, July 01, 2008
I read Clarence Thomas's autobiographical My Grandfather's Son some months after the first flush of publicity. The book is well worth reading, which is not to say that it won me over to Thomas's political views, or made me an admirer of his tenure in government. The early chapters provide a moving account of growing up impoverished in rural Georgia, subject to the pathological Jim Crow laws and customs of the time, which is as authentic as any other that has appeared in print. The book does establish that Thomas is a complex human being, a unique individual, as are we all. That is important. Nothing is more infuriating than being critiqued for something you are not, rather than for a life and a set of principles that one is proud of, even if others sharply disagree.
Thomas is absolutely correct that he has a right to be his own self, not to conform to any expected orthodoxy based on his race, his sex, or any other irrelevant characteristic. In this, he is merely living up to Jesse B. Semple's defiant statement to his employer ("my boss is a white man") who asks him "What does The Negro want now?" Simple responds, many times over, "I am not The Negro. I am this Negro. I represent my own self." (Taken from Langston Hughes's, Coffee Break. Thomas's rejection of a brand of so-called liberalism based on cheap stereotypes is a breath of fresh air. But his critique is missing a good deal of history, and his own account makes clear that, to those he adopted as his closest political allies, he was merely a convenient pawn, thrust into jobs he might indeed not have been well qualified to fill.
Thomas knew that most of the inner circle in the Reagan administration were uninterested in offering anything to advance civil rights. "By the end of my first year at the Department of Education, I took a dim view of the prospects for blacks in America. I no longer thought that the Reagan administration could do anything that would be of any help to them... Those of us who had chosen to work for President Reagan found it hard to shake the nagging feeling that this aides didn't trust us... Too many political appointees appeared to me to be too preoccupied with celebrating their own ideological credentials to pay attention to the needs of blacks. We hadn't voted for him, so why should they bother with us?" Ronald Reagan's plaintive phone call asking Thomas why African Americans considered him racist, and his protest that he personally had never been racist in his life, were no doubt sincere. But Reagan's administration, and his party, highlighted in Thomas's own words, provided the plain answer to the president's question.
Thomas relates that he was shocked by Coretta Scott King's dismissal of Ronald Reagan, "Well, he IS a Republican." What did the Republican Party mean in 1980 for African Americans? As early as 1960, the limited-federal-government wing of the northern and western Republican Party had been finding common ground with the states' rights Dixiecrats still embedded in the Democratic Party. Between 1964 and 1980, the Republican Party had made an open bid to all racists dissatisfied with Democratic sponsorship of civil rights laws and federal intervention to change parties. Thomas may not have noticed that, because by his own description, it occured during a time when he was less than interested in electoral politics. But it was bitter history to most African Americans who observed it.
Yes, there were Republicans who were instrumental in passing civil rights legislation. Considering the size of the southern Democratic bloc in congress, passage would have been impossible without those Republican votes. But, those Republicans were increasingly marginalized in their own party. There is no doubt that the Democratic Party took black votes for granted, had a very limited vision of what to offer black voters, and took their cue from an aging civil rights leadership, which could not fully recognize the changing needs of both "black" and "white" citizens in a nation transformed by their own earlier victories. When Thomas finds the liberal assumptions he encountered to be demeaning and patronizing, it is a point worth listening to. I know many African Americans who have never voted Republican, never been nominated to the Supreme Court, never even asked their opinion by the local mayor, who share many of the same concerns.
But reading between the lines, it is quite obvious that Thomas was himself being cynically used. I'm not talking about Senator Danforth of Missouri, who knew Thomas personally, hired him, stuck by him through thick and thin, sincerely believed in his abilities and sense of principle. I'm not even talking about Ronald Reagan, who appointed him to a position in the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. I may be talking about George Herbert Walker Bush, a more cynical if more capable politician than Ronald Reagan -- but I can't tell from the slim public record. I am talking about the Republican Party establishment generally, those who ran the government for Reagan and Bush, many of whom came back for George W. Bush's disastrous Saturnalia.
