Why Racism Always Trumps Sexism: On Confirmation and The People vs. OJ Simpson

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Why Racism Always Trumps Sexism: On <i>Confirmation</i> and <i>The People vs. OJ Simpson</i>

If you watched The People v. O.J. Simpson, there’s a good chance that you’re still reeling from Sarah Paulson’s incredible turn as Marcia Clark. One of my personal favorite moments for her character occurred early on in the season, as she prepared for jury selection. Clark was convinced that the more women she could get on the jury, the better the chances for a conviction. OJ Simpson was a known abuser of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Clark knew that women would side with a victim of domestic violence. As we all know, Clark had to learn the hard way that—at least in America—race issues and racial solidarity will often trump gender issues. The black women whom she expected to view OJ as a violent and dangerous man capable of murder, instead saw him as a black man who had married a gold digging white woman—and most importantly, they saw him as a victim of the racist LAPD. For better or worse, they chose to make a statement against racism, rather than one against domestic violence. But, as Sterling Brown’s Chris Darden says at the end of the season, Simpson’s acquittal meant nothing for black people, and everything for wealthy men in power—which is really what OJ had become (the series suggests that Simpsons’ class, rather than his race, better defined his position in America). Another way to look at it, is to say that the patriarchy won, once again.

Clark’s reaction to the race card being played so vehemently in the Simpson case came to mind as I watched Kerry Washington as Anita Hill, reacting to Clarence Thomas (played by Wendell Pierce) as he brought up race in his denial of her sexual harassment claim. In director Rick Famuyiwa’s Confirmation, there’s a powerful moment when the camera stays on Washington’s body, crouching down in a hallway, devastated by the blow of his rebuttal. Not only has he introduced race and racism into the conversation, but her own lawyer, Jeffrey Wright’s Charles Ogletree, is explaining to her that he has won many people over in doing so.

This has nothing to do with race. This is about sexual harassment, she declares (though Anita Hill was very aware that her position as a black woman with a political voice was, indeed, a race issue). Like Clark, she can’t make sense of the argument of racism in a case that is really about one man’s treatment and disregard for a woman (Thomas’ obviously being a different sort of attack than Simpson’s). But it doesn’t matter, because the gauntlet has been thrown. From the moment Thomas declared the senate hearings a “high-tech lynching,” he had essentially accused the white men in power of racism. And we all know how much white men in power hate to be accused of such things (even, or especially, when their policies and practices reek of the stench).

And while Hill was correct that race played no part in her accusation, it became clear that race was an issue in the case itself—as it [almost] always is. One character reminds her that the Senate Judiciary Committee—and the American public—would have had a very different reaction, had Hill been a white woman. And Thomas—despicable though he was (and is)—wasn’t wrong about the fact that his white counterparts were getting away with much worse. He knew that introducing/abusing the concept of “lynching” and racism in the political sphere was the perfect distraction from the real issue of sexism. Seeing Confirmation, especially after the finale of People vs. O.J. Simpson, it’s troubling to consider how much people would rather be accused of sexism or sexist behavior, than racism. Thomas was able to use the white men in power with this knowledge, and he was also able to find support from black women who (like the women on the Simpson jury) were likely to place racial solidarity above gender solidarity—even when the woman in question (really women, lest we forget about Angela Wright, played by Jennifer Hudson) is black.

Of course, this is not a new issue. Black women have always occupied a difficult (not to be confused with disempowered… ahem, we slay) space in America. “Misogynoir” is the term (coined by Moya Bailey) to define one aspect of it. To this day, for example, Alice Walker has to defend herself against those who read her 1982 novel The Color Purple as a text that seeks to do harm to black men. She was accused of airing out the dirty laundry of her black community, and feeding into myths of the black man as an animalistic brute who rapes and beats his women. The idea is that, if we are going to defeat racism in this country, there can be no space for critiques from black women of black men like Clarence Thomas, Bill Cosby, Kobe Bryant, etc. Racism still trumps sexism in so many circles, and oftentimes it seems that the myth continues—that we must fight racism first. We get the black men to vote first; we get a black man on the Supreme Court first, before we start taking our men to task. Women like Anita Hill and Alice Walker are attacked for their positions, in the same way that a black woman on Simpson’s jury surely would have been attacked, had she spoken out against him. What we did see in the FX series was Chris Darden on the receiving end of claims that he was a race traitor, for working for the prosecution. Black men, too (though certainly not in the same way as women) are expected to stand together against those white men and women that would seek to destroy them, regardless of issues like, say, actual guilt, or actual sexist behavior.

Earlier this year I read a powerful piece from Jill Soloway titled “I Said No to Bill Cosby and Yes to Jian Ghomeshi.” She closes with this call to topple the patriarchy:

We join up in this ether: the women, the people of color, the queer, and those who vibrate at the intersections. We are only beginning, but it’s impossible not to be inspired by this movement of constant connection. The Others are talking to Each Other now, daring one another towards truth, onward toward the dream of an ever-evolving #power movement.

Of course I want to join Soloway, and I want to believe that we can topple the patriarchy and white supremacy at the same time. But along with these two shows that highlight the difficulty in getting people to see racism and sexism as two equally evil evils, there’s WGN’s Underground which serves as a reminder that black Americans were brutalized and oppressed by white men and white women, although the men were the only citizens to legally own the enslaved (that is to say, while white women oppressed black enslaved people, they too were oppressed). It makes sense that racial solidarity comes first—at least it made sense then. But if we, Americans, are looking for an evolution (not to be confused with a revolution, that might land us right back where we started), we cannot afford to create a useless hierarchy where one evil trumps another. Because if we do, isn’t that how the Trumps of the world win?

Shannon M. Houston is a Staff Writer and the TV Editor for Paste. This New York-based freelancer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes almost all follows on Twitter.