Guest column: The impervious nature of male privilege and supremacy

Posted on Oct 3 2018 - 5:50am by Willa M. Johnson

The United States Senate, as the “higher chamber” in the United States Congress, has the daunting responsibility to “advise and consent” on the appointment of Supreme Court justices. By definition, senators also have a responsibility to the American people. This responsibility obliges the Senate to do due diligence in a way that exceeds an obligation to one’s political party.

On Sept. 27, professor Christine Blasey Ford testified before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee that she is 100 percent sure that Judge Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her. Nevertheless, until Friday, when a Republican senator from Arizona, Jeff Flake, asked the Senate Judiciary Committee to reopen the FBI’s background investigation into these allegations, the Republican leadership of the committee was fully prepared to push ahead with a vote on Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination without even calling Mr. Mark Judge, a purported witness to the alleged assault.  

Twenty-seven years ago, I listened with incredulity as accusations by professor Anita Hill were lodged against Judge Clarence Thomas. Although Judge Thomas lost a great deal of support among senators after Hill’s testimony, he was nevertheless rewarded with a lifetime appointment on the nation’s highest court. Then, it was a Democratic-led Judiciary Committee that voted Judge Thomas’ nomination out of committee to the Senate floor.  

Sexual assault is a national scourge. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 1 in 3 women in the United States — roughly 50 million women — have experienced it. This endemic ought to be alarming to all people, especially our nation’s leaders.

We are in an age when seemingly good, respectable professional men in all walks of life have resigned, been exposed or been sent to prison because they have been accused of or found guilty of sexual assault. A few weeks ago, a staff member for Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, resigned under such a cloud. Presumably, that staffer also appeared to be a good person. Yet some senators on the committee still seem impervious to the accusations made against Judge Kavanaugh on the basis of his accomplished career. During the hearing, they were more intent on apologizing to the accused than investigating the charges of the accuser. As one male senator on the committee asserted, Judge Kavanaugh is no Bill Cosby. But how would we know that? The charges against Cosby were investigated. He was tried before a jury of 12 peers and was found guilty. But until Friday morning, Republican senators, including the one who made that remark, had been unwilling even to subject Judge Kavanaugh to a further background check, let alone the kind of criminal scrutiny that Bill Cosby faced. Privilege ought not to exempt the judge from being accountable.

Are we not woke? In what world could the testimony of a victim be both credible and yet not important enough to have all members of the Judiciary Committee anxious to investigate them fully? This could only occur in a world where male supremacy reigns.

Without a further, thorough background investigation, it would have been impossible to determine whether Judge Kavanaugh has done anything improper. If he has not done anything wrong, then I trust an FBI investigation will remove any cloud that the accusations about him have raised. The committee’s failure to initiate an investigation immediately after learning about Dr. Blasey Ford’s accusation constitutes a dereliction of duty. This kind of failure should trouble all Americans — Democrats, Republicans and Independents, alike.

This time, Democratic senators on the Judiciary Committee had been asking for an investigation into these charges. But those requests were ignored and chalked up to partisan wrangling. While it may be that partisanship motivated the Democrats, the facts supplied by Dr. Blasey Ford and others nevertheless should have been ample reason to reopen the investigation.

It would have been much easier to dismiss the Democratic requests for a further investigation if we did not have a disturbing pattern of men, including former U.S. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and, recently,  former United States Circuit Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit Alex Kozinski, who resigned after having been accused of sexual misconduct. To focus on politics or potential political benefit to either party fails to take seriously the injurious nature of the charges made by Dr. Blasey Ford and her fellow accusers, Ms. Ramirez and Ms. Swetnick.

Sen. Flake’s willingness to approach Democratic Sens. Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) on Friday morning saved the Senate from making an egregious error. I am deeply grateful for what Sen. Flake did. However, I am disappointed that what he did is so rare among our nation’s lawmakers.

It takes courage to decide in the moment on a case-by-case basis what is right and to do it. On Friday, Sen. Flake did what was right. Unfortunately, we learned on Thursday and Friday that toxic masculinity is all too often absolutely devoid of courage.

Willa M. Johnson is an associate professor of sociology.