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Hill weighs in on race, civil rights progress in America

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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 problem today.

“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 true.”

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 the workplace.

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 their parents.”

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.”