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A generation after Clarence Thomas

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in Washington

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in Washington in 2016. Credit: Getty Images / Chip Somodevilla

‘It’s déjà vu all over again.”

That’s what lawyer Kenneth M. Duberstein, who led the confirmation fight on behalf of Clarence Thomas, said the other day about the controversy swirling over Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

At first glance, Duberstein is right. Thomas and Kavanaugh both seemed to be sailing through their hearings until eleventh-hour allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced against them. Kavanaugh was 17 when he allegedly sexually assaulted Christine Blasey Ford at a party, and Thomas was accused of sexually harassing aide Anita Hill at work. Otherwise, the episodes seemed eerily parallel — right down to the fact that both Ford and Hill are professors.

But there’s one big difference: Thomas is black, and that gave him a rare advantage in America, where the deck is typically stacked against African-Americans. Not this time. Thomas played the race card, claiming the accusations echoed a history of hateful sexual allegations against black men.

“This is a circus,” Thomas told the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991. “It is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to have different ideas, and it is a message that unless you kowtow to the old order . . . you will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the U.S. Senate, rather than hung from a tree.”

Never mind that the president who nominated Thomas for the court, George H.W. Bush, had won election in part by playing to the racist fears Thomas denounced. Bush’s campaign ran ads featuring Willie Horton, a black man who raped a white woman while on furlough from a Massachusetts prison when Michael Dukakis — Bush’s Democratic challenger — was governor.

The implication was obvious: Dukakis had failed to protect innocent white womanhood from a rampaging black man.

More than 4,000 African-Americans were lynched in the United States from 1877 to 1950, often after being accused of sexual violence against white women. The Willie Horton ad stoked our deepest anxieties and hatreds.

But Thomas turned the history to his favor, suggesting he was being lynched — at least metaphorically — via false allegations of sexual misconduct. And it worked. The all-white committee was in no mood to challenge a black man’s accusations of racism, which would only make the senators seem even more bigoted. Meanwhile, voters — including black voters — began to move into Thomas’ column.

When Bush pegged Thomas to replace Thurgood Marshall, who had been the first African-American on the Supreme Court, 54 percent of blacks approved of Thomas’ nomination. But after Thomas was accused of sexual harassment, his support in the black community jumped to 63 percent in one poll and 70 percent in another.

Meanwhile, antipathy toward Hill rose as well. Some blacks vilified her for airing blacks’ dirty laundry in public; others condemned her for holding back a black man who was primed for rare national power.

Senators ultimately confirmed Thomas by 52-48. Thomas almost surely lied about his harassment of Hill, as a score of histories have recounted, but polls showed that most Americans believed him.

In the era of #MeToo, we can expect more people to believe Ford’s claim. If Ford testifies, Kavanaugh won’t get the automatic benefit of the doubt that males have historically received. But he also won’t get the rare and ironic racial advantage that Thomas enjoyed. Usually, in America, being black holds you back. But in Thomas’ case, it catapulted him onto the Supreme Court. Kavanaugh might not be so lucky.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania.