Given the severe identity crisis engulfing the Democratic Party, it makes sense that a Joe Biden 2020 run seems plausible. The party’s stubborn refusal to let go of white, working-class voters who voted for Donald Trump strengthens Biden’s candidacy for some party elites who can’t see that its future rests in the hands of women, young people and minorities—not aging, conservative white men.
Biden’s instant name recognition would pose an immediate threat to other potential front-runners such as Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Terry McAuliffe and Bernie Sanders. But one sticking point that would have the potential to weaken Biden’s candidacy is his unresolved history with Anita Hill. He was the chairman of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991 when Hill brought forth allegations of sexual harassment against Clarence Thomas soon after his nomination for the Supreme Court.
Hill alleged that while she was working as Thomas’ aide for several years in the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Thomas routinely harassed her with sexual comments about his penis and watching porn. During the hearings, Hill repeated the claims to a very hostile committee of male senators who often grilled her more than they did Thomas.
Biden was particularly criticized over the way he handled Hill’s hourslong testimony. Members of the committee asked her intimate details about her sex life. One even suggested that she may have suffered from “erotomania,” a disorder that he suggested led Hill to believe Thomas was in love with her.
Biden was criticized for not stopping these attacks. His refusal to call upon witnesses to support Hill’s claims further angered women’s groups and legal critics. Although he voted against Thomas’ confirmation and has said recently that he always believed Hill, his shortcomings as chairman during those hearings are under an intense microscope again as women are going public with accusations of sexual assault by powerful men in Hollywood, business, media, politics and music. The recent change of climate is forcing everyone to be clear on their stance against workplace sexual harassment. Abusers are just beginning to suffer consequences in a very public manner.
For his part, Biden publicly apologized Monday to Hill for how she was treated. That apology likely won’t satisfy many of his critics. If Biden does run in 2020, he, like all Democratic candidates, will have to win over black women, the party’s most important voters, during the primaries to earn the nomination. It’s one thing to express sympathy for the emotional trauma Hill experienced. It is completely another to acknowledge the racial and gender hurdles Hill was forced to navigate during her testimony.
Tia Oso, an activist in Los Angeles, said that one of the most striking feelings that Hill’s testimony evoked for her was that, by default, it appeared many of the senators refused to believe a black woman.
“White men are over-afforded credibility in our society, and by contrast, women of color—especially black women—always have the burden on us to prove what we’re saying is true—even when we’re fighting for what’s right,” she said. “What would she have exactly gained by exposing Clarence Thomas for sexual harassment?”
As history has shown, shame and international ridicule. Hill was not heralded as a hero then as she is today. A recent example of Oso’s point came when Lupita Nyong’o wrote in the New York Times that Harvey Weinstein sexually harassed her. While Weinstein generally remained mum about most of his white accusers, he responded directly to Nyong’o’s allegations, in a way that was particularly defensive, as if to say he could not possibly be attracted to a black woman.
The logic was clear: Who believes black women? Who would believe her?
That may explain why, for every black woman who reports sexual assault, 15 do not. The Journal of Family Violence also reports that black women suffer greater recovery problems after sexual assault than nonblack victims.
Chardonnay Madkins, project manager for the advocacy organization End Rape on Campus, told the Los Angeles Times that, in part, black women are more reluctant than white women to report sexual assault because of patriarchal norms that center the societal struggles of black men over those of black women.
“It tells these black women to remain silent because the education of their perpetrator is essentially more important than their education, and that [they] can’t be another person who sends a black man to jail,” Madkins told the Times. Women are told, “These are the few black men who were able to make it to college, and you trying to report them is going to hinder their success.”
These were the very real pressures Hill faced back in 1991 when she testified against Thomas before the Senate Judiciary Committee, pressures neither Biden nor his colleagues likely considered.
If Biden does run in 2020, he will have to articulate to black female voters how his insensitive handling of Hill’s testimony impacted black women. Simply saying sorry for what Hill experienced isn’t sufficient, and the issue likely will not quiet down.
Biden needs to own it. And soon. How Biden will address his handling of Hill’s testimony and when depends on a number of factors, says L. Joy Williams, chairwoman of Higher Heights, a national organization dedicated to helping black women win elected office. Conceivably, Williams added, if Biden opts to address his shortcomings during Hill’s testimony now, he would not have to devote too much time to the issue in 2020.
“He would have to describe the way in which [Hill’s testimony] is perceived, and people know that Anita Hill was treated [badly] during those times, and address his regret for his part in it, while putting that up against his record of also advancing issues of sexual assault,” Williams said.
To be sure, Biden’s legislative work advocating for the protection of women—especially his landmark Violence Against Women Act—is noteworthy. But one thing doesn’t have anything to do with the other. Hill’s testimony has paved the way for today’s workplace harassment policies.
There is no telling how significant any of this will be several years from now, but Christina Greer, political scientist at Fordham University, warns that Biden cannot take any chances. The news cycle is primed to explore stories of sexual assault and the men who perpetrate it. Greer says that if media, especially black news sites, keep Hill’s testimony in the news cycle, it will be very difficult for Biden to avoid.
“If I were him, I’d face it head on,” she said. “Take your lashes. Lick your wounds and rebuild with black women because he can’t make it without us.”
Terrell Jermaine Starr is a senior reporter at The Root. He is currently writing a book proposal that analyzes US-Russia relations from a black perspective.