I was too young to remember the Anita Hill case. The fall she testified against Clarence Thomas in the hearings for his seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, I was a mere few weeks into half-day classes during my first year at elementary school. But what I do remember are the names of the key players, the frustration my parents felt with Thomas’ nomination, and asking my dad, in an inquisitive manner I often expressed — “What is an Uncle Tom?”
My father, who I can say with confidence never read the Harriet Beacher Stowe novel from which the reference came, used it often to describe the man who sexually harassed an attractive, intelligent, and highly credible Anita Hill during their time working together at the United States Department of Education and later at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. If I asked him about Thomas today, I have no doubt that he would likely describe him the same way. But, while my disdain for the second Black Supreme Court Justice ever appointed started in kindergarten, my clarity around the situation has been an evolving one. See, while I still believe beyond the shadow of a reasonable doubt that Thomas is guilty of everything Hill claimed he was, I’ve realized that the conservative judge was not the only guilty party in the 1991 hearing that made Hill a household name.
As I’ve watched the documentaries, read articles, and consumed copious amounts of media around the definitive moment in American history, I’ve been forced to concede that a man that I, on more than one occasion, have referenced as “Uncle Joe,” a man who I actually like, for the record, was a very clear culprit in the character assassination of the attorney turned professor.
This week former Vice President Joe Biden and the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee during the time of the Thomas hearings admitted such to a crowd in New York City, saying:
“We knew a lot less about the extent of harassment back then, over 30 years ago. She paid a terrible price, she was abused for the hearing. She was taken advantage of. Her reputation was attacked. I wish I could have done something. To this day I regret I couldn’t come up with a way to get her the kind of hearing she deserved, given the courage she showed by reaching out to us.”
It’s not the first time Biden has expressed these sentiments. In fact, the 76-year-old has been vocalizing regret over his scarlet letter “A” —for Anita— for quite some time now. But as the 2020 democratic field gets increasingly more crowded, and rumors of a run from the former Delaware senator continue to swirl, people are, more and more, looking to the long-time politician to answer for this one particular transgression. In the nearly 30 years since the event, Hill has said that she never did receive a formal apology from the former lawmaker, and it’s indeed high time. But even if that happened, what does that mean for a Biden candidacy?
As a Black woman who has empathized with Hill since I was five years old (I mean — my dad made it impossible not to), Biden’s handling of her case makes me question his fitness for the job. And it’s not because of what went down three decades ago — he’s done a lot of good since then. My issue stems from the fact that Biden often connects his apologies to something along the lines of “It was a different time” or “She deserved better” or my favorite, “I wish I could have done more.”
It’s funny. “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride,” is another phrase my dad commonly used, and one that I often reflect on when I hear sound bites from Biden’s sometimes-draining apology tour. Mainly because I don’t want a President who wishes they could have done more. I rather one who takes it on the nose and admits they could have done more, but didn’t. One who acknowledges faults, without caveats. And one who will protect the interests of Black women, not because we need a handout, or even that “we exhibit courage” — that’s a given — but because we’re the most loyal voting block in the Democratic party and we deserve at least that.
Ten, 20, 30 years from now when the history books are written, I can’t afford for a quote from the next President to say “during my tenure I wish…” A part of being in a position of power is being able to harness that power and wield it for good. If that’s something “Uncle Joe” or any other candidate for that matter isn’t capable of doing— well, I’m simply not capable of giving them my vote.