Herman Cain vs. Clarence Thomas: A Tale of 2 Sex Harassment Cases

The Herman Cain campaign complained that the candidate is the target of a “high tech lynching,” the very claim made by Clarence Thomas 20 years ago during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings when Anita Hill charged him with sexual harassment.

Before that few people had ever even heard of “sexual harassment,” let alone been aware that it was a branch of law. One might  suspect that white women had charged white men with sexual harassment in the past, but they must not have been taken seriously, and the man, if anything, was given a slap on the wrist.

A white man’s status, in the application of the law in America, has traditionally been much above that of a white woman. However, with Hill and Thomas, a Black woman vs. a Black man, the status differential, if any, was not that great. And so her charges were given a serious hearing, and though Clarence Thomas nonetheless went on to join the High Court, the point had been made. Men were forewarned, and thereafter began to have to be on their “p“s and “q“s in their treatment of women in the workplace.

The Anita Hill vs. Clarence Thomas dustup sparked more water cooler conversation than ever before, or since. Every case pending before the Court, be it civil rights, abortion, gay rights, gun control, etc. came into play. Adding a strongly conservative member like Clarence Thomas to the Court would, and indeed did, have a profound effect on the nature of American law and society.

African American Clarence Thomas was nominated by the first George Bush as replacement for the recently deceased African American Justice Thurgood Marshall. The clear implication being that, of the nine seats on the Supreme Court, there was one seat specifically set aside for Black people. Was that not itself a form of segregation? The very scourge that Thurgood Marshall spent his life fighting to destroy was immediately invoked upon his passing.

At the time, though, no one seemed to mind. All accepted the de facto one seat quota. But the Democrats felt they were being cheated. The nominee for the “Black seat,” though phenotypically Black, was politically opposite the very liberal Thurgood Marshall. (As an NAACP lawyer he had successfully argued the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education case which ended legalized segregation in America.) So not only were the Democrats amenable to the concept of a “Black seat,” they went even further and saw it as a “Black liberal seat.” Of course they never came out and said this, but this is what lay behind their animus toward Thomas.

However, the farce did not end there. At the height of the proceedings, when Clarence Thomas stood all but convicted in the court of public opinion, and in the minds of the senators ruling on his nomination, he angrily cried that he was facing a “kangaroo court” conducting “a high tech lynching.”

All through the hearings, as the Senators and the press discussed and dissected his writings and rulings, his staunch conservative views were quite apparent. Nonetheless, when Thomas found himself backed up against the wall he quickly, deftly played the “race card.” And then what did the committee do? They backed off as if guilty as charged!

Now, in the case of Herman Cain, we have a white woman charging a Black man with something that seems close to attempted sexual assault. This should, in keeping with the history of America, be a no-brainer. It would appear that Cain’s candidacy is doomed. However, some of his staunchest supporters who just happen to be white conservatives are fighting diligently on his behalf. Is this just an example of how politics makes strange bedfellows, or is it a sign of genuine racial progress?

According to a recent poll, Republican men are split 50 – 50 on the veracity of these claims while Republican women believe Cain over his accusers by a very wide margin. Meanwhile, Democrats strongly favor the women in the case. To what extent is one’s opinion on Herman Cain today, and Clarence Thomas yesterday, driven by one’s political allegiance rather than the “facts”?

Many believe that Black Republican Herman Cain has gotten this far only because he is being offered as replacement for Black Democratic president Barack Obama, just as Black Supreme Court Justice nominee Clarence Thomas was presented as a substitute for Black Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

Thomas succeeded. Will Cain follow suit? However, if Cain is nominated, whether he wins the presidency or not, the point will have been made. Republicans are just as willing to nominate a Black man to run for president as the Democrats. Would that remove their stigma as the largely retrogressive, reactionary political party in America?