Commentary Magazine

Clarence Thomas and the Blacks

The appointment of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court may well mark an important moment in the debate over racial policy in America.

For now, of course, the long-term significance of the Thomas confirmation has been obscured by the controversy over last-minute charges that the nominee sexually harassed his subordinate, Anita Hill, while both of them were serving at the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).1 And two other factors have also served to blunt the appointment’s impact.

First, Thomas, apparently on the advice of White House aides mindful of the unhappy fate of Judge Robert Bork, made a calculated decision to avoid serious discussion of any issues which might provoke pointed ideological clashes during his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. That this maneuver was essential to a favorable Senate confirmation vote is open to debate. But without question, the strategy of avoidance of intellectual conflict assured that the nation would receive only passing glimpses of the man whose outspoken opinions were central to his appeal as a public official.

Second, President Bush’s decision to sign the 1991 Civil Rights Act—with its endorsement of the disparate-impact theory, a doctrine crucial to the more sweeping affirmative-action decisions of the past two decades—has confused the debate over racial preference, provided additional ammunition to politicians like David Duke whose appeal is rooted in the exploitation of white racial resentment, and undermined black conservatives, Clarence Thomas most of all, who have been engaged in a serious effort to develop new, non-racial criteria for affirmative-action policies.

Yet however unsatisfactory things may seem in the aftermath of the confirmation “process,” in the long run the Thomas appointment may well signal the symbolic beginning of a new and more productive period in racial affairs. If so, it will perhaps bring us nearer to a resolution of the often bitter arguments over the strategies for black economic advancement, the degree to which racism is responsible for black-white inequality, and the proper role of race in government social policy.

Even at a minimum, however, the Thomas confirmation should validate a degree of intellectual pluralism in these discussions that is unprecedented in the post-civil-rights era. Pluralism, in this case, means just that: a genuine diversity of views rather than a pendular swing from Left to Right. While such a development in itself would not necessarily lead to the forging of a national consensus, it would certainly mark a vast improvement over the current state of affairs, in which attempts by any black to diverge from what the current crop of black leaders defines as the truth are treated as acts of betrayal and serious discussion is therefore foreclosed.

To be sure, the Thomas experience could easily lead one to draw precisely the opposite conclusion. Thomas, after all, was treated by his black critics as the ultimate pariah, a black man with an allegedly anti-black agenda and a set of personal motives which were charitably described as selfish and, among his more extreme adversaries, downright evil.

Yet, paradoxically, the vendetta-like quality of the anti-Thomas offensive could provoke the question of whether it was the prospect of a conservative black being named to the Supreme Court which his critics really feared. Or was it, rather, the possibility that the conservative nominee’s ideas might prove persuasive to important segments of their own black constituency?



In this regard, consider the revealing statement of Congressman John Conyers of Michigan, one of several members of the Congressional Black Caucus to testify officially against confirmation. Conyers told the Judiciary Committee of fears of “being placed in the position [where] a member of the Supreme Court . . . will . . . be quoted extensively and used against us.” As this comment suggests, many black leaders would have preferred a white conservative nominee, whose views would have been automatically suspect among blacks, to a black conservative like Thomas; as another member of the Black Caucus, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton of the District of Columbia, asked, why even appoint a black to the Supreme Court if he is a conservative?

Taking this line a bit further, others drew a parallel between Thomas and Booker T. Washington, the controversial turn-of-the-century spokesman for black self-help, whose stature as a leader, some charged, derived from the patronage of politically powerful whites. Likewise, Thomas was accused by Ronald Walters, the chairman of Howard University’s political-science department, of serving as a front man for a white conservative elite pursuing a “cynical strategy . . . to supplant liberal black political leadership with a more conservative genre.” In Walters’s view, the “extraordinary public credibility” achieved by Thomas and other black conservatives is almost solely due to their having been anointed by white patrons. This process, he adds, “is an oppressive impediment to the true expression of black mainstream opinions.”

