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Clarence Thomas renews dubious claim of a lynching

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Clarence Thomas, in his new autobiography, gives a gut-wrenching account of the harm done him 16 years ago during hearings into his confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"I felt myself crushed beneath the accumulated trials of a lifetime," he writes in "My Grandfather's Son."

Describing the horror of being accused of sexual improprieties in a nationally televised forum on the cusp of his highest achievement, he likens himself to Bigger Thomas, the young, poor black man tormented by white racism in Richard Wright's novel "Native Son." Thomas quotes from the book to make his point:

"He felt that this white man, having helped to put him down, having helped to deform him, held him up now to look at him and be amused."

Thomas's account of that period is painful to read. I don't doubt the experience was excruciating for him and his family. His public humiliation and the debasement of the confirmation proceedings are hard to justify, even if the worst that was said about him is true -- as I believe the evidence shows.

Given that evidence, it is also hard to see Thomas as the victim he says he is. He still calls his treatment a modern day version of lynching, in which white mobs would string up black men for perceived sexual misconduct.

Meeting the man

Thomas claims he was tormented by The Man, never acknowledging that he was The Man to the black women -- yes, more than one -- who said they were tormented by him.

Even now, the fact that he, The Boss, was the one with the power over them, the subordinates, never enters Thomas's equation. Nor does he seem to notice that these black women probably weren't motivated by racial animus against him.

In his telling, they were merely the instruments of white liberals bent on destroying him for failing to cleave to traditional civil rights dogma.

"I was being pursued not by bigots in white robes but by left-wing zealots draped in flowing sanctimony," he writes.

There is no doubt that civil rights organizations and their leaders were mostly opposed to his nomination for fear he would set back their cause (which he has). It's true, too, that they had the ear of the Democrats leading the committee. And yes, it was an ugly hearing indeed.

Female subordinates

But none of that disproves what now seems clear. Thomas, as chairman of the very agency charged with protecting women from sexual discrimination and harassment, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, engaged in completely inappropriate and probably illegal conduct toward female subordinates and lied about it under oath to become one of the nine most powerful judges in the country.

In his memoir, Thomas goes on for page after page about his chief accuser, Anita Hill, who had come to the EEOC with a law degree from Yale University, Thomas's alma mater, and had worked for him previously.

He never mentions Angela Wright, another former EEOC employee who was in the wings as a reluctant but subpoenaed witness, according to at least two books on the topic, "Strange Justice" and "Supreme Discomfort," as well as news accounts.

Wright was ready to tell how Thomas had asked her about her bra size, told her what he liked about her legs, commented as to which outfits made her look sexy and remarked on other women's bodies.

Lack of interest

Notwithstanding her lack of interest and the illegality of a boss creating a hostile work environment, he kept coming on to Wright and showed up at her place one night, unannounced.

Wright awaited the committee's call for days, but it never came. The Democratic-controlled committee, headed by Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware, seemed to lose its nerve after Thomas accused it of a "high-tech lynching for uppity blacks."

Both women had corroborating witnesses, as the two other books on Clarence Thomas recount. EEOC speechwriter Rose Jourdain was prepared to testify that Wright confided in her at the time. Wright was becoming so distressed that, when Thomas began scheduling one-on-one meetings with her at the end of the work day, she asked Jourdain to wait for her before going home.

Hill, too, had told friends through the years how disturbed she had been about her boss's sexual remarks to her. Four such witnesses corroborated Hill's account in testimony, although Republicans attacked each of them for vagueness in their recollections.

Emotionally charged

Why drag all this out now? Because Thomas, rather than let this undoubtedly painful chapter of his life pass into history, has written a convincing, emotionally charged account that simply doesn't match the bulk of the evidence.

And on his way to claiming victimhood, Thomas again victimizes Hill by calling her a "mediocre" employee who lied under oath.

As Hill wrote in an opinion piece in the New York Times this week, this is the sort of character attack that victims of discrimination often suffer at the hands of supervisors unwilling to admit their own misconduct.

The fact that it comes from a Supreme Court justice makes it all the more chilling.

Woolner is a Bloomberg news columnist.

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