Since Clarence Thomas joined the Supreme Court 16 years ago, he has largely remained silent, and his silence has become part of his mythology. He rarely speaks from the bench. He hasn’t responded to legions of critics. His judicial opinions reveal a powerful voice, but his story had been written by others.
Now Thomas has chosen to speak, forcefully and bluntly, in his new book, My Grandfather’s Son: A Memoir and in a series of interviews with ABC News over four days that can only be described as extraordinary for their scope and intensity. He talks with almost painful candor — all but unprecedented for a public official — about his life and personal struggles, his fears and failings, his anger and his regrets.
Thomas’s most deeply felt opinions are about race, and he pulls no punches. For Thomas, the menacing racists who donned white sheets in the segregated South of his childhood are as bad or worse as the northern liberal zealots in suits and ties.
“These people who claim to be progressive … have been far more vicious to me than any southerner,” Thomas says, “and it is purely ideological.”
Thomas talks about the virulent racism he encountered growing up in the segregated South, when blacks were considered second-class citizens and kept separate from whites by law, and he equates those attitudes with the stereotypes he believes people hold today.
“People get bent out of shape about the fact that when I was a kid, you could not drink out of certain water fountains. Well, the water was the same. My grandfather always said that, ‘The water’s exactly the same.’ But those same people are extremely comfortable saying I can’t drink from this fountain of knowledge,” Thomas says. “They certainly don’t see themselves as being like the bigots in the South. Well, I’ve lived both experiences. And I really don’t see that they’re any different from them.”
He says his critics — the people who question whether he is smart or qualified to be on the Court or who suggest he merely does what a white Supreme Court colleague dictates — are as also as bigoted as the whites of his childhood in the deep South.
“People feel free to say about me what they think about lots of blacks,” Thomas said in an interview in his chambers at the Supreme Court. “Because of the heterodox views I’ve taken, they have license to say it about me with impunity.”
Sixteen years after the bitter confirmation hearings that would forever put the name “Anita Hill” in any story written about him, Thomas remains one of the most compelling and divisive figures in public life. That is both ironic and inevitable for a man who, on the surface, appears to be a study in conflicts. He is black, but a conservative. He is contrarian and independent, but wants deeply to connect with people. He holds a job he never wanted, but has strong ideas about how to do it. He fiercely protects his privacy, but has written a book that is intensely personal and, at times, anguished.
Other justices and other public officials have written memoirs, but none revealed the kind of raw pain and emotion Thomas shares. Thomas says he wrote the book, for which he received a $1.5 million advance, for several reasons — he saw it as a tribute to the grandparents who raised him, but also to provide an accurate record for history because the media sloppily or “maliciously” got it wrong. He also says he wanted to inspire young people who grow up with in poverty and with hardships “just like me,” wondering if they will ever make it.
But it also seems an attempt to wrestle his story away from others who have told it — either negatively or glowingly — on both sides of the ideological aisle. He will not fit into a box, he says, or become an invisible man defined by stereotypes. He defends his views and explains them in response to liberal critics. But he reveals for the first time unflattering personal details at odds with the storyline his conservative supporters have created that he is, somehow, without flaws.
Thomas’s life and experiences — growing up in the Jim Crow South, integrating all-white public schools as the only black student, confronting more latent racism after he fled to what he hoped would be “utopia” in the North — clearly have influenced how he views the law and social policies like affirmative action. His brutal 1991 confirmation battle only reinforced those deeply held views. He says he believes every discussion of race in America is fundamentally dishonest.
“It’s even more dishonest than the ’60s,” he says.
He is adamantly opposed to affirmative action, but for entirely different reasons than white conservatives who drive the debate by arguing it’s unfair to white people. Thomas says affirmative action instead has hurt blacks. It not only sends them into environments in which they are doomed to struggle instead of soar, but it also perpetuates negative stereotypes that whites hold today that all blacks are inferior to them and don’t belong — just as whites in the South assumed 50 years ago.
“These ideologies that claim to be so warm toward minorities actually turn out to be quite pernicious,” Thomas says.
Under affirmative action, Thomas says, whites will forever believe blacks enroll in top schools or hold good jobs only because the institutions lowered their standards to accept them — regardless of whatever qualifications an individual may actually have. The assumption is that blacks, Thomas says, are not and cannot be as good as whites.
“Once you start making these decisions and judgments about people’s capabilities based on race, it is forever locked in,” Thomas says. “And you can see it play out throughout my confirmation and throughout the subsequent years that I’ve been on the Court.”