On this latter point Walters could not be more mistaken. As the Thomas debate makes abundantly clear, the greatest menace to the intellectual honesty that is essential to the creation of “mainstream opinions” stems from an atmosphere of intolerance toward dissent from the orthodoxy of the day. But the word intolerance does not begin to describe the reaction to the Thomas nomination. For while other Supreme Court choices have had their credentials called into question and their ideas characterized as extreme, none before has been subjected to the kind of systematic and often vulgar campaign of character assassination that was directed at Clarence Thomas.



At the core of the anti-Thomas strategy was an attempt by his black opponents to deny the nominee the right to call himself black. According to Ronald Walters, blackness “ultimately means more than color; it also means a set of values from which Thomas is apparently estranged.” Derrick Bell, a Harvard law professor, claimed that Thomas “doesn’t think like a black.” Judge Bruce Wright of New York called Thomas “emotionally white.” Others took note of Thomas’s marriage to a white woman; Russell Adams, chairman of Howard University’s department of Afro-American studies, saw this as “a sign of his rejection of the black community.”

Indeed, declared New York Congressman Charles Rangel, Thomas “goes against the grain of everything black people believe in” and is “completely against everything that is in the interest of minorities.” Rangel added that as an opponent of affirmative action who had nevertheless benefited from a special program to enhance minority college enrollment, Thomas had “dedicated his life to seeing to it that those benefits end with him.” Another familiar theme was struck by Congressman Louis Stokes of Ohio when he proclaimed that “the difference between Judge Thomas and most black Americans who have achieved in spite of poverty, adversity, and racism is that most of them have not forgotten from whence they have come.”

Nasty as they were, these remarks paled in comparison to the testimony of Congressman Major Owens of New York. Owens called Thomas a “monstrous negative role model,” and compared the reaction in the black community to the Thomas nomination with “how the French would have felt if the collaborative Marshal Pétain had been awarded a medal after World War II, or if in Norway Quisling had been made a high official in the government.”

In addition to racial insults, the anti-Thomas campaign involved a more subtle effort to convince Americans that there was something mentally wrong with the man. Indeed, Thomas was arguably the object of more amateur psychoanalysis than any government official of recent memory, with the obvious exception of Richard Nixon—and this, despite the nominee’s having been in the public eye only briefly.

The most ambitious effort along these lines was a lengthy evaluation of Thomas’s psychological state in Time magazine, forbiddingly entitled, “The Pain of Being Black,” which amounted to a tendentious “explanation” of why a black American would maintain such peculiar opinions as opposition to racial preference. While the author, Jack K. White, denied believing that “Thomas or any other black who disagrees with racial preferences and hiring quotas is suffering from a mental disorder,” the article, which consisted primarily of observations by black psychiatrists, left the clear impression that the reverse was the case. White quoted Professor Ronald Hall to the effect that many blacks, suddenly thrust into positions of responsibility in predominantly white environments, undergo a “bleaching process,” whereby they identify with the whites around them and reject their black heritage.

In a similar vein, two prominent authorities on the special psychological problems of blacks, Alvin Poussaint and Price Cobbs, described a new “disorder,” dubbed Token Black Syndrome, or TBS, in which blacks who are the first in their family to attend college come to accept the traditional negative stereotypes of blacks and, in compensation, devote their energies to meeting the standards of white society. Blacks afflicted with TBS, we were informed, frequently suffer an exalted sense of their own achievements along with contempt for the presumed shortcomings of others of their race, including family members, who they believe are less gifted and thus inferior.

Then there was the concept that Thomas and his fellow black conservatives are, as Dr. Poussaint put it, “opporTOMists”—that is, blacks who embrace conservative and, it was implied, anti-black positions in order to secure favors from white conservative patrons. Derrick Bell similarly said of black conservatives that they “run the gamut from opportunists to out-and-out hustlers.”



