When Judge Clarence Thomas was nominated to the Supreme Court, black Americans wrestled to sort out the conflicting political and racial concerns set loose by the selection of a black, conservative Republican.
Now, in the wake of Prof. Anita Faye Hill's allegations that Thomas sexually harassed her, black men and women are asking themselves a new round of probing questions. This time, the debate centers on a far more personal and frustrating topic--black sexuality.
Just as African-Americans failed to find common political ground when Thomas was nominated, many are torn by the new focus on sexual harassment charges. But aside from the conflicts, there are issues of common concern. One is that the accusations will provide the white community with a titillating peek into the private lives of African-Americans. Other concerns are that Hill's charges will affect relationships between black men and black women and that they will give new life to old stereotypes about black sexuality.
Hill's shocking description of a scorned Thomas who bragged of his sexual abilities and suggested that she watch pornographic films with him proved to be an almost unbearable public spectacle, many black men and women said Friday.
"For us as black people, anything that occurs within the race, whether in the workplace, within our families or private lives, it's a deeply personal and private affair," said Kim Crenshaw, a professor at the UCLA Law School. "For that to be made so very public is a sense of violation of our collective privacy."
As both Thomas' and Hill's reputations were debated in front of 14 white men on the Senate Judiciary Committee and in front of countless others in homes and offices across the nation, many black Americans said that they felt as if their collective souls were being exposed.
Reflecting an often-expressed view, Donna Ball, an administrator for New York City, concluded that the nationally televised questioning "smacks of a peep show to entertain whites at black people's expense. We all know how somehow (white) people will use this against black people."
Some even see an internal concern generated by blacks attacking blacks.
"The dynamic of seeing one black person testify against another on an issue as important as the Supreme Court is very painful for black people to witness," Gail Wyatt, a UCLA professor and clinical psychologist in Los Angeles, said of Hill's testimony against Thomas. "We know so many negative statements are made about black people, and it hurts to hear yet another."
But Wyatt, who opposes Thomas' nomination and believes Hill's allegations, said that blacks should be willing to publicly discipline each other. "I don't think many black people are willing to accept that in this case," she said.
Sandra Slade, a 39-year-old Charlotte, N.C., insurance manager, agreed, saying that as blacks assume roles of political importance, they must be willing to assume some of the risks as well. "The more you try to advance and emulate the things that white people do, the more you get caught up in things like this. You have to take these (setbacks) along with the successes," she said.
Some see a gender gap that separates black men and women.
Many black women professed faith in Hill's allegations, saying that she has nothing to gain and everything to lose in the intense public scrutiny of the hearings. And, they often added, Hill's allegations of Thomas' behavior rang true with their own experiences with many black men. "That's just how men are," said a black female executive with a Los Angeles telecommunications firm.
To some black men, however, the issue is different. Fearing a backlash in the wake of Hill's accusations about Thomas' behavior, they said that sexual harassment is of far lesser social concern than the advancement of black people.
"We're falling behind now," said Irvin (Duke) Johnson, the 70-year-old proprietor of Duke's Shoe Repair and Shine in Washington's Reeves Municipal Center, as he listened in disbelief to Hill's testimony. "If black folks keep telling on one another, the black man will never get ahead."
Between the extremes, however, some blacks seemed wary of placing blind trust in Hill's claims or absolute trust in Thomas' self-defense.
"I don't think large numbers of black women are agreeing with Anita Hill," said Rene Carter, an official with the American Insurance Assn. in Washington.
But many black men appeared just as ambivalent--neither condemning nor supporting either of the main participants. "I'm not saying what he did was right, but I don't know that I can believe her either," an unidentified black man said as he elbowed his way through rush-hour subway crowds on his way to an office in downtown Washington.
Joseph Bell, director of special programs at Washington's Howard University, said he was crestfallen as he listened to the hearings over a boombox perched on a street corner newspaper rack. He said it was a "shame, but true" that "both of their reputations are now ruined."
"I don't know what to say to (black women) anymore," said Johnson, the shoe repair shop owner. "I'm scared to flirt with them or hug them any more." He strongly denounced Hill for speaking out against Thomas, arguing that her comments "were sending black people backwards. (Black) men are going to be skeptical to be around black women. I'll bet that some will just refuse to hire black women."
Others said that they believe the Hill-Thomas situation also could revive old stereotypes about black sexuality that historically have given people excuses to be fearful of black men and disrespectful of black women.
In many people's minds, Crenshaw said, the Senate hearings "tend to confirm pre-existing stereotypes." Those stereotypes feed perceptions of blacks as a social problem, she said. "I don't like for things like this to come up because it gives them one more reason to hate us and try to keep us back," Johnson said.
Others proclaimed the hearings no more than a crass political move by Thomas' opponents, aimed at preventing a black person from replacing retired Justice Thurgood Marshall, the only black ever to sit on the Supreme Court.
"(Thomas) is a black man, and whites just don't want a black man up there," said David Riley, an official with the American Postal Workers Union in Washington. "I was not for him. But I'm not for destroying him at any cost either. All this seems so extreme to prevent him from getting to the court."
Nearly all those interviewed for this story appended their comments with a sad reflection on how the message will be interpreted by the nation.
"As a black person, it disturbs me that the two principals are a black man and a black woman," said a black woman manager with a Los Angeles telephone company who asked not to be identified. "The issue is much larger than race; it encompasses all men and women. But the way this issue has come about, I'm afraid that it is going to be passed off as just an aberration of the black community."