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Supreme Discomfort: The Divided Soul of Clarence Thomasby Kevin Merida
Synopses & Reviews
SUPREME DISCOMFORT originated from a much-commented-upon profile of Clarence Thomas that appeared in an August 2002 issue of The Washington Post Magazine. In it, Kevin Merida and Michael Fletcher, both Post staffers, both black, crafted a haunting portrait of an isolated and bitter man, savagely reviled by much of the black community, not entirely comfortable in white society, internally wounded by his passage from a broken family and rural poverty in Georgia to elite educational institutions to the pinnacle of judicial power. He has clearly never recovered from the searing experience of his Senate confirmation hearings and the "he said/she said" drama of the accusations of sexual harassment by Anita Hill.
SUPREME DISCOMFORT tracks the personal odyssey of perhaps the least understood man in Washington, from his poor childhood in Pin Point and Savannah, Georgia, to his educational experiences in a Catholic seminary and Holy Cross, to his law school years at Yale during the black power era, to his rise within the Republican political establishment. It offers a window into a man who straddles two different worlds and is uneasy in bothand whose divided personality and conservative political philosophy will deeply influence American life for years to come.
"The conservatism of the nation's second African-American Supreme Court justice has made him a pariah in the black community, an irony that centers this probing biography, expanded from the authors'Washington Post Magazine profile. Thomas's rise from disadvantaged circumstances to Yale Law School, a meteoric government career and appointment to Thurgood Marshall's Court seat, Merida and Fletcher note, seems an affirmative action success story. Yet Thomas has opposed affirmative action, prisoners' rights, abortion and other planks of the liberal agenda, leading to ubiquitous complaints — the authors cite black leaders, prison inmates, even Thomas's relatives — that he's forgotten his roots. Merida and Fletcher present a lucid, well-researched account of Thomas's controversial life and jurisprudence, including evidence supporting Anita Hill's sexual harassment allegations, and a nuanced discussion of the politics of black authenticity. They portray Thomas as a conflicted man: a committed conservative with an ethos of self-reliance, who took advantage of affirmative action only to have his achievements tarnished by his own insecurities and others' suspicions of incompetence or hypocrisy. The authors' attempts to link his convictions to his psyche — they make much of his alleged resentment of light-skinned black professional elites — don't always click, but Thomas still emerges as a fascinating and emblematic figure." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Justice Clarence Thomas is the Supreme Court's most reclusive member, which is saying something. Deeply distrustful of the media, the justice also almost never speaks from the bench. As a powerful official who remains opaque to the public, he is a prime candidate for a careful, fair-minded biography. In delivering it, Kevin Merida and Michael A. Fletcher have done some quiet justice of their own.... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) 'Supreme Discomfort' shows that two competing, racially charged narratives govern how Thomas — like many black conservatives — is perceived and treated. The first story line is that of the Uncle Tom: the race-traitor who sides with whites for personal advantage. For Thomas, the consequences of being seen this way have been harsh. The book describes how the Rev. Al Sharpton led a group of picketers outside Thomas' home, how some African-Americans have called for the community to stop naming its children 'Clarence' and how a woman stopped Thomas and a friend in the library in his hometown of Savannah in May 2001 so she could 'see what a group of Uncle Toms look like.' If liberals often cast Thomas as a quisling, conservatives tend to cast him as someone who has achieved the American Dream by pulling himself up by his bootstraps. Thomas, a member of the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans, seems to find this narrative more congenial, but it has its own bite. This story line assumes a meritocratic America free of racial prejudice — an assumption the justice certainly does not hold. Lost between these two competing stories is the tale of an individual, and that is the one brought to life by Merida and Fletcher, journalists at The Washington Post. Their biography deftly puts paid to both conventional narratives; after all, we do not expect Uncle Toms to have engaged in radical black student activism, nor do we expect Horatio Alger heroes to believe America is irredeemably racist. But that is too faint praise for 'Supreme Discomfort.' By the end of the book, we see the injustice that stock narratives have done to a person who can charm those predisposed against him and win the lifetime loyalty of those whose minds are less made up. We're introduced to the many Thomases we have never seen: the RV-driving Thomas, the Ayn Rand-loving Thomas, the Catholic Thomas and others. The book's main flaw is its failure to give us more of one particular Thomas: Justice Thomas. For a biography of a jurist, 'Supreme Discomfort' is surprisingly short on Thomas' legal decisions and philosophy. For instance, Merida and Fletcher repeatedly mention that Thomas benefited from affirmative action during his rise only to oppose it when in power. But Thomas explained that seeming inconsistency in a 2003 dissent criticizing governmental affirmative action. In Grutter v. Bollinger, he argued that affirmative action stigmatizes all blacks, who are either promoted above their abilities or subjected to the unfair suspicion that they would not be where they are absent a racial preference. Regardless of the category into which Thomas would put himself, this response suggests how even beneficiaries of affirmative action can oppose it without hypocrisy. Merida and Fletcher also fail to grapple adequately with the justice's jurisprudential methodology. Thomas is the court's most ferocious originalist, believing that the Constitution should be interpreted strictly according to the intent of its framers. But what does it mean for Thomas to interpret the Constitution according to the intent of those who would have considered him to be chattel? It is hard, though, to quarrel too much with a book that solves the great Thomas mystery: his legendary silence. One conventional explanation is that Thomas is still smarting from the Anita Hill scandal that occupied his confirmation hearing, an explanation that seems less plausible with every passing year. Merida and Fletcher explain his courtroom demeanor by suggesting that silence is the closest Thomas can come to opting out of the scripts that eddy around him. 'If you can't be free,' the poet Rita Dove writes, 'be a mystery.' It is a serious indictment of race relations in this country that, in 2007, the nation's most powerful African-Americans are still not permitted to be individuals. And because the book makes that case — as well as many others — in such a personal and non-ideological way, it may be heard. This book's greatest achievement is that the 'supreme discomfort' of the title initially belongs to Thomas but, in the end, becomes our own. Kenji Yoshino is a professor at Yale Law School and the author of 'Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights.'" Reviewed by Judy BudnitzMichael DirdaJonathan YardleyLaila HalabyMaya JasanoffSusie LinfieldKenji Yoshino, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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Two journalists track the personal odyssey of Thomas and offer a window into a man who straddles two different worlds and is uneasy in both--and whose divided personality and conservative political philosophy will deeply influence American life for years to come.
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