Under the sway of a wave of such anti-Thomas invective on op-ed pages and television news forums, whites tended to overlook the fact that a majority of blacks held Thomas in considerable esteem. But for his black critics, who were well aware of this fact, it was a source of profound discomfort. Their uneasiness escalated as the details of Thomas’s biography began to emerge: the boyhood of poverty, the record of hard work and high scholastic achievement, his gratitude to the grandparents who raised him and the nuns who taught him, his initial determination to forge a career in nonracial arenas, his independent-mindedness as a public official. (Another biographical detail, that Thomas was awarded principal custody of his son after his divorce from his first wife, and raised the boy as a single parent, was curiously never stressed in press accounts.)

By any standard it was an impressive story, and it greatly complicated the plan to demonstrate that this son of rural Southern poverty did not qualify as a real black. Eventually, the critics, white as well as black, elaborated two lines of response.

First, it was asserted that Thomas’s life had absolutely no bearing on his fitness as a Supreme Court Justice, and that on other grounds he was not well qualified. This appeal to strict meritocratic standards, however, was all too clearly hypocritical coming from the same people who had fought so hard against the eminently qualified Robert Bork. More to the point, no one, and certainly not Thomas’s opponents, had ever before claimed that race, religion, social class, early political experiences, place of origin, or other personal characteristics should be given no weight whatsoever in the Supreme Court selection process. On the contrary, liberal commentators had frequently complained about the absence of “diversity” on the high court, just as they had consistently been demanding that everything else in society, from jobs to university admissions to chapters in history textbooks, be apportioned along racial and gender lines.

As for the general black support Thomas enjoyed (a USA Today poll gave him a black approval rating of over 50 percent at the time of his appointment), it was claimed that this represented nothing more than racial solidarity—brothers cheering on a brother—and did not at all imply an endorsement of Thomas’s philosophy. Almost immediately after the appointment was announced, for example, Edolphus Towns of New York, the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, explained that “most black Americans do not know the record of Clarence Thomas,” and added that attitudes would change “once this information gets out.” Congressman Conyers elaborated on this theme during the confirmation hearings, claiming that Thomas’s initial support began to wane “as we began to reveal the difficulties with his track record . . . not just from the Congressional Black Caucus, but through the church leadership, the civil-rights community, the labor community, women’s organizations, the understanding of him has completely changed those polling figures.”

Conyers, of course, was wrong. Black support for Thomas held relatively steady at over 50 percent throughout the 100-day-plus process, and reached nearly 70 percent at the time of the confirmation vote. And it did so in spite of the aggressive, well-organized campaign to “Bork” Thomas—that is, to discredit him through the mobilization of cause groups and a high-pitched negative publicity onslaught, the very tactics which led to the earlier Senate rejection of Bork.

At the very least, this means that most blacks did not see Thomas’s conservatism or even his skepticism about race-based affirmative action as a threat to racial progress. It also may mean that some of Thomas’s controversial ideas struck a chord among blacks, particularly among an emerging middle class increasingly prone to question the traditional liberal verities on issues like crime, welfare, schools, and the rights of parents to make decisions regarding their children’s well-being.



Of course Thomas is by no means the first black of independent mind to have earned the racial elites’ scorn and opprobrium. Among intellectuals, Thomas Sowell, too, has been called a Quisling, Glenn Loury a traitor, and similar epithets have been hurled at Shelby Steele and other dissenters from orthodoxy. In Thomas’s case, the abuse was more public and sustained because of the high position at stake. But the ugly pattern had been established well before his nomination to the Supreme Court.

There is, however, reason to hope that those who follow in Thomas’s footsteps may not be forced to endure similar ordeals. To begin with, the nation learned in the course of the Thomas debate that a strong measure of intellectual diversity does exist within black America, that black thought is far from monolithic, and that this is a reality which the current black leadership cannot wish away, much as it would like to. While Congressmen and civil-rights lawyers made clear their loathing for Thomas’s ideas, many other blacks expressed respect for the man and enthusiasm for his approach to civil rights, and did so quite visibly in newspaper articles, appearances on television news forums, and in testimony before the Judiciary Committee.

