Politics & Policy

Sowell of a Justice

An early influence on Clarence Thomas.

For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me. — Matthew 25: 35

Thomas Sowell changed a young Clarence Thomas’s life.

Or, to be more specific, a Michael Novak review of a Thomas Sowell book, that appeared in the Wall Street Journal.

“I felt like a thirsty man gulping down a glass of cool water,” Justice Thomas writes in his deeply personal memoir, My Grandfather’s Son, released today, about reading the review.

Thomas recalls that a friend who knew that Thomas felt isolated — having rejected black power (after flirting with it in college), being uncomfortable with conventional liberalism, and not quite knowing where he fit in — called the review to his attention: “Take a look at the book review in this morning’s Wall Street Journal. It’s about another black guy who thinks like you.”

The review was of Sowell’s Race and Economics.

Thomas writes, “His very first words took my breath away. ‘Honesty on questions of race is rare in the United States. So many and unrecognized have been the injustices committed against blacks that no one wishes to be unkind, or subject himself to intimidating charges. Hence even simple truths are commonly evaded.”

“It was as though he were talking directly to me,” Thomas writes.

Thomas quotes in its entirety the last paragraph of Sowell’s book, as Novak had in his review:

Perhaps the greatest dilemma in the attempts to raise ethnic minority income is that those methods which have historically proved successful — self-reliance, work skills, education, business experience — are all slow developing, while those methods which are more direct and immediate — job quotas, charity, subsidies, preferential treatment — tend to undermine self-reliance and pride of achievement in the long run. If the history of American ethnic groups shows anything, it is how large a role has been played by attitudes — and particularly attitudes of self-reliance.

Thomas had an immediate admiration for Sowell — this after he had previously dismissed Sowell. During his younger, angrier days at Yale, someone had given him a copy of Sowell’s Black Education: Myths and Tragedies. Thomas trashed it after skimming it, “furious that any black man could think like that.” A few years later, that which had initially repulsed him was now the attraction: Thomas recalls, “Here was a black man who was saying what I thought — and not behind closed doors, either . . . ”

Speaking honestly and openly about race was a hard road Thomas was destined to travel, however reluctantly. And it was one that Sowell ultimately inadvertently set him on. In 1980, Sowell asked Thomas to attend a conference in San Francisco on race in America. Thomas recalls: “The purpose of the conference, he explained, was to stimulate new thinking about the issues confronting blacks, and he wanted me to sit on a panel that would discuss education policy.” During the course of the conference, he got talking to a young reporter. And the rest was history.

Thomas writes, “A young black reporter from the Washington Post, Juan Williams, was seated next to me, and we struck up a conversation. I had no idea that what I said might find its way into the Post — I wasn’t used to talking to reporters — and I spoke to Williams in a straightforward, unguarded way, explaining that I was opposed to welfare because I had seen its destructive effects up close in Savannah.”

Thomas also told Williams that his own sister was “a victim of the system, which had created a sense of entitlement that had trapped her and her children.” (An assessment his sister didn’t disagree with, even if it wasn’t Thomas’s intention to share it with the world.) He told Williams that he opposed busing, supported school vouchers.

And on December 16, 1980, his straight talk made it to the Washington Post, complete with a picture. Juan Williams had, Thomas writes, “presented my opinions accurately and fairly. But I’d gone against the liberal consensus on race, something that blacks weren’t supposed to do — and in the Post, no less! For the next few days, strangers on the street glared disapprovingly at me as I walked by.” Black staffers on the Hill gave him grief because in their minds there was but one way for a black man in America to think on issues of race.

But straight, honest, independent thought is what he had to do. “I could only choose between being an outcast and being dishonest.” As he explains later in the book, to do any other would be to reject what he had been raised to be. His grandfather and grandmother raised him and they didn’t raise him to live the easy way. And so, in the face of watermelon and Uncle Tom comments, he kept the voice of his grandfather as his conscience and motivation: “Son, give out but don’t give up. Get up every day and put one foot in front of the other.”

In My Grandfather’s Son, Thomas explains that when he finally read Race and Economics, he didn’t regard it as “a political statement, nor was it meant to be one: It simply tried to tell the truth about a subject that too many people were unable or unwilling to discuss honestly. Reading it didn’t turn me into a conservative, much less a Republican. All I cared about was finding answers, no matter who had them.”

My Grandfather’s Son may hit unsuspecting readers similarly.


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