I used to edit a column written by an attorney who represented the newspaper I worked for. Every so often we’d get together for lunch and he’d increase what I thought was an already considerable political education. He was something of a local political insider whom both Democrats and Republicans came to for his council (and contributions).
One thing he listened calmly in response to one of my highly emotional rants about a progressive politician whom had been drubbed at the ballot box in large part to Black voters backing a more mainstream candidate. He put down his fork and once I turned down the volume he interjected, “Jeff, you can’t be so hard on Black voters. As voters we are still somewhat politically immature.”
Stopped me dead in my tracks.
Back in his small office at the law firm, he had a picture on his wall that caught my eye. He was shaking hands and cheesing for the camera with Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court, Clarence Thomas.
Stunned that any conscious, down for the cause, pro-Black brutha would flaunt a photo glad-handing with the nation’s Number One lawn jockey, I asked him why he had a photo of Thomas in his office.
“Because Judge Thomas is a good man and a misunderstood Black man,” he said.
I have never thought of Thomas as a good man and never cared if he was misunderstood. I could give a shit if he is a good husband and father. What I knew is for 18 years he’s been the Black man on the Supreme Court that’s most hostile to Black people. I understood him perfectly.
Thomas was Uncle Clarence Thomas, the anti-Thurgood Marshall, the most anti-Black judge on the Supreme Court and George H.W. Bush’s worst joke on the nation and jurisprudence. Whenever opponents of affirmative action claimed unqualified Blacks were being given opportunities based on their color and not their qualifications, I gleefully pointed to Thomas as all the proof they would ever need.
There are few Black Americans who have benefited more and advanced further by way of affirmative action than Clarence Thomas. His entire career is a testament to a man of mediocre credentials and limited vision rising to a position of power based on his ability to ingratiate, flatter and insinuate himself into the patronage of affluent and well-connected White patrons.
His brief and undistinguished tenure as a judge, his tepid “qualified” to “not qualified” ranking by the American Bar Association and his 52-48 confirmation by the Senate is a testimony to the monument to mediocrity that is Clarence Thomas. The day that George H.W. Bush stood with Thomas and announced he had selected “the most qualified man I could find” was a bald-faced lie when the words passed from Bush’s lips and nothing has happened since then to validate his absurd claim.
Thomas is a affirmative action baby. Nowhere else would he have been elevated so far and so fast based on his minimal talents, skills and abilities. He is a product of political patronage and far from the best or the brightest to ascend to the nation’s highest court.
Thomas may be right that affirmative action sends people into places they cannot excel. He is the living proof of that assertion and every day he stays on the Supreme Court makes it only more obvious.
Affirmative action is a success and the emergence of a educated, employed and upwardly mobile Black middle class is evidence of it. There is no reason to junk the program because a few Clarence Thomases slip through the cracks and arise to positions of prominence they are not qualified for. Thomas is the exception, not exceptional.
When a career bureaucrat gets appointed to the federal judiciary in 1990 and then in 1991 gets promoted to a lifetime position on the Supreme Court. If that’s not a affirmative action hire, nothing is.
Thomas benefited from affirmative action and rose to his position through White patronage and being the appropriate Black face in the right place. That’s not a knock on him for taking advantage of his opportunities. That’s just honestly evaluating how Clarence got over.
What I dislike most about Thomas though is his judicial temperament which is out of the mainstream and far further to the extreme right than any other member of the court. Witness his two rulings during the last term where he cast the lone dissenting vote against upholding a key portion of the Voting Rights Act (Thomas would like to get rid of it entirely) and once again stood alone in a 8-1 ruling by the Court that proclaimed a strip search of a 14-year-girl was an illegal search. Thomas was unmoved by her plight.
Jeffrey Toobin has written a book about The Supreme Court entitled The Nine and on the NPR (dirty lefties!) program, “Fresh Air” he talked about Thomas with host Terry Gross:
Mr. TOOBIN: Clarence Thomas is not just the most conservative member of the Rehnquist court or the Roberts court. He’s the most conservative justice to serve on the court since the 1930s. If you take what Thomas says seriously, if you read his opinions, particularly about issues like the scope of the federal government, he basically thinks that the entire work of the New Deal is unconstitutional. He really believes in a conception of the federal government that hasn’t been supported by the justices since Franklin Roosevelt made his appointments to the court. You know, I went to a speech that Justice Scalia gave at a synagogue here in New York a couple of years ago, and someone asked him, `What’s the difference between your judicial philosophy and Justice Thomas?’ I thought a very good question. And Scalia talked for a while and he said, `Look, I’m a conservative. I’m a texturalist. I’m an originalist. But I’m not a nut.’ And I thought that…
GROSS: Meaning that he thinks Thomas is one.
Mr. TOOBIN: Well, that was certainly the implication.
Mr. TOOBIN: It was pretty amazing. I mean, Thomas is well outside the mainstream, even of the conservatives on the court.
Follow Thomas’ career on the High Court and you don’t have to be a legal scholar to figure out he’s following a philosophy that is radical, extremist and far beyond even what a bona fide conservative like Antonin Scalia feels comfortable with.
Any policy, no matter how well-intentioned, has a failure rate and I count Clarence Thomas as one of the more glaring failures of affirmative action. No one can tell me Thomas was “the most qualified” jurist Bush41 could find to replace Thurgood Marshall. Thomas wasn’t even the most qualified Black judge for the job.
However, merely because a few unqualified minorities or women rise to a position of prominence by virtue of programs set up to remedy past and present discrimination that does not mean the entire program should be junked. There are not hordes of unqualified minorities and women lowering the standards and quality of the military, colleges, and corporate boardrooms.
There have always been unqualified, unprofessional and incompetent White men flying planes upside down and making fatally poor military decisions, shooting up post offices, numbing bright minds in college classrooms and running corporations into bankruptcy. How do these idiots get into positions well beyond their abilities? Well, there’s affirmative action for White guys too. It’s just called the “good ol’ boy network” or something equally less formal.
People with power and privilege don’t willingly give up either and in fact, fight like hell to keep it. For those whom possess White skin and male privilege, they would prefer to pass those advantages along to their children instead of non-Whites and non-males.
Does diversity and inclusion mean some less than stellar people will rise higher than others? Probably so. Thomas is the embodiment of a mediocre talent being elevated higher than his own skills and abilities would have ever taken him by themselves. Thomas had the right complexion and the right connections and the right politics at a particularly opportunistic time in history for such a terribly undistinguished man.
But get rid of affirmative action and you don’t get more equality. All get is power and privilege holding on to both.
Sticking it to Thomas has been easy, if not necessarily fun. So much of his judicial temperment seems to consist of not missing any opportunity to sticking it to Black people with his disdain for civil rights and First Amendment freedoms.
Thomas is a straight-up thug for life when it comes to dishing payback to liberals, the civil rights establishment and the media.
Thomas was confirmed in 1991 to sit on the Court by a vote in the Senate of 52 to 48. The narrowest margin ever and you can bet Thomas never forgot the insult. Only 18 of the 43 remain in the Senate and Thomas is determined to outlast every one of them.
Thomas never set out to be a heroic inspiration in the mode of a Thurgood Marshall. Those were shoes he never wanted to try to fill. But over the course of time and history, Thomas has become the hero he never intended to be. He is the hero of White conservatives. They like how he speaks and love how he judges. They see him as an inspiration and a man to be admired.
Well, he is. Just not by the audience he was originally targeted for.