Significantly, the roster of Thomas supporters went well beyond the relatively limited group of recognized black intellectuals who had been functioning as the principal spokesman for conservative views. Those speaking up for the nominee included liberal journalists, businessmen, clergymen, law-enforcement representatives, academics, university presidents, government officials. And this does not take into account the appearance of Thomas’s EEOC colleagues who testified on his behalf during the Anita Hill segment of the confirmation hearings: smart, articulate, black women whom no one would dare accuse of “estrangement” from their racial background—precisely the kind of successful professionals whose very existence is a tribute to the civil-rights revolution.

Nor can the impressive impact of black conservatives and, for want of a better term, iconoclasts on American intellectual life any longer be ignored. Whether it is Thomas Sowell on the global implications of racial preference, Shelby Steele on the psychology of victimhood, Stephen L. Carter on demands for black intellectual conformity, or Stanley Crouch on cultural themes, those who have self-consciously shifted away from the political and cultural traditions of racial protest have made the most influential contribution in recent years to the debates over race, art, economics.

In no single area has the influence of Sowell, Steele, and the others been more pronounced than the racial-preference debate. Steele’s The Content of Our Character, with its theory that blacks and whites are engaged in a subtle contest over the mantle of victimhood, is now universally cited as a basic source in any discussion of affirmative action. A more recent contribution is Carter’s Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby, notable for its cogent observations on the damaging psychological repercussions of race-conscious policies.

Unfortunately, such writings have had a negligible impact on the country’s black leadership. The frenzied campaign against the Thomas nomination can be traced to two issues—abortion and affirmative action. But it was affirmative action and affirmative action alone which aroused the civil-rights universe; Thomas’s black antagonists hardly mentioned his positions on school desegregation, criminal justice, or, for that matter, abortion, all issues of considerable concern to blacks and which appear regularly on the Supreme Court docket.

Nor did they seem exercised over the questions which inflamed the white Left, such as whether a journal on whose advisory board Thomas served had published anti-abortion articles by writers other than Thomas (a special concern of the Nation), or whether the nominee displayed “distinct political obsessions” about, among other things, free-market economics (a Nation writer was particularly disturbed by Thomas’s having declared: “Commerce, like sports, teaches us the conditions of freedom”). It is safe to say that had Thomas endorsed a moderate version of affirmative action, along the lines favored by Republican Senators John Danforth and Arlen Specter, there would have been little or no opposition to his confirmation on the part of the civil-rights establishment.



Supporters of preferential policies have often been charged with trying to impose them through fundamentally undemocratic methods in order to avoid open debate on an issue on which Americans hold strong and altogether negative sentiments. And indeed, the Thomas hearings revealed a Democratic party almost terror-stricken at the prospect of a thorough public airing of this highly divisive issue. Despite the months of publicity devoted to Thomas’s pointed hostility to race-based policies, despite affirmative action’s having been very much on the congressional agenda due to the debate over the 1991 Civil Rights Act, despite the fact that the boundaries of preferential policies have been largely determined by the Supreme Court, despite all this, the Democratic members of the Judiciary Committee—Kennedy, Metzenbaum, Biden, Simon, et al.—studiously avoided extended dialogue with the nominee on the issue. Instead, the committee’s Democratic members badgered Thomas about his concept of natural law, delivered lectures on coat-hanger abortions, and spent fruitless hours trying to elicit his views on Roe v. Wade .It eventually fell to Republican committee members like Orrin Hatch and Arlen Specter to discover that in fact Thomas had a nuanced approach which favors affirmative-action programs based on economic status rather than skin color.

This position could hardly be described as motivated by mean-spiritedness, and it was certainly not without precedent. The civil-rights leader Bayard Rustin and the liberal Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas were among those with strong civil-rights credentials who called for policies which would give preference to the poor rather than to racial or ethnic categories. Such a class-based strategy, however, has practically no support among today’s black leaders. Thus, for example, during the Thomas hearings, Major Owens likened affirmative action to reparations, similar to the payments Jewish survivors received from the West German government as atonement for the Holocaust. “In the case of war, one nation loses a war, they have to pay,” Owens noted, adding that he did not favor cash payments, but rather preferential policies as America’s form of reparations for the historical injustices visited on blacks.



