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Saturday, July 31st, 2004


 

Judging Thomas: The Life and Times of Clarence Thomas

by

A review by C. P. Farley

In Ken Foskett's breezy new biography of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, he describes how Thomas likes to make new law clerks watch the 1949 movie adaptation of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead. In the picture, Gary Cooper plays an idealistic, intransigent architect named Howard Roark who refuses to compromise his vision in order to satisfy an Establishment addicted to mediocrity.

It's not difficult to imagine why this is Thomas's favorite film. Like Gary Cooper — excuse me, Howard Roark — Clarence Thomas believes himself a man of vision besieged on all sides by people of little imagination who just don't get him (Orrin Hatch and Phillis Shlafley aside). Thomas is a genuine heroic individualist in the Objectivist tradition.

The remarkable thing about Judging Thomas is that it made this liberal believe it, too. Just because Clarence Thomas is, arguably, the Supreme Court's most conservative member, just because he is a black man who seeks to eradicate the Civil Rights legislation of the past fifty years, just because he is the man Emerge magazine dubbed "Uncle Thomas: Lawn Jockey for the Far Right," this does not mean that he doesn't deserve a little respect. Weird? You bet. Let me explain.

Clarence Thomas and his brother were raised in the South by his grandfather, Myers Anderson, an extremely proud man who...

...wanted his grandsons to understand they could not depend on white people for help. No white bank lent Anderson the money he needed to start his business or build his own home; he saved it himself. In a world that favored whiteness, a black man had to work twice as hard to go half as far. For a black man, hard work was the essence of survival.

Anderson worked the boys day and night, to the point of exhaustion, but he succeeded in instilling in Thomas a deep-seated work ethic and sense of self-reliance. He also implanted in the young Thomas a belief in the importance of education. Though Anderson had little education himself, he wanted more for these boys. He sent them to excellent Catholic schools and did everything he could to help them succeed.

By 1968, Thomas was studying at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, one of a handful of students recruited because they were black. Like most students in 1968, Thomas became, at least for a time, a leftist radical. In his junior year, Thomas helped lead a major protest by the black students at Holy Cross, and he even wore the requisite Black Power ensemble: fatigues, beret, and army boots. But in the end, he realized that living the life of an angry radical would interfere with his studies — and Myers Anderson's grandson still believed that education was the way out — so he gave it up. Instead, he devoted himself to his studies and applied to Yale law school. Thomas got in, but he was clearly accepted, at least in part, because he was black.

Unlike others, though, who were grateful for the leg up, Thomas was acutely conscious of the doubt the preferential treatment cast on his achievement. Others could always assume that he got in because he was black, and not because he was qualified. Thomas wasn't grateful; he was resentful. And it was this resentment that spurred Thomas's slow but steady swing to the right.

Like his grandfather, Clarence Thomas is an extremely proud man. He believes deeply that freedom and dignity are rooted in hard work and self-reliance. For Thomas, accepting anything resembling a handout or preferential treatment is not just a sign of weakness, it is actually weakening. It is this belief in the fundamental importance of self-reliance that causes Thomas to vote against Affirmative Action and many other laws designed to help African Americans — despite the extreme anger these decisions have generated among American blacks. And it is, one can only assume, this sense of standing alone against the mistaken masses that makes Thomas identify so deeply with Gary Coo...I mean, Howard Roark. It's easy to disagree with him. But it is difficult not to admire the strength it must require for him to live according to his own standards and beliefs and not to cave in to the enormous pressure put on him to conform.

Still, while reading Judging Thomas, I didn't think so much of Howard Roark as of Coleman Silk, the hero of Philip Roth's novel The Human Stain. Silk is a black man who resents the limitations imposed upon him by race. He longs "to be the man he has chosen to be, unalterably separated from what he was handed at birth, free to struggle at being free like any human being would wish to be free."

Given that Silk is very light skinned, it's possible for him to overcome "what he was handed at birth." All he has to do is let people assume that he's white. He doesn't do this out of self-hatred. He does it out of a deep resentment at the limitations imposed upon him by the color of his skin, and in response to a deep need to live as he chooses. He doesn't want to be white. He wants to be unfettered of race.

This seems an accurate assessment of Clarence Thomas as well, and goes a long way toward explaining why Thomas repeatedly refuses to support laws that either protect citizens from racial discrimination or offer help to people based on their color. Thomas believes that for a society to transcend color, its laws must be colorblind.

Still, freedom is bought at a heavy price. In order for Coleman Silk to "become white," he must first sever the cords that bind him to his former self. In an act requiring both extraordinary strength and extraordinary brutality, Silk travels to his mother's house and inform her that, because he has decided to live as a white man, he must cut her out of his life. After the initial shock, she replies:

"I don't know why I'm not better prepared for this, Coleman. I should be," she said. "You've been giving fair warning almost from the day you got here. You were seriously disinclined even to take the breast. Yes, you were. Now I see why. Even that might delay your escape. There was always something about our family, and I don't mean color — there was something about us that impeded you. You think like a prisoner. You do, Coleman Brutus. You're white as snow and you think like a slave."
Like Silk, Thomas wants to break free from the strictures of race — who can blame him? — and pursues this goal with single-minded determination and enormous strength of will. But, also like Silk, because Thomas's worldview is ultimately rooted in resentment (how else to explain his love of Rush Limbaugh), his modus operandi is to reject rather than to embrace. And, as Silk's mother points out, a mind that strives to push away — to escape — is a mind that remains imprisoned.

P.S. For those wondering how a review of a book about Clarence Thomas could fail to even mention Anita Hill, I can only pass the buck. Though Foskett spends several pages on the hearings, he doesn't explore the event in any great detail, except to conclude that no one knows what really happened. Those interested in this aspect of Thomas's life should look elsewhere.


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