains present even when ignored.
In 1991, another confirmation hearing for now Justice Clarence Thomas, in which Anita Hill testified about sexual harassment she had experienced, split the nation. Race pervaded the Ford-Kavanaugh hearings in ways different from its presence when Professor Anita Hill testified. In the Hill-Thomas hearings commentators did not ignore race, perhaps because both participants are Black. Yet whites have a race, too, and whiteness impacted society’s views of Professor Blasey Ford and Justice Kavanaugh.
During his hearing, Justice Thomas highlighted his race as a black man, claiming the proceedings amounted to a high-tech lynching. Justice Thomas essentially erased Professor Hill as a black woman, turning sexual harassment into a white woman’s issue. Ironically, black women have been at the forefront of combatting sexual harassment in court cases, just as Professor Hill did by coming forward.
Justice Kavanaugh, in contrast during his hearing, exercised white racial privilege by conducting himself in a manner unthinkable for a Black man. While Dr. Ford epitomized civility, Justice Kavanaugh, in his testimony, exhibited intense anger toward the proceedings and many individuals. Memorably, he engaged in an interchange with Senator Amy Klobuchar that was so disrespectful that he returned from a break and apologized for his outburst.
Justice Kavanaugh exhibited a white, male, power complaint, as he cast himself as a victim, free to rant away. Picture a black judicial candidate responding as Justice Kavanaugh did. Might the hypothetical black candidate have appeared unreasonable to those who found Justice Kavanaugh’s behavior acceptable? What if Dr. Ford had been loud and complaining? Would she have been seen as “too aggressive” and not credible by those who believed her?
Many observers defending Justice Kavanaugh urged that a grown man should not be judged harshly based on his behavior as a youth, even if part of the story were true. This attitude toward the criminal justice system highlights another racialized aspect of the hearings. Black and Latino youth find themselves in a school to prison pipeline, beginning with minor offenses or school suspensions. Even these minor offenses tarnish their adult records, making educational attainment and job advancement impossible. Where are their defenders, saying these men should not be judged by the misdemeanors perpetrated in their youth? Society judges youthful indiscretion through the lens of race, with harsher penalties to black and brown children. Imagine Justice Kavanaugh as a Black youth.
In these two transfixing political moments patriotic women subjected themselves to national scrutiny, putting their sense of duty before their personal comfort. But the same result, confirmation of the men accused, ensued, giving a message to women that we do not really matter
An expanded version of these ideas appear in Hearing Women: From Professor Hill to Dr. Ford, 33 Journal of Civil Rights and Economic Development __ ( forthcoming 2019).