One suspects that there are many blacks who admire Clarence Thomas not simply for what he has achieved, but also because they find his philosophy appealing. One also suspects that black support would have been even more substantial had the nation witnessed the real Clarence Thomas, with his original and compelling voice, instead of the caricature presented by his detractors and the flat and uninformative image projected by Thomas himself during the hearings. For in articles, speeches, and interviews, Thomas comes across as a man of strong conviction whose views on racial matters reflect a combination of high principle and common sense.

Thus, on the one hand, he seems pessimistic about the prospects for a society free of racism, having told journalist Juan Williams:

There is nothing you can do to get past black skin. I don’t care how educated you are, how good you are at what you do—you’ll never have the same contacts or opportunities, you’ll never be seen as equal to whites.

But, on the other hand, Thomas believes that for blacks a more important message is the danger of an obsession with racism. As he told the 1985 graduating class of Savannah State College, blacks are burdened not only with racism, but “with a recent tradition that almost requires you to wallow in excuses,” and has urged the students: “Do not succumb to this temptation of always blaming others.”

Furthermore, Thomas’s skepticism about affirmative action is a reflection of his overall view that massive government instrusion into black life has actually exacerbated the inner-city crisis. He challenged

those who proffer a governmental solution to show me which group in the history of this country was pulled up and put into the mainstream of the economy with governmental programs. . . . Show me the precedent for all this experimentation on our race.

Similarly, Thomas has declared that

those who attempt to capture the daily counseling, oversight, common sense, and vision of my grandparents in a governmental program are engaging in sheer folly. Government cannot develop individual responsibility, but it certainly can refrain from preventing or hindering the development of this responsibility.

Then, too, there are such emotional questions as the rights of criminal defendants and issues touching on moral values, on all of which Thomas has outspoken opinions that are more in keeping with dominant black opinion than are the views of his critics. Take as a representative instance the Reverend Buster Soaries, a self-help advocate who once worked for Jesse Jackson’s Operation PUSH, and who supported Thomas. In testifying on the nominee’s behalf, Reverend Soaries provided the Judiciary Committee with a much-needed, although unfortunately ignored, perspective when he noted that far more criminal-justice cases come before the Court than those involving abortion or affirmative action. He added, pointedly, “Crime has become such an enigma that black people in black neighborhoods have become afraid of black children,” and made clear that, in his experience, the priorities set down by the Black Caucus and other anti-Thomas organizations were not the priorities of the inner city:

It is an enigma today that in New York City the greatest concern among the people that I speak to is the fact that the Board of Education has decided to distribute condoms to teenage children without their parents’ permission. . . . It’s an enigma because, on the one hand, we have the question of individual rights; and, on the other hand, we have the issue of the integrity of the family. . . . In the city of Detroit, I went to speak at a public high school where we had another enigma. The enigma was that parents were pressing the school to install metal detectors because children were bringing weapons to school. Civil libertarians and some advocates of civil rights oppose the parents who are attempting to protect their children in the name of individual rights. The point is we have such a complex situation today that is much larger than the black-white situation of the civil-rights [era].



What Reverend Soaries is pointing to is a widening rift between community-based black leaders and liberal organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), some of which were in the forefront of the opposition to Thomas. Community leaders in Detroit and elsewhere, for example, have clashed with civil-liberties lawyers over single-sex schools for black boys, while in Chicago civil libertarians opposed a campaign to remove guns from public-housing projects.

Even more strikingly, in Atlanta, when a series of children-killing-children incidents spurred the city’s political leadership to impose a teenage curfew, the local chapter of the ACLU opposed the measure and vowed to fight it in court. Michael Hauptman, the Atlanta ACLU president, decried the ordinance not only as “constitutionally wrong” and “morally wrong,” but also as racist, even though the curfew had been proposed by a black councilwoman, adopted by a black-dominated city council, championed by high-ranking black police officials, and generally supported by the city’s black population.