And he says he believes the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearings into Anita Hill’s allegation of sexual harassment — when 14 white Senators asked excruciatingly private questions about pornography and penis sizes — would not have occurred had they both been white.
“I doubt it,” he says forcefully. “Can you think of any other examples?”
In discussing the hearings into Hill’s allegations, Thomas’s angriest words are for Democratic senators, the liberal interest groups and the media. He turns a blowtorch on each, blasting them in turn for their respective roles in what he calls “the most inhumane thing” that ever has ever happened to him.
At the time, he saw those hearings in a racial context. Time has only made him more assured.
“I’d grown up fearing the lynch mobs of the Ku Klux Klan; as an adult I was starting to wonder if I’d been afraid of the wrong white people all along — where I was being pursued not by bigots in white robes, but by left-wing zealots draped in flowing sanctimony,” he wrote in his book.
In the interview at his home, with his wife Virginia at his side during part of it, Thomas talks in detail about the hearings and how he believes they perpetuated the vilest stereotypes about black men — stereotypes about sexual aggression that had long condemned them to death in the South and had been recounted by African-American novelists in harrowing detail. It all, he says was an effort to destroy his nomination and keep him off the Court.
He says he had to be “dehumanized” and “destroyed,” because he held views considered heretical for a black man — because, as he puts it, he was in a different ideological neighborhood and refused to buy into the views that whites had “disseminated as the prevailing view for blacks.”
“I saw it for what it was, and I still see it for exactly what it was,” Thomas says. “I think it was an effort to keep me in my place.”
That’s not to say he has kind words for Hill, whom he describes as mediocre, unpleasant and a “combative … in your face person.” But Thomas suggests she was swept up in the agenda of his ideological opponents. He wrote that her charges were “ridiculous” and “preposterous,” and says they were “nothing more than an extravagant fiction concocted so as to have the maximum possible impact on the public.”
“My guess was that a combination of ego, ambition, and immaturity had caused her to let herself be drawn into the effort to destroy me,” he wrote in the book.
He doesn’t care to hear people tell him they believed him, as an overwhelming majority of Americans, black and white, did in immediate aftermath of the hearings. The point, he thinks, is they should not have been asked to believe at all.
“It was a weapon, and we understood that,” he says. “And I think less of people who actually do not see what was going on, that you’re such a dupe that you can’t see that.”
No justice in modern American history has been subjected to such vitriolic personal attacks as Clarence Thomas. Many liberal blacks view him with anger or disgust and consider him a traitor to his race, suggesting he is doing the bidding of white conservatives seeking to undo a generation of progress on civil rights. He been portrayed as a lawn jockey, a ‘house slave,” and repeatedly called an “Uncle Tom,” including by prominent black officials.
Many white liberals, on the other hand, view him with disdain, questioning his intellect and qualifications — questions, incidentally, that aren’t typically raised about Thomas by blacks. Even when presented with hard documentary evidence — memos and notes taken by Justice Harry Blackmun — that Thomas has been independent of Justice Antonin Scalia from the beginning and has influenced the Court in a number of areas, many white liberals refuse to acknowledge it.
Thomas views it all through a racial lens. He says he is not wounded by the criticisms of his fellow blacks that he is uncaring about other members of his race, which he dismisses as akin to a racial slur hurled from”from a bus driving by or a pickup truck on a rural road.” But at the same time he says he is hurt — saying he wishes someone would just hear him and what he is trying to say.
“Why else would you take on virtually everybody, and take on the prevailing notions about race? Why would you take the criticism if you didn’t care? I mean it’s easy to go along with the crowd and sort of play that game — that doesn’t require any courage or backbone,” Thomas says. “It took a lot more to say, ‘I think something is wrong.’”
Instead of being a hypocrite for opposing affirmative action after supposedly benefiting from it, a frequent charge, Thomas says affirmative action actually harmed him and that he believes he should be able to criticize it.
“Once we’re set on something that’s the accepted wisdom, other people like me, who have questions, suddenly become heretics — you can’t talk about it, you can’t say, ‘Look, I have good intentions, too. I just don’t agree with you,’” Thomas says. “Why wouldn’t it be just as easy to say, ‘Well, here’s somebody who went through it, and he has some problems with it based on his experience, and his intentions are as good as the people who are the authors of the initial policy?’ But that doesn’t happen.”
But Thomas is much more critical of the white liberals who have dismissed him as an intellectual lightweight.
“It’s similar to what you had in the South, you know: ‘you’re stupid because you’re black,’ that ‘you smell bad because you’re black.’ I mean, it’s all the same thing,” Thomas says. “And I don’t understