Bench Memos

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Black liberals, Justice Thomas, and the “victim” metaphor


I’m beginning to understand why Justice Thomas insists he was once a black “radical” but never a black “liberal.”

Black liberals are essentially calling the Justice a hypocrite for analyzing the “high tech lynching” of his confirmation hearing and other aspects of his life through the prism of race, as portrayed in several classics of American literature, including Richard Wright’s Native Son and Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird.

Kevin Merida, a black Washington Post reporter who co-authored a recent book on Justice Thomas (and is likely the one who is really “angry” and “stewing,” because Justice Thomas has now eclipsed that book with his more authoritative account of his own life), says in a cynical essay in Monday’s Post that “Thomas’s embrace of victimhood” is “extraordinary” because he “has often spoken publicly against self-pity.”

Harvard Law professor Charles Ogletree, who represented Anita Hill during the confirmation hearings, purports to find Justice Thomas’s description of himself “as a persecuted black man remarkable, given his ‘persistent jurisprudence that strikes a colorblind tone.”

Here is what these black liberals apparently fail to understand:

Justice Thomas’s exhortation to blacks (and to all of us) to resist being “victims” and to resist “whining” is a call to avoid excuses for working hard and doing our best. It is a call, most specifically, to avoid dealing with the past evil of slavery and with lingering racism and bigotry by resorting to social engineering or government intervention to solve all our problems. Justice Thomas has never to my knowledge said, and I do not understand him to say now, that one should simply ignore actual, personal injustice or persecution and pretend that it doesn’t exist.

As for Ogletree’s comment, Justice Thomas’s jurisprudence does not “strike a colorblind tone.” Justice Thomas has stated explicitly in Supreme Court opinions “the simple, yet fundamental, truth that the government cannot discriminate among its citizens on the basis of race.” Justice Thomas is speaking of a fact about the Constitution. It is not something personal to him. And the simple truth that our Constitution is colorblind is completely consistent with a view of the world that says it is unjust to persecute people with lies based upon racial stereotypes or anything else.

Moreover, the fact that the Constitution is colorblind doesn’t mean that everything else must be; as Justice Thomas has acknowledged, for example, single-race schools are not necessarily evidence of state segregation, but can instead exist due to “larger social forces or private choices.”

But the main point is: Justice Thomas — his grandfather’s son — learned early, and continues to live by, the principles of self-reliance, hard work, honesty, and courage, rather than claiming “victim” status solely based upon race. This does not mean that a black person cannot be a “victim” of actual misconduct by others — as Justice Thomas has been the victim of bald-faced lies, bigotry, and character assassination. Bigger Thomas in Native Son, and Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird, were actual victims — that is to say, real, actual injustice was visited upon them. As it was upon Justice Thomas.

I don’t have the book yet, but I doubt that Justice Thomas uses the word “victim” very much even in describing these incidents — precisely because that word is practically copyrighted by the black liberals who own it, and everything it symbolizes.

And that is precisely the point.


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