Hypatia 18.3 (2003) 232-235
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The American Dream in Black and White: The Clarence Thomas Hearings. By Jane Flax. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998.
In The American Dream in Black and White (1998), Jane Flax defends two theses about the significance of the Clarence Thomas hearings. First, she contends that they reveal important contradictions in American politics: between the ideals of freedom and equality, and the inequalities we confront as political subjects. We are committed to color-blindness, but constructed by the pervasive effects of race and gender. Second, she offers explanations for the persistence of these inequalities in the American political system. Our concept of legitimacy is dependent on an abstract subject, representative of white men. Extant versions of identity politics are inadequate because they define race and gender as separate social relations. Instead, Flax argues, we should replace abstract individualism by concretized subjects within the construction of race/gender positions: white/male, black/male, white/female, black/female. In defending the duality of "race/gender," Flax writes that "our existing definitions of race and gender are inadequate to grasp their simultaneous, interdependent, and mutually [End Page 232] forming effects. To treat race and gender as independent social relations is a persistent error . . . I use 'race/gender' as a linked word. Race and gender may have had separate lines of development in the past, but now each blurs and bleeds into the other. Only interwoven can these ideas begin to capture the complexities of their mutations" (2).
To develop the critique of abstract individualism, Flax reads the Clarence Thomas hearings as a narrative, uncovering within them imagery of abstract individualism and race/gender. The central six chapters of the book recount the hearings, with extraordinary attention to their imagery. As a judge, Thomas says, "you want to be stripped down like a runner," without agenda or ideology (43). The hearings invoke both this imagery of abstraction and imagery of race and sex. Abstract individualism is exemplified by the Horatio Alger story of the self-made man, succeeding despite enormous barriers if he is worthy. The paradigm "abstract individual" is the Rawlsian chooser, the basic player in the social contract.
There is an "Africanist" presence within the hearings as well. Thomas's position as a nominee for the "black seat" on the Court and his "sensitivity" to race and poverty (31) contrast with the senators' assumptions of neutrality and failures to notice privilege (35). When Anita Hill appears to disturb Thomas's progress towards "put[ting] his feet under the bench of the highest court of the land" (84), she is described in terms that question her credibility and ultimately erase her (50). Flax finds sexual imagery in the most quotidien of events, such as when one "initiate[s] contact" or "withdraw[s]" (53). Hill represented herself as modest and discreet; but in the background was the unacknowledged stereotype of black women as aggressive and hypersexual (57). The senators found her long term silence and reluctance to come forward incomprehensible because they could not understand the conflicting loyalties and pressures of black/female. (62) Hill was damned both for what she did say about Thomas—"sick," "garbage," "a foul stack of stench"—and for what she did not: Flax asserts that "Hill's reluctance to disclose fully what she claimed Thomas had said became evidence that she made it up" (77).
Flax understands these images in psychological terms, finding them to deny personal experience and knowledge of sexuality, while also revealing the prevalence and manipulation of paternal imagery (9). Psychologically, abstract individualism requires the splitting of the concrete individual from the abstract. Flax calls such splitting the "manic" defense. Splitting occurs as Thomas refers to himself in the third person, as an objective "other." For Thomas to see himself directly through his own feelings would be to concede his powerlessness. For him to refer to himself through race/gender would raise the stigma of the social construction of black masculinity, which regards black males as hypersexual and violent. In Flax's judgment, Thomas was compelled to refer to...