Thomas, Cain and the Politics of Harassment

Two decades after Anita Hill's testimony, sexual harassment allegations remain an accuser's burden.

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For a black man with a slim lead in the race for the Republican nomination for president and embattled by allegations of sexual impropriety, Herman Cain is coasting on easy street.

Because of Cain's high-profile defenders in the Republican Party, at least in part, sexual harassment allegations from four different women are sliding off the former Godfather's Pizza CEO like he's made of Teflon.

Republicans, led by conservative commentator Ann Coulter, have tried to revive the same 20-year-old defense used to shield Clarence Thomas from the allegations of Anita Hill: that this is a high-tech lynching of a black man. Meanwhile, Hill just spoke at a conference in her honor, "Sex, Power, and Speaking Truth" -- timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the Thomas confirmation hearings.

Two decades after those hearings, is history repeating itself? And is the overarching lesson here not that powerful men should keep their sexual comments and gestures to themselves but that women should beware of accusing a powerful man of harassing them?

On the defensive, Cain's campaign and supporters have, predictably enough, attacked the credibility of his accusers. Sharon Bialek, who claims that 20 years ago Cain put his hand up her skirt and tried to force her head toward his crotch after she asked him for help finding a job, is being vilified for her financial history, as if sexual harassers perform credit checks. Cain's campaign manager, Mark Block, wrongly stated that an accuser, Karen Kraushaar, was the mother of Josh Kraushaar, a former reporter for Politico, which broke the sexual harassment story.

Others are pointing to the long lapse in time between when the incidents happened and when they are now being reported. Despite how far we have come as a society in acknowledging that sexual harassment is a problem, there is still an immediate tendency toward skepticism that ends up discouraging woman from coming forward.

Career coach and controversial blogger Penelope Trunk actually advised against reporting sexual harassment in the workplace back in 2006, explaining that "most sexual harassment isn't severe enough to hold up in court, and the law isn't strong enough to protect you from most types of retaliation. So unless your safety is at risk, you're usually best off handling the harasser yourself rather than reporting him to human resources."

Michelle Goldberg at the Daily Beast contextualizes the issue, providing anecdotal evidence of the everyday harassment that women shrug off as part of the cost of doing business: "No one wants to spend her life in court, and besides, in cases like the one Bialek described, it's not even clear that Cain's actions were illegal, as she no longer worked for him. He wasn't running for president. She didn't know if he'd done the same thing to anyone else, or if anyone would believe her."

Many accusers of sexual harassment, or even rape, find that popular opinion often turns against them -- especially if the person being accused is a public figure. Recently, while reflecting on the matter, Hill stated that "race trumps gender" -- and in her situation with Thomas, it certainly did.

During Thomas' confirmation hearings, she was abandoned by members of the black community who felt the judge was being railroaded. Hill has been redeemed only through the passage of time and blacks' general disappointment in the conservative justice's performance on the Supreme Court.