Dirty Little Secrets

Guest Commentary

Here, a political problem could be resolved by an appeal to a moral problem of a priapic nature and long associated with the American perception of Blacks.

This analysis in no way diminishes the gravity or the enormity of the charges of sexual harassment, an odious phenomenon which has long been a curse, particularly to the American community of color. The abuse of Black women by white men throughout American history, is a fact well attested to. That such things occur between Black men and Black women as well makes it no less acceptable or agreeable.

Our attitudes towards women, which have resulted in their subjugation to the power of men, corrupts the entire relationship between the sexes, deprives us of the moral talents of both men and women and serves further to divide an already fractured society. It is a gain for us all that the women's movement will not allow us to sweep that dirty little secret under the rug.

But what was most disturbing about the recent hearings was the inability or unwillingness of the white male inquisitors of the Senate Judiciary Committee to see that the twin ugly curses of racism and sexism were and always have been intimately related.

When Sen. Kennedy preached to the witnesses, as reported in The Globe on October 14, that he hoped "we're not going to hear more about politics" and that he hoped that "we're not going to hear a lot more about racism," he was at best disingenuous. Politics is the name of the process, and racism and sexism are inextricably bound up in it. Surely even he ought to be able to understand that.


In a nation riddled from its foundation with racism, and in which sexism was until recently an unchallenged social virus, no one can expect that democracy can serve as well as it ought. And as long as the institutions of that democracy, including the Senate and the Supreme Court, exclude women and minorities who by their very presence can force focus on these twin issues, the system simply cannot work.

Who could not help but be struck by the fact that the witness tables were occupied almost exclusively by women and people of color, responding to the ill-put questions of middle-aged white men and the army of young white men and a few white women at their elbows? The absence of Black media commentators assured us that the story would be mediated through the refracted lenses of white Americans.

Why were scholars of American race relations and the Black experience--a rich cadre of intellectuals including our own Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., Dean Alvin Pouissant and Professor Sara Lawrence Lightfoot--not called upon to help the nation interpret this most tangled of dramas? To confine that function to handlers, lawyers and the interest group leaders served to deprive us all of vital insights on the relationship between race and sex and to estrange the public from an understanding of government. It further perpetuated the unfortunate view that Blacks are always the subjects of analysis, but, incapable of being analytical, always part of the problem and never of the solution.

RARELY DOES ONE incident allow us so clear a view of the constellation of our problems. Race and all its complexity remains an item of unfinished and unfocused business in the American agenda, and it will not go away either with the appointment of a Black to the Supreme Court or the passage of a civil rights bill. Sex and our adolescent fascination with it remain at the heart of our inability to discern the needs and rights of women and homosexuals and their place in society.

Until we begin to better understand our relationship to these two fundamental realities, we will not be able to make good on our democratic ideals. Were we in England, the call would be for a Royal Commission. Perhaps in our own national experience, we can look to the precedents of the Warren and Kerner Commissions.

Perhaps this unfinished agenda for democracy is something to which the resources of the Kennedy School and the DuBois Institute can be turned. But, that our recent sorry experience cries out for thoughtful examination beyond mere fact finding and assessment of blame is the one thing upon which all partisans might agree, and upon which both the well being of this republic and the great hope for it depends.

Peter J. Gomes is Plummer Professor of Christian Morals.

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