Joe Biden, everyone’s favourite political uncle, is back in the news again. Not for his future as the potential 46th President of the United States or his bromance with former president Barack Obama, but rather for his very controversial past. On May 8, former Vice-President Biden’s wife, Dr. Jill Biden, stirred up controversy while doing press for her book, Where The Light Enters. During an interview with NPR, Dr. Biden was asked her thoughts on the continued fallout from Biden’s treatment of lawyer Anita Hill during the 1991 Senate confirmation hearings of then Superior Court nominee (now Superior Court Judge) Clarence Thomas.
ICYMI: In 1991, then Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas was set to be sworn in. That is, until NPR reported that Hill, then a law professor at the University of Oklahoma, had told the FBI she’d been sexually harassed by Thomas when they worked together at the Education Department and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Hill was then compelled to testify, telling the committee that Thomas had repeatedly tried to get her to go on dates with him and made inappropriate comments towards her.
At the time, Biden was the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and presided over the hearings. Criticism for his performance centres around three qualms: that he did little to stop members from attacking Hill during her testimony, that he failed to call additional witnesses who corroborated Hill’s accusations and that his own questioning of Hill was unfair.
Thomas was confirmed on October 15, 1991 and Hill faced immense backlash.
The name Anita Hill, and Joe Biden’s role in the hearings, haven’t been top-of-mind in mainstream news coverage since 1991, but that definitely changed with the September 2018 testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford against Brett Kavanaugh (in which the similarities in treatment of the two women was uncanny), and the recent announcement of Biden’s 2020 Presidential bid.
In response to questions about Biden’s role in the hearings, Dr. Biden detailed how both she and her husband believed Hill, with Biden voting against Clarence Thomas. She then reminded everyone that Hill and Biden had recently had a phone conversation, with Biden saying he felt badly.
“And so now,” Dr. Biden said, “it’s kind of—it’s time to move on.”
Which TBH does not sit well with us. Besides being flippant AF and belittling the significance and impact of a traumatic experience for Hill (and other survivors), her comments are seriously misplaced—because we’re not ready to “move on,” and she shouldn’t be either. Here’s why.
“Moving on” seems a lot like forgetting
While we don’t know what’s going on in the Bidens’ minds, it seems pretty clear from Dr. Biden’s recent statement that the couple is ready for everyone to forget this whole Anita Hill thing—or at least former VP Biden’s role in it—happened.
Since coming on to the scene as Vice President in 2008, Biden has really been leaning in to the affable grandpa narrative: going for food with his bestie Barack Obama, picking his favourite Obama-Biden memes and comforting Meghan McCain over the loss of her father
And Dr. Biden’s subtle chastising of us all seems to further lean in to that narrative, as the clucking grandma towards petulant kids who just won’t let something go. Honestly? It’s kind of demeaning.
This insistence on forgetting is especially harmful when you factor in that Hill is a survivor of trauma. Not just of sexual harassment at the hands of Thomas, but the trauma of the hearings and the negative, sexist and racist vitriol she was subjected to after her testimony. As Black Lives Matter co-creator Alicia Garza tweeted in an 11-tweet thread: “Imagine if we told women who were sexually assaulted to ‘move on’ because dude has a good heart or means well. Cmon now. Do better.”
Imagine if we told women who were sexually assaulted to “move on” because dude has a good heart or means well. Cmon now. Do better.
— Alicia Garza (@aliciagarza) May 7, 2019
And she’s right. Dr. Biden’s comment is *super* flippant, and completely misses the fact that she’s in essence asking—or rather telling—Hill to get over and forget her trauma, something that has plagued and defined her for a large portion of her adult life. While Dr. Biden might not be aware of it, these comments contribute to a horrific cycle of silencing survivors by telling them they should get over their trauma.
We as a society can’t forget
Because what happened to Anita Hill was a big deal. Sitting in front of an all-white, all-male Senate Judiciary committee, Hill was a trailblazer; her testimony was significant as it was the first time a woman had so publicly shared her experience with sexual harassment in the workplace. Her nationally televised testimony validated women’s experiences across the country, and the backlash against her catalyzed their anger.
Does that sound familiar? Because it should. Hill’s testimony, her treatment and the ensuing repercussions were a catalyst for a lot of the same sh-t that we’re going through today, as a precursor to the #MeToo movement and women speaking out against sexual harassment.