The persistence among liberal groups of an ideology which equates strict anti-crime measures with racism has alienated broad segments of local black leadership, and not merely self-help advocates in the Clarence Thomas mold. One even hears calls for strict codes of civil conduct from blacks with a reputation for militant nationalism, such as Calvin O. Butts, III, a Harlem clergyman best known for his angry denunciations of white racism. Reverend Butts has endorsed the enforcement of laws against public nuisance, gambling, and public urination, has called for a teenage curfew and the confiscation of cars in which loud music is being played, and has attacked Mayor Dinkins for supporting the New York school board’s condom-distribution plan because of its abrogation of parental rights.

At the same time that local community leaders have embraced the themes of personal responsibility and self-help, black intellectuals have been engaged in a reassessment of the legacy of none other than Booker T. Washington. The snickers which formerly greeted Washington’s stress on economic development have been replaced by a good deal of respect, at least in some quarters. Washington, of course, still has his detractors. Thus in the epilogue to a report by the NAACP which called for a rejection of the Thomas nomination, the eminent historian John Hope Franklin suggested that the Thomas self-help message was as much a fraud as Washington’s had been in his day, with the obvious implication that blacks today are as subject to oppression as they were after the collapse of Reconstruction.

Where Franklin’s evaluation once would have gone virtually unchallenged, now many blacks reject the view of Washington as an Uncle Tom, and a growing number point to Washington’s strictures on education, moral character, and economics as entirely relevant to the problems of the inner city. Those who recognize the value of Washington’s philosophy include conservatives, moderate nationalists, latter-day separatists, and a few whose main identification has been as committed integrationists. A diverse group, to be sure, but one that has been drawn together by the failure of a substantial segment of black America to enter the economic mainstream, and a sense that state-engineered integrationism has contributed to the deterioration of once-viable black institutions.



Here it is important to distinguish between those genuinely attracted to the self-help philosophy and those who feel obliged to endorse the concept for fear of being accused of fostering black dependency on the state. That black leaders feel somewhat defensive on this score was made clear during the Thomas controversy, when the nominee’s critics frequently prefaced their remarks with the avowal that they too were committed advocates of self-help and moral revitalization. Having gotten this pro-forma declaration out of the way, the speaker would invariably proceed to a harsh assault on Thomas, who really does believe in self-help.

It is this kind of behavior which makes one wary of sweeping conclusions about changes in the ideological atmosphere. It is perfectly conceivable that the black leadership will respond with renewed fury when its intellectual hegemony is next challenged. And it must also be acknowledged that the growing pluralism in black intellectual life has not carried over into the realm of electoral politics, with the most telling statistic being that, of 436 black state legislators, only three are Republicans.

Nevertheless, it does seem evident that an increasing number of blacks are moving beyond the affirmative-action controversy, which they see as increasingly irrelevant to the future of their race, and paying renewed attention to the crisis of the black urban poor. Some identify the core problem as crime, and demand sweeping and severe measures in response. Others concentrate on the plight of children without fathers; still others have taken up the challenge of rebuilding black businesses, schools, hospitals, parks, and other neighborhood institutions.

We do not know the precise strength of this unorganized movement for black neighborhood revival, but the anecdotal evidence indicates that it is growing throughout America’s large cities. The ideological roots of this movement are diverse, and some of the ideas it has spawned—most notably Afrocentric education—are foolish, and even dangerous. We do not even know whether seemingly worthy experiments like the privatization of government-owned housing projects, inner-city enterprise zones, or educational vouchers will benefit the urban poor; Clarence Thomas himself has referred to some of these proposals as “gadget ideas,” and has called instead for an all-out assault on crime.

Be that as it may, the support Thomas received from the majority of black Americans—support extended in the teeth of his scandalous treatment by the established racial leadership—along with the growing competition of ideas over the future or race relations, together suggest that a process may be under way which will finally point America in the direction of a solution to our longstanding racial dilemma.


1 For a discussion of Anita Hill's role in the Thomas confirmation process, see “Why Anita Hill Lost” by Suzanne Garment in the January COMMENTARY.—Ed.

About the Author

Arch Puddington is director of research at Freedom House and the author, most recently, of Lane Kirkland: Champion of American Labor.

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