Dirty Little Secrets

Guest Commentary

FEW OF US who have followed the nomination and confirmation process of Clarence Thomas leave it with any sense of satisfaction, pleasure or vindication.

Now that it is concluded, some will hope that we can put aside the rancor and cynicism that have surrounded it and get on with whatever business was interrupted by the events of the past 100-plus days. This, however, is neither possible nor desirable, for this nomination and the phenomena attending it have raised up for all to see and hear a litany of ugly little secrets that bedevil our best efforts at civic piety.

Nothing in recent American life--not Watergate, not Iran-contra, not the debate on the Persian Gulf War--has served to reveal more clearly than the Thomas episode the fragility of the American social experiment. Some will say, as they say at the close of every political crisis, "When all is said and done, the system worked, the people were heard and justice was done."

That was the consensus view at the close of Watergate. Now, as the Iran-contra proceedings grind toward an end, it is less apparent. There was a moment of honor during the congressional debate at the time of the Gulf War. But as we survey the moral and political debris of the past three months, only a fool or a professional optimist could rejoice in such a consensus surrounding Thomas. What went wrong?

Were I thought qualified to offer a course at the Kennedy School of Government, I would do so under the title "Three Nasty Problems in the History of American Life: Race, Sex and Democracy." Such a course would examine the radical assumption, illustrated by the present controversy, that we Americans have never been able to examine our original sin of racism, our prurient love-hate relationship with sex (and its unavoidable relationship to race) and the inherent imperfections of our untidy and uncritical democracy.


I would argue that the moral foundations of our country and their religious expressions are flawed because of the sins of racial bigotry and sexual discrimination. Further, I would argue that our social compact is flawed because of our inability and unwillingness to take these flaws seriously. Nothing in recent history has better served to show the tragic interrelationship of these flaws than the Thomas case.

In the matter of race, let us not forget Thurgood Marshall, who would not have had a seat to vacate for Thomas had the nation not sought to address fundamental racial problems by attending to the movement for racial justice in America, which culminated in his nomination to the court.

Although I have not read the clippings of the Marshall confirmation process, I am aware that there were strong objections. But it is hard to recall anything but joy in the Black community over the nomination of "one of our own." With this, it seemed, the sin of slavery had been vitiated.

BUT IT WAS not so simple. With the nomination of a second Black to the court a generation later, we must confront the fact that the Black community is not the monolithic and grateful child of the civil rights movement it was once thought to be, but admits of a far greater diversity and complexity than many would care to admit.

The rising tide of Black interest in the party of Lincoln is but a sign of this. The passionate opponents of Thomas oppose him not so much for his alleged defects of character or competence, but fundamentally because his views no longer conform to views acceptable to the liberal establishment so long accustomed to framing our moral and political agenda.

The unholy alliance of liberal political interest groups, white journalists and that unelected elite, the senatorial staffers, has worked overtime to preserve their own entrenched positions in the face of an ascendancy of views contrary to their own.

The spectacle of this elite liberal junta working at the behest of such senators as Edward M. Kennedy and Howard Metzenbaum was never more clearly revealed than in the unconscionable exploitation of Anita F. Hill. That these senators and their agents perceive Thomas to be a threat to the republic seems to justify for them their abusive and destructive tactics. Their high minded political passions notwithstanding, they illustrate the old dictum that a surplus of virtue is more dangerous than a surplus of vice, because a surplus of virtue is never subject to the constraints of conscience.

In this case, both Thomas and Hill are the victims of this misplaced moral energy. On behalf of what I am sure the senators regarded as "the greater good," Hill was exploited to prevent Thomas's elevation to the court--at a great cost to them both. Hill and Thomas were expendable.

If there is a villain to this story, it has to be this liberal political establishment so wed to its paternal power over American Blacks that it will stop at nothing--and stoop to anything--to prevent the inevitable erosion of power that an articulate and unbeholden new Black leadership represents. If anyone was "out of touch with reality," to quote Sen. Howell Heflin (D-Ala.), it was what's left of the left.

That the critical charges against Thomas should be made by a Black woman seems to combine in one ugly and convenient episode America's pathological obsession with race and sex. At least two senators were pleased to point this out in the form of an incredulous question: How could race be a factor in these charges when both the accuser and the accused were Black?

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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