It is obvious from Thomas's own account that his nomination to the United States Court of Appeals, and to the Supreme Court, were a cynical manipulation based on his race and his political loyalty, having nothing to do with his experience or ability. By his own standards, frequently and eloquently presented in his own book, he should have been insulted. When Thomas was first nominated to the Court of Appeals, it seems that everyone in Washington knew, except for Thomas himself, that the Bush administration was grooming him for nomination to the Supreme Court. He had never held a federal judicial position before, but for some reason he was the prime candidate the Bushies wanted to push, and they didn't even tell him about it. He found out when Senator Joseph Biden happened to mention it!
Thomas becomes almost petulant in complaining about the questions asked in formal confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee. "I was asked... I did not know..." If there was good cause to vote against confirmation, that was probably the appropriate reason to do so. He didn't know his material. The entire Anita Hill episode, whether her testimony was true, warped, a series of simple misunderstandings, or plain lies, certainly didn't rate the attention it got.
This reader does not find it credible that Thomas simply had no opinions about Roe v. Wade until after he was confirmed as a Supreme Court justice. I had an opinion about Roe v. Wade from the day the court's 7-2 decision was announced. I have never been to law school, never been a lawyer, certainly never served as a judge. I read about it in the New York Post. After reading the article, my opinion was, first trimester, the state has no authority to intervene, leave it up to the mother, third trimester, this is close to a fully formed baby that could survive outside the womb, the state may intervene to protect this new life as a distinct person, in between, honestly recognize that it is a grey zone, allow the state to regulate, but not absolutely prohibit. Very thoughtful and well balanced.
Many years later, I read the actual words of the court's opinion. I found it a well-reasoned, admirably conservative opinion, which rested on enduring constitutional principles, applied appropriately to a specific question. There are some matters The State has no business intervening in: the first trimester of pregnancy is one of them. Further, The State has no business compelling a pregnant woman to risk her own life, if her life is in danger, in order to deliver a baby. (Neither does The State have any business requiring a woman to have an abortion, no matter how socially compelling the argument that she should.) Why should I believe that while I, an unremarkable, well-informed, average citizen, have a firm opinion on Roe v. Wade, a federal appellate judge nominated to the Supreme Court had just never thought about it? Like Thomas, I have never had an abortion, and for the some reason. We're both male. Neither of us is ever going to be pregnant.
Thomas's subsequent written opinions show how poorly he understands the United States Constitution. His formal written analysis is that "a state may permit abortion, but it is not required to do so." That betrays a profound ignorance of The Federalist Papers, and poses the framework of constitutional law exactly backwards. All powers not expressly granted to the federal government, nor prohibited to the states, were reserved "to the states and to the people." The constitution does not "permit" the states to do anything. It may restrict the powers of state government, either because there is a pre-emptive federal authority, or because certain rights are reserved to "the people." The question is not whether a state must permit abortion, but whether and at what point in pregnancy a state may regulate or may prohibit the procedure.
Thomas's confirmation hearing for the Supreme Court was an unconstitutional travesty, which should have resulted in all participants, those who groomed and advanced him, and those who bitterly opposed him, being impeached and removed from office for violating their oath to preserve, protect and defend the constitution of the United States of America. They were ALL engaged in an unforgivable tug of war to "sway" the Supreme Court, and thereby to "sway" the fundamental law of the land, rather than allowing it to BE the fundamental law of the land, the unchanging bedrock upon which all other law must rest. It is true, as Justice Scalia has written, that the constitution means what it says, not what we think it ought to mean. If it has any enduring meaning at all, then there is little that should be changed by judicial nomination. Thomas's opponents were blinded by their own ideology to very good reasons to vote down his nomination. Thomas's advocates perpetrated a worse crime: they knew exactly what they were doing.
Clarence Thomas has made an interesting contribution to understanding America's continuing fixation with race, and the debate about how we put behind us, once and for all, the legacy that most of us wish had never happened. This reader comes away from My Grandfather's Son with the sense that Thomas has not come close to The Truth, but has deflated some hot air balloons that are getting us nowhere, contributed a few misunderstandings of his own, and opened some doors to find better ground for progress and reconciliation than either his friends or his harshest critics have been willing to lead us into.