Magazine | March 10, 2014, Issue

The Judgment of Clarence Thomas

(AP Photo/Tribune-Review, Sidney Davis)
Do northern liberals believe themselves capable of mistreating a black person?

Standards of evidence are flexible things, as Clarence Thomas knows. Who should be believed in situations in which there is little or no physical evidence, the events are long in the past, and memory may have faded or been distorted? Do we reflexively believe the accuser, or do we extend the benefit of the doubt to the accused? We have three choices, as outlined in the title of Patricia Sharpe and Frances E. Mascia-Lees’s 1993 paper on harassment in the academic environment: “always believe the victim,” “innocent until proven guilty,” and “there is no truth,” those positions belonging respectively to feminism, humanism, and postmodernism. When Justice Thomas was accused of harassment, his critics insisted that the first of those should be our guiding principle.

But now he is the accuser. Which maxim will prevail?

In the course of offering some bracing remarks on the subject of race and racial sensitivities during a speech at Palm Beach Atlantic University, Justice Thomas made a remarkable claim: “The worst I have been treated was by northern liberal elites. The absolute worst I have ever been treated, the worst things that have been done to me, the worst things that have been said about me, are by northern liberal elites — not by the people of Savannah, Georgia.”

Justice Thomas was born in 1948 and entered high school at a time when racial tensions in the South were very high. He does not list a lot of “first black” distinctions on his curriculum vitae, but he was the first black student at his high school, and not just that: “To my knowledge, I was the first black kid in Savannah, Georgia, to go to a white school,” he says. He was the first black student at St. John Vianney Minor Seminary and was one of the founders of the Black Students’ Union at Holy Cross. He was the only black member of John Danforth’s staff in the Missouri attorney general’s office. His early childhood was far from the centers of tolerant cosmopolitanism: He grew up speaking Gullah in Pin Point, Ga., a town without paved roads or a sewer system.

Savannah is a lovely and sophisticated city, but it has had its share of racial unhappiness. Savannah liked to boast that it was “a city too dignified to hate,” and the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. described it as “the most desegregated city south of the Mason–Dixon line.” All the same, when black residents took to the street to protest the reversal of promised desegregation efforts, they were met with the familiar tear gas and fire hoses. Is it really possible that an ambitious black man growing up in those circumstances was in fact treated more poorly by northern liberal elites than by southern whites holding out for segregation and against civil rights?

Justice Thomas’s unhappy encounters with northern elites began soon enough. Having won cum laude honors at Holy Cross and entered Yale Law School, he immediately began to suspect that he had been invited to New Haven because of his race — a Black Panther Party trial that unfolded shortly before his arrival there had nearly resulted in a riot. Upon graduation, he learned that some very important people in his life — those who make hiring decisions at law firms — believed the same thing. It was this experience more than anything else that turned him against racial preferences in school admissions. He famously peeled a 15-cent price tag off of a cigar and stuck it to his Yale Law diploma as an estimate of its real value.

#page#Justice Thomas’s conservatism was developed partly through hard-won experience, partly under the influence of Thomas Sowell’s books, and in no small part through his service in the Reagan administration. Having been raised mostly by his grandparents, he came to understand that the best-intentioned of public policies could not possibly hope to be a substitute for a proper upbringing: “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,” he said in a speech at the Heritage Foundation in 1987. His views on that matter were indistinguishable from those of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, but Thomas soon discovered that he, as a black man, was expected to toe certain lines. When he was nominated for his first judgeship, he was put through the wringer on his political views and found himself “struck by how easy it had become for sanctimonious whites to accuse a black man of not caring about civil rights.”

That double standard has not diminished since his elevation to the Supreme Court. If anything, it has grown worse. Just this February, Justice Thomas was abused by an Alabama Democrat as an “Uncle Tom” and denounced for the fact that he is married to a white woman. I invite you to consider the reaction at MSNBC — or the White House, for that matter — if Rick Perry or Mitt Romney had called Barack Obama an “Uncle Tom,” or abused a prominent black man in politics for having married a white woman. There would not be smelling salts in North America sufficient to overcome the fainting spell that would strike the progressive intelligentsia. But when the target of abuse is Justice Thomas, anything goes. Ryan Winkler, who is not only white but Minnesota white, is an elected Democrat whose career has not been hindered by calling Justice Thomas an Uncle Tom, one of the most offensive terms of racial abuse in American English. Mr. Winkler — a Harvard graduate with a law degree — later apologized and claimed that he had not been aware of the racial connotations of the phrase “Uncle Tom.” One wants to be generous, but the idea that a Harvard graduate does not know what “Uncle Tom” means is preposterous on its face.

One of the great but partly true clichés of American life is that white southerners accepted blacks as individuals long before they accepted them as a category, while the opposite was the case among white northerners. Racial separatism was an ideology in the South — in the North, it was merely a fact, if a largely unacknowledged one. Justice Thomas’s unwillingness to fulfill white liberals’ expectations of what a black man is supposed to be provides an X-ray of liberal piety. As Ruben Navarrette, author of A Darker Shade of Crimson: Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano, put it: “The friction here isn’t about politics. It’s about something more primal: control. Liberals wanted to give people like Clarence Thomas every right except, it turns out, the right to think for themselves.” Justice Thomas’s relative assessment of his Georgia neighbors and white liberal elites is perfectly plausible, then, if one understands him as a man who takes seriously all that business about judging a man not by the color of his skin but by the content of his character. Justice Thomas is a man with a certain kind of mind, and a certain level of melanin in his skin — and if the latter has been used to denigrate the former by proxy, the indirectness of the process does not render it less despicable.

Justice Thomas’s claim about northern liberal elites is a serious one, and one that should give them cause for introspection. But he is one plaintiff to whom they will never extend the benefit of the doubt.

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