While those are arguably positive outcomes from a seriously sh-tty situation, the outcome of Hill’s treatment and Thomas’s eventual confirmation have had seriously negative repercussions as well, as author Rebecca Traister outlined in a tweet thread that touched on the harmful effect of the hearings on women across the country. “Did American women get a very clear & longlasting view of how unseriously their stories of harassment would be taken by men who had the power to build courts & shape governments?” she tweeted. “Did the message they got about how they’d be treated if they spoke up persuade many to keep quiet?”
Did American women get a very clear & longlasting view of how unseriously their stories of harassment would be taken by men who had the power to build courts & shape governments? Did the message they got about how they'd be treated if they spoke up persuade many to keep quiet?
— Rebecca Traister (@rtraister) May 7, 2019
Later she asked: “Did casting women with harassment/assault claims as unreliable fantasists, out to end men’s career, have ANY long-lasting legacy, like on the confirmation hearings of future justices who’ll get to determine voting, repro & collective bargaining rights deep into the future?”
And the answer to all is a firm: Yes
And that’s a tragic realization. Because almost three decades later, women are *still* facing the same issues Hill and other women faced. This has never been more evident than with the September 2018 hearing against now Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who was accused in July 2018 of sexually assaulting a fellow classmate at a high school party in the 1980s. His accuser, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, came forward—like Hill—out of a feeling of duty to the people of the United States, and was vilified for it. There was a lot involved in the case and the accusations, but Dr. Ford showed incredible strength and persistence against a man, and a nation, that was against her, facing death threats for speaking out. As of late 2018, she’d yet to return to work as a professor at Palo Alto University, due to these threats.
And all we can say is: seriously?
Dr. Ford’s experience—and her treatment in light of her testimony—is almost a perfect mirror of Hill’s. Hill herself, in an April interview with The New York Times, told the newspaper that she views Biden as having “set the stage” for last year’s confirmation of Kavanaugh.
While Biden did speak out in support of Ford, saying she shouldn’t be “vilified” the way Hill was (although, let’s be honest, that was *probably* on high recommendation from his PR people), Ford’s experience shows that—even 27 years later—we still have not learnt from the Anita Hill case and fall out.
Which is exactly why we shouldn’t be moving on. They say history is doomed to repeat itself, and if we just brush Hill’s experience, the reactions like Biden’s and the implications of said reactions, we will keep repeating our missteps—we already are.
Biden, as a person, shouldn’t forget
And if we as a group shouldn’t “move on” and forget the past, Biden definitely should not. Because he has clearly not learned from his past behaviour—at all.
In March, former Nevada Democrat assemblywoman Lucy Flores wrote a personal essay for The Cut detailing an uncomfortable encounter she had with the then VP in 2014 at a political event. The encounter is TBQH *very* odd, as Flores recounts Biden coming up behind her and rubbing her shoulders before leaning in, SMELLING HER HAIR and then KISSING THE BACK OF HER HEAD.
My grandparents have never done that.
Recalling the incident and her feeling of shock and powerlessness, Flores wrote: “My brain couldn’t process what was happening. I was embarrassed. I was shocked. I was confused. There is a Spanish saying, “tragame tierra,” it means, ‘earth, swallow me whole.’ I couldn’t move and I couldn’t say anything. I wanted nothing more than to get Biden away from me.”
And Flores is not the only one. Over the years, Biden’s inappropriate touching of women has garnered him the title of “America’s creepy uncle,” with his tendency for rubbing, touching and kissing women who are A) not his wife and B) visibly not on board. We are all here for men being affectionate and warm, but consent is paramount. And the lines are seriously blurred in a lot of these encounters.
Speaking about these accusations to NPR, Dr. Biden again claimed her husband has learned from his past mistakes, saying that the candidate “would take responsibility and… would honor people’s space.”
“He has learned to give people their personal space,” she continued.
Jill Biden on the women who accused him of inappropriate touching: "He has learned to give people their personal space," calls the women "courageous" for speaking out. (via @cbsthismorning)
— Marina Fang (@marinafang) May 7, 2019
The thing is, though, he hasn’t really learned anything. Biden has continued this type of hands-on behaviour up until at least 2017. And in April, he joked about the accusations at an event for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, telling the crowd, “I just want you to know I had permission,” after hugging the labour union president.
But Dr. Biden may have an explanation for why all this touching seems less than kosher, telling NPR that, “[…] these are different times. [And] Joe realizes these are different times.” Which sounds like a not-so-subtle way of calling everyone PC warriors. FWIW, that type of touching has *always* been not OK.
So, what do we actually want from the former VP?
Look, we’re not saying Biden needs to be cancelled in the way some other problematic celebrities and public figures *definitely* do (*ahem* Chris Brown *ahem*). I personally like Joe Biden. I too have teared up countless times at the video of him receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from his BFF Barack (seriously, tears). I’ve ooh’d, aww’d and cried at the stories of his courtship with now-wife Jill and the tragedy of death in his family. He’s a sympathetic, grandfatherly figure—and one who seemingly racks up the likes in a time when Trump is the complete opposite.
But, in much the way that these moments are part of his past, so too is his treatment of Anita Hill. We can’t pick and choose what we remember and how we define someone based on solely the highlight reel of their life.
The fact remains that he played a crucial role in the treatment of Hill, and he needs to apologize for it—properly.
But that’s the one thing we can’t seem to get out of the presidential hopeful: a sincere, straight apology.
In expressing his regret for “what she went through,” Biden pretty much eschews any and all personal responsibility for his role in what she went through. It’s essentially the Kevin Hart of apologies—using the facade of time and personal growth as atonement enough, without actually ever saying the words, “I’m sorry.”
And Biden’s slew of similar non-apologizes have highlighted that he’s not ready to leave the Kevin Hart school of non-apologies just yet.
A quick point about Biden's call to Anita Hill. One thing you learn covering foreign relations is that expressing "regret" about something is not an apology. It's a step short of that. (Example: Clinton expressing "regret" for No Gun Ri).
— Olivier Knox (@OKnox) April 25, 2019
In recent months, Biden further downplayed his role in what happened to Hill, saying of her treatment: “To this day, I regret I couldn’t give [Hill] the kind of hearing she deserved. I wish I could have done something.”
Joe this isn’t rocket science. You *legitimately* could have given her the hearing she (and the rest of the country) deserved—you were running the whole GD thing!!!
We all want to forget aspects of our past. Who among us hasn’t done something completely embarrassing like breaking their leg at their elementary school dance (Busy Phillips), falling at the Oscars (Jennifer Lawrence) or fainting twice in one week during grade 7 sex education class (me)? But we’re not afforded that luxury.
Just take a look at any and all people of colour who have a misstep. That stays with you. We live in a society that loves to bring up people’s past indiscretions, and demands that we account for them. Why should Biden be any different? Because he’s a privileged white guy running for office? That’s actually all the more reason to demand accountability.
Dear Jill Biden,
We will not move on from Anita Hill.
You make choices in this life and you have to live with them. We won’t forget.
— Michelle Guido (@heyyguido) May 7, 2019
What we really want is for people to not forget, because the fact remains that your past is your past and it’s important. This idea that Biden can overstep this type of justified scrutiny *just* because he’s “America’s Uncle” and Obama liked him isn’t good enough.
Like Daenerys in Game of Thrones and Pete Davidson in his friendship glow-up, just because someone’s beloved by some of our unproblematic faves, doesn’t mean they’re inherently a good person or immune to character-defining missteps.
Unlike *that* Starbucks cup, this is something that can’t, and shouldn’t, be erased from public memory.
TBH, the only person who can tell us to “move on” is Anita Hill
And frankly, the reason we shouldn’t be moving on when it comes to Hill and Biden is because the person who has the most say in the matter hasn’t told us to. Jill and Joe Biden aren’t the ones with the authority to say it’s time to move on; the only person to do that is Anita Hill—the victim in this entire situation and the person at the lesser end of this very visible power imbalance, as a Black woman.
How 'bout we let Anita Hill decide when that time is?
— Steph Flaherty (@stepheff_) May 7, 2019
And it’s clear that the power imbalance is alive, well, and the Bidens clearly feel it’ll fall in their favour. In the same interview with NPR, Dr. Biden reflected on the phone call between Hill and her husband, saying Biden waited 27 years to call Hill directly and “apologize” because, “it was just not the right time,” beforehand. Dr. Biden also implied that the two had reconciled, or the call had at least gone well, saying: “I think he didn’t know whether she would take his call, and he was so happy that she did take his call, and they spoke. And I think he was, you know, I think they came to an agreement.”
Which is a load of BS, to be quite frank. Speaking to The New York Times in April, shortly after their infamous “agreement,” Hill said that the call left her feeling “deeply unsatisfied,” with Biden failing to take personal responsibility. She also said she would not support Biden in his presidential run.
I’d care more about what Anita thought than what Jill Biden thought on this issue.
— dr. octogoncologist (@DrOctagon11) May 7, 2019
“I cannot be satisfied by simply saying, ‘I’m sorry for what happened to you,'” Hill said. “I will be satisfied when I know that there is real change and real accountability and real purpose.”
Honestly, that’s something we’d like to see too.