March 16, 2011- Everyone is talking about Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas: The five-year anniversary of his last question from the bench, the disbarment complaint filed against him in Missouri last week, and just Friday, new allegations by a former girlfriend, allegedly confirming Anita Hill’s story.

All of which brings us back to the confirmation hearings of 1991; for none of these new attacks address the bottom-line question: Should Clarence Thomas have been named to the Supreme Court in the first place?

That is the question from which we veered, two decades ago, so distracted were we by what came to be known as “The Anita Hill Question.” By the time we reawakened to the underlying inquiry, the point was moot; Thomas was, and will be, a justice. For life.

My feeling at the time of his nomination — before Anita Hill surfaced — was that Thomas was not qualified for the post, not because of anything Hill alleged, but because Thomas had not yet proven himself a jurisprudential thinker of the caliber required for service on the U.S. Supreme Court.

But, Thomas was a black man in America, and we Americans were afraid to call it as we saw it. African-Americans were divided over whether to claim him as one of our own. Our division arose from color affinity, pride and the fear of losing our one coveted seat on the nation’s highest court. Some chapters of the NAACP even broke from the national organization over the Thomas issue. White folks, especially those on the Senate Judiciary Committee, were in an even less tenable situation — how to call into question the qualifications of an African-American nominee and not appear racist in doing so.

It was a question committee members would never have to answer, however. The proceedings suddenly were sidelined by the Hill allegations — that Clarence Thomas had made unwelcome sexual comments while she was working for him as a young lawyer, first at the Department of Education and later at (of all places!) the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Instead of a rigorous review of the nominee’s intellectual preparedness, now we were talking about sex.

Game change.



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