She took the stage, soft and unassuming, appreciative of the supportive
applause. An unobservant passerby could have mistaken her for just
another notable receiving an accolade from an organization.
But listening to Anita Hill made everyone pause, especially when she
spoke of the disturbing notion that we live in a colorblind society.
“I try to put myself where I can understand this,” she said. “I know
from my status, notoriety, class, I can go through a day and structure
my world and work life, and keep racism at abeyance. If I can do it,
how easy is it for the majority of the population?”
Addressing the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law earlier
this month, Hill offered an unflinching look at where we are today in
the arena of race.
“I know we are not in a colorblind society,” she said. “I won’t say
it’s much more subtle, because there is a lot that I see that isn’t
subtle at all.”
Growing up one of 13 children in segregated Oklahoma, only she and one
of her other siblings attended an integrated school. She says the
experience left a profound mark on her.
“Going to an integrated school, the exposure showed me what was possible,” she explained.
Hill says that when she looks back on those days, she sees herself
riding on the cusp of change, particularly about how leadership and
American society addressed racism.
In 1963, when Hill was 7 years old, President John F. Kennedy
established the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. The
move, less than 10 years after the Supreme Court’s decision in the
Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., case, marked a clear shift
in how the country was grappling with race. Hill claims that while the
dawn of television showed the movement’s brutality on the ground, “JFK
moved the struggle from the streets into the courts.”
Speaking to the same organization 45 years later, Hill said the
committee has followed through on that charge, fighting for civil
rights and battling discrimination. At the same time, she says there is
still a long way to go — especially when some say racism isn’t a
“If we were fatigued in the ’70s about talking about race, today we
seem too tired to even acknowledge its existence,” she said.
It is a precarious position, Hill emphasized, when a need still exists
to address some very real issues in American society.
“The disparities in health and education for people of color prove we
are not living in a colorblind society,” she said.
Her fear is that those who are privileged, or uninformed can deny the existence of discrimination.
“I can do it too if I don’t read the paper,” she says. “I can do it if
I read Chief Justice [John G.] Roberts’ decision on education [in cases
on school assignment plans in Louisville, Ky., and Seattle] saying we
live in a colorblind society. I can’t do it in reality. I can’t live
with myself if I pretend racism doesn’t exist anymore. We would like to
believe civil rights aren’t needed. But most of us know that isn’t
Hill has made civil rights her vocation. After receiving her
undergraduate degree from Oklahoma State University, she earned her law
degree from Yale University. After being admitted to the bar in
Washington, D.C., in 1980, she began to work for the U.S. Department of
Education under Clarence Thomas, then assistant secretary of education
for the Office of Civil Rights. She later followed him to the U.S.
Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, where he was chairman.
In 1991, during hearings to confirm Thomas’ nomination to the U.S.
Supreme Court, Hill testified against Thomas, accusing him of making
sexual advances toward her. While the testimony was damning, Thomas
eventually became a Supreme Court justice, taking the seat vacated by
the late Thurgood Marshall. But despite his victory, some believe the
contentious hearings shed light on the dynamics of sexual harassment in
Hill rarely speaks of those days, or of Thomas. Now a professor of
social policy, law and women’s studies at the Heller School for Social
Policy and Management at Brandeis University, Hill devotes her time to
teaching, writing and speaking.
“I am a one-woman show,” she says with a smile.
Her focus now is trying to engage the younger generation, and interest
them in learning history and acknowledging the continuous fight against
discrimination. Perspective, she claims, is one of the biggest hurdles.
“A lot of the incoming [law] students were born after 1985,” she said.
“They have no awareness of the movement — and in many cases, neither do
So how can the dialogue begin?
“The civil rights movement is not televised and is not on YouTube,” she wistfully replied.
But Hill believes that if we are creative, that gap can be bridged.
Music and the arts present opportunities, as does writing.
And what about politics? After all, isn’t the presence of a black presidential candidate promising?
For her part, Hill isn’t convinced that Illinois Sen. Barack Obama’s
Democratic presidential campaign is tangible proof of America’s racial
evolution, arguing that an election doesn’t necessarily invite an
honest dialogue about race.
“That’s not the context to figure out things,” she said. “Racism works in the day-to-day life.”
Either way, Hill believes that if we are vigilant, things can change
and society can improve. She says she has a responsibility to make a
positive impact, and that fuels her optimism for a better future.
“I write, speak and try to reflect,” she says. “I embody many of the issues. And I am ever hopeful.”