To be black in America is to keenly understand that at any point your country can and will reveal its corrosive and cowardice head, most often when it’s most opportunistic to legislatively implement archaic policy that will punish its most marginalized and most maligned. I can vividly remember heading out to the park and overhearing on the television that a then 43-year-old Clarence Thomas (just a couple of years younger than I am today) was being introduced by George Bush to replace the great, Thurgood Marshall. Unaware of the magnitude of the appointment I went on with my day which included playing basketball until the sun went down.
As I prepared to resume my routine the following day, I believe it was a Tuesday, it was becoming clear why that black man, standing nervously next to the President in Maine, was a recluse of sorts. And even at my young age I found it odd that no black elders were impressed nor excited about this appointment — independent of who was nominating the candidate. At this juncture in my life, ages 12 to 16, I delivered the Boston Globe and the Sunday edition of the New York Times and would save articles that I found either relevant or in line with my coming of age as a black male in America. The nomination of Thomas was publicly criticized by Justice Thurgood Marshall’s heir apparent Judge Leon Higginbotham as a dangerous and deft Republican strategy, rightfully so as it has laid the groundwork for blocking Merrick Garland and successfully seating Trump nominees Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett. Thomas has gone on to infamously etch himself into history as the most reliable conservative vote; the first Supreme Court justice to openly criticize the landmark civil rights ruling, Brown v. Board of Education, and he joined a 2013 high court Shelby County v. Holder decision that gutted the Voting Rights Act.
Clarence Thomas, the longest-serving current justice, has once gone a full decade without asking any questions, a rare record since no justice for 45 years prior had gone a single term without asking questions during cases. In “An Open Letter to Justice Clarence Thomas from a Federal Judicial Colleague”, Judge Higginbotham addresses the “duality” that confronts all African Americans and discusses the importance of this insight in their outlooks as public officials. He suggests that Justice Thomas fails to appreciate the “duality” of his experiences as an American and as an African American.
The Clarence Thomas paradox was then and remains fascinating to me, even more bewildering than the cast of characters including and beyond Ward Connerly, David Clarke, and John McWhorter. Some will argue that folks of my ilk espouse the dangerously draconian ideology that black folks aren’t monolithic, which is both a true and a problematic assertion. No human should wholly adopt the assumed ethos of any group as an act of deference; however, each of us of sane minds must be emotionally mature to understand that we are all subjected to the intersected manacles of racism, sexism, homophobia, and white supremacy and it is our job as individuals and members of a collective to work arduously to fight off these forces. We were warned of Thomas before his allegations of sexual harassment were levied by Anita Hill. Democratic Senator Howard Metzenbaum of Ohio threatened to investigate Judge Thomas’s record on abortion, saying, “I will not support yet another Reagan-Bush Supreme Court nominee who remains silent on a woman’s right to choose and then ascends to the court to weaken that right.” The irony is that if you were to conduct a modest google search of President Bush’s views on women’s issues most notably the importance of Planned Parenthood, they ran surprisingly counter to those of Thomas’.
We must challenge ourselves to examine the problematic complexities of Clarence Thomas and what he represents to a world that remains willfully ignorant when discussing matters of race and gender. As we are now writing new chapters to the ongoing Thomas saga, some of my relatives spoke of their frustration with then Senator and now President Biden’s lack of protection for Professor Anita Hill. To think the worlds of Thomas and Biden are inextricably linked 31 years later under the auspices of Roe V. Wade and potentially with a series of other very important matters under review. Thomas’ stance, “ if the Constitution protects a value as a “right,” that protection must be found in clauses and phrases of the document other than “due process” itself.
Clarence Thomas has been the first justice to publicly assert that rights to privacy, contraception, Same Sex Marriage, Voting Rights, the 1964 New York Times v. Sullivan decision and possibly the landmark defense of Brown V Board could be questioned in the face of this abusive and shocking overnight rights reversal for millions of American women and girls.
We, and I say we as a collective of voters black and beyond, must mobilize and call out the radically subversive practices of Justice Thomas and his band of conservative super-majority justices directly for the damage unprecedented reversals will do along race, gender and poverty lines. Per usual the impact of theory argued, and decisions made in ivory towers will be placed on the backs of black and brown women, on the poor, disenfranchised, addicted, indigenous, and undocumented. In true expression of American political irony, states with abortion bans rank lowest in social programs for children and poverty. Right to life policy has no stake in the quality of life for mother or child afterbirth. Calling out Thomas may be a delicate dance for non-black folks in our hyper-sensitivity to political correctness, for fear of being labeled as prejudice at least and racist at the worst. Thomas, a man who chaired the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) from 1982 to 1990, is no stranger to wading through allegations of discrimination based on race, sex, age, religion, or national origin in the workplace and in our larger society. His record there indicates his belief that civil rights should not be measured as a matter of group equity. Hot button issues of late, gun control, domestic terror, critical race theory and gay rights may not have hit close enough to home to inspire many American whites to criticize legislators and SCOTUS, now can an assault on women’s autonomy over their bodies inspire public pressure?
To label him as merely an Uncle Tom or a sellout is understandable, although dare I say lazy and often for shock value. A brief study of Thomas’ personal history tells a story of a poor southern boy deeply traumatized by racial inequity and stereotypes. So desperate to erase his race and so wounded that he has developed a warped sense of black nationalism and American patriotism. It’s more important to understand that having a black man champion the Republican agenda across four decades, deny systemic racism and urge the marginalized to look inward for elevation has not opened doors, but shut them. He has not pulled additional chairs to the table of power, nor has he better equipped Blacks with tools to build their own — he has only turned himself into a caricature of a man far removed from his roots, ignorant of his own privilege and either unaware or unbothered by his own exploitation. His judicial lens may be debatably malicious, however any knowledge or involvement in alleged misconduct by his Conservative activist wife Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, would be clearly inappropriate. Ginni Thomas was previously revealed to have been in touch with Trump White House chief of staff Mark Meadows via text message between the election and Jan. 6. Notably, Justice Thomas and Justice Samuel Alito disagreed with the Supreme Court’s decision to intervene amid Trump allies’ legal battles over 2020 election results. Thomas was also the lone dissenter when the SCOTUS ruled against Trump as he sought to have his White House records shielded from the Jan. 6 committee investigation.
Seeing a black man in Justice Thomas’ position helps to paint a picture and uphold the idea that America is a country working against white supremist doctrines. But what happens when representation is only symbolic and without substance? There is a belief that corporations and organizations finding or pointing to black faces changes the calculus of our nation, however it’s quite the contrary. How quickly can the savior become the upholder of the status quo, or even worse the scapegoat? DEI and all these other initiatives don’t examine that we should all call out harmful black folks in our schools, police ranks, etc it doesn’t mean we are racist or don’t want to see blacks rise as civil rights organizations need to act to rid ourselves of black folks who don’t need to have a black agenda which I believe in but ignore the nuance of being black under the remnants of the legislative structures of Jim Crow.
Tony Clark is a Professor of African-American Literature, Co-President of The MBK, Cambridge Taskforce, and Principal of The T.Clark Strategic Group.