What Joe Biden’s (Non-)Apology to Anita Hill Reveals About Him

Joe Biden’s ill-conceived outreach to Anita Hill revealed his inability to take responsibility and challenge patriarchal abuse.

Anita Hill, a professor at Brandeis University and head of the Hollywood Commission on Eliminating Sexual Harassment and Advancing Equality, in Waltham, Mass., Nov. 20, 2018. Hill reflects on her and Christine Blasey Ford's testimonies 27 years apart before the Senate Judiciary Committee, and what it would really take to remedy sexual harassment. (Elizabeth D. Herman/The New York Times)

Anita Hill in Waltham, Mass., on Nov. 20, 2018.

Photo: Elizabeth D. Herman/The New York Times via Redux

Joe Biden did not apologize to Anita Hill. When the former vice president arranged a phone call with Hill a few weeks in advance of announcing his presidential bid, the political calculus could not have been more transparent. Biden has had 28 years to apologize to Hill for the foul treatment she received in Senate Judiciary Committee hearings chaired by then-Sen. Biden. Hill had come to the Capitol to testify about her sexual harassment accusations against now-Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas — a hearing where, with Biden presiding, the young woman was eviscerated by a panel of 14 male senators.

When Biden did finally call — a blatant and ill-conceived attempt at damage control in the lead up to his announcement — it was not an apology he offered.

When Biden did finally call — a blatant and ill-conceived attempt at damage control in the lead up to his announcement — it was not an apology he offered. According to his own campaign, Biden “shared with her directly his regret for what she endured and his admiration for everything she has done to change the culture around sexual harassment in this country.”

Hill’s response to Biden, offered in an interview with the New York Times, recognized how his gesture was insufficient. And she was still more gracious than Biden deserves. “I cannot be satisfied by simply saying, ‘I’m sorry for what happened to you,’” said Hill, a professor of social policy, law, and women’s studies at Brandeis University. “I will be satisfied when I know there is real change and real accountability and real purpose.”

Biden’s non-apology is yet further evidence that the Third Way Democrat has no intention of addressing the sort of power structures that enable patriarchal sexual abuse to prevail.

In recent years, as questions of sexual predation and violence have risen to the political fore, Biden consistently framed himself as a victim of circumstance when it came to the Thomas hearings. He has made a point of playing up his passive role during Hill’s testimony. “I wish I could’ve done something,” he told the audience at his foundation’s awards ceremony last month. “To this day, I regret I couldn’t give her the kind of hearing she deserved.” He’s made comments along these lines numerous times.

As chair of the Judiciary Committee, Biden could well have “done something” in 1991 as his colleagues verbally battered and humiliated Hill. He oversaw a rushed process, against the wishes of a number of female colleagues at the time. He allowed a panel of 14 white men to bully and demean a young black woman. Biden himself appeared consistently more sympathetic to Thomas, whom he allowed to testify twice, while his accuser testified only once.

Appearing on “The View” on Friday, Biden doubled down on his refusal to acknowledge his personal wrongdoing; passive-tense phrases abounded. When questioned about recent accusations of touching women inappropriately, Biden said, “I’m sorry this happened, but I’m not sorry in the sense that I think I did anything that was intentionally designed to do anything wrong or be inappropriate.” His qualification here is crucial: The suggestion that responsibility for harm lies only with those who intentionally do something wrong or inappropriate gives alibi to a whole manner of structural types of violence, which can be perpetuated without any individual ill intent at all.

Hill told the Times that Biden “set the stage” for the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh. “He needs to give an apology to the other women and to the American public because we know now how deeply disappointed Americans around the country were about what they saw,” Hill said. “And not just women. There are women and men now who have just really lost confidence in our government to respond to the problem of gender violence.”

Former US vice president Joe Biden greets people as he prepares to leave a rally organized by UFCW Union members to support Stop and Shop employees on strike throughout the region at the Stop and Shop in Dorchester, Massachusetts, April 18, 2019. - The 76-year-old Biden has not yet officially thrown his hat in the ring for the 2020 presidential election. (Photo by JOSEPH PREZIOSO / AFP)

Former Vice President Joe Biden greets people at a rally organized by UFCW Union members to support Stop and Shop employees on strike in Dorchester, Mass., on April 18, 2019.

Photo: Joseph Prezioso/AFP/Getty Images

To even entertain the possibility that an empty non-apology could in any way ameliorate his position in Hill’s eyes points to how perniciously insensitive Biden remains to his role in her mistreatment. The same callous disregard was apparent when the would-be Democratic nominee joked about accusations that he inappropriately touched women and made them uncomfortable. “I just want you to know, I had permission,” Biden told an audience at a union event after he hugged the union president and shook children’s hands on stage.

Biden’s flawed logic that, absent intentionality, there is no blame seemed to inform his claim on “The View” that there was “not one whisper of a scandal” during President Barack Obama’s tenure in the White House. Avid political observers who remember a time before November 2016 might, by contrast, recall the escalation of drone warfare and civilian fatalities; the failure to close Guantanamo Bay prison; and the Snowden revelations of mass government surveillance. But, according to a rationale in which purported good intent absolves guilt, Biden’s conscience is clean.

Biden and his supporters have pointed to the vice president’s record against sexual violence to parry allegations of misogynist behavior. One example that keeps popping up is his championing of the 1994 Violence Against Women Act. As Diane Moskowitz explained at Jezebel, the law introduced crucial provisions for domestic violence victims — like rape crisis centers, the National Domestic Violence Hotline, and battered women’s shelters — but it also “bound vital supports for domestic violence victims to an endless expansion of the carceral state.” The Violence Against Women Act, Moskowitz reminds us, was tucked inside the pernicious 1994 Crime Bill, which Biden helped draft. Indeed, support for the provisions on violence against women went a long way toward gaining liberal backing for Biden’s wider “law and order” bill.

I’m not suggesting that Biden’s introduction of the Violence Against Women Act was merely a deceptive gambit to push for a harsher, larger carceral state. My point, echoing Moskowitz and a number of other critics, is that even his proudest legacy when it comes to addressing sexual violence must be considered in the context of his efforts to bolster the violent, racist criminal justice system. Just as Biden has shown no shame, only pantomime “regret,” for what happened to Anita Hill, he said last week that he is “not ashamed” of the Crime Bill, all while paying lip service to the “big problem” of institutional racism. Notably, the victims of Biden’s criminal justice legislation could not and cannot help themselves out of the carceral system with claims to good intentionality.

Biden is more than able to identify America’s structural problems, but his failure to recognize his own part in upholding them proves he is unable — and unwilling — to fight them. His treatment of Hill is not an outlier; it is representative. Biden said of Hill on Friday, “I don’t think I treated her badly.” We should take him seriously when he makes such comments and demand a presidential candidate with a better understanding of what constitutes “bad.”

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