Why Herman Cain Is Unfit to Lead

Posted on November 15th, 2011 by Vina Tran

Op-ed from Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, professor of law at Columbia University and the University of California, Los Angeles and  Catharine A. MacKinnon, professor of law at the University of Michigan and a visiting professor of law at Harvard University, originally posted on the NY Times, November 14, 2011 issue:

Hard as it has been to watch, harder still to live through, the spectacle of Herman Cain’s dodging sexual harassment allegations is a real step up for the status of women. Their sexual treatment is now part of the open political process, rather than a smarmy rumor to be passed among cognoscenti in the dark.

The fact that what several women have said might register in a presidential campaign — as if women’s sexual mistreatment at work might really matter — could be a potential game changer, even though the prevailing dynamics of sex, race and power that made sexual harassment so difficult to denounce in the first place are amply on display.

The firestorm surrounding Clarence Thomas’s defense to Anita F. Hill’s allegations in his confirmation hearing for the United States Supreme Court 20 years ago not only falsely set up race and gender as mutually exclusive and opposing forces, but also framed subsequent defenses to sexual harassment charges by Bill Clinton and others as mere personal peccadillo or political fodder. Predictably, in this latest remix, political intrigue and racial grandstanding, combined with vicious attacks on the accusers, have obscured the principal inquiry: the leadership potential of a presidential candidate.

Sexual harassment is not a Democratic or Republican issue, a liberal or conservative issue, or a black or white one, although those politics can shape it. As a consequence, it does not present a test of group loyalty but a chance to evaluate the reported behavior of someone who seeks to govern.

Sexual harassment is no private problem, readily compartmentalized, or a merely symbolic disqualifier. The allegations of sexual harassment go to the core of Mr. Cain’s qualifications to lead. Even lacking certainty about facts, what emerges as the Cain story unfolds is a picture of a man with significant deficits in terms of temperament, judgment and, potentially, veracity.

The seeming lack of concern about behavior that cost his former employer money, the sense of entitlement and belief in personal impunity, and the supposed failures to remember are disturbing enough; the accusations about his behavior toward women, abuse of authority, and inability to follow the law should be presumptively disqualifying in a person who seeks to unite and lead.

Polls indicate that some may be swayed by Mr. Cain’s denials, suggesting that the disclosures are a smear campaign, implying that these women fabricated their claims to derail his nomination. How inconvenient that the two initial claims surfaced over a decade before there was any political campaign to derail, and that Mr. Cain’s own employer apparently concluded that prudence dictated their settlement. This decision does not reflect how easily employers can be cornered. Sexual harassment law sets the bar high, even for the kind of quid pro quo demands reported by Sharon Bialek, the first of Mr. Cain’s accusers to go public.

That the National Restaurant Association decided to resolve the prior claims with compensation provides some picture of their nature: they were most likely not a one-time event (unless extremely severe), they were most likely not made by someone whose credibility could be easily demolished, and they were most likely not behaviors that would offend only an overly sensitive woman (as Mr. Cain suggested when he said that he had merely compared the height of one of his accusers, Karen Kraushaar, to the height of his wife). The law requires a pervasive pattern of unwelcome behavior of a sexual nature or acts of real severity as viewed by a reasonable person that create a hostile working environment, or demands to exchange sexual compliance for workplace benefits. Anything less would have provided the company little incentive to settle.

Mr. Cain’s assertion that the public attention to these reports is “a high tech lynching” threatens to insulate his behavior from the deeper assessment it demands. Like Mr. Thomas, whose elevation to the Supreme Court was facilitated by this statement, Mr. Cain rides a wave of suspicion and empathy. It would be wrong to dismiss the appeal of his defense, given the common dimension of public sexual humiliation and how deeply “lynching” resonates as a metaphor for black men in the real context of the sexual politics of racial hierarchy.

But neither Mr. Cain nor Mr. Thomas stands in the shoes of those crucified for offenses against the powerful. No one was, or will be, killed and hanged from a tree for defending the prerogatives of the top 1 percent. And it is germane that women of all races face a specific kind of public sexual humiliation for reporting their abuse at the hands of those with power over their employment. This is a major reason that so many, rather than speaking out, have opted for silence, and in overwhelming numbers still do. Simply put, women do not want to be pornography.

Remarkably but not atypically, Ms. Bialek’s Republicanism and her personal respect for Mr. Cain remain intact. Women who come out of the shadows, like Ms. Bialek and Ms. Hill before her, are not silenced as others can be, including by confidentiality agreements routinely forced on them by companies as the price of relief. These women want and expect the harasser to man up: acknowledge what he did, genuinely apologize, and change, meaning never do it again. And the failure of a candidate to do so should not be considered a winning political strategy but instead regarded as presumptive evidence of unfitness to lead. That would be a step toward real progress. Our leaders owe us nothing less.


  1. New blog post: Professors Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw and Catharine A. MacKinnon on "Why Herman Cain Is Unfit to Lead" http://t.co/89wjnThY

  2. YES. – Why Herman Cain Is Unfit to Lead http://t.co/nuKMh8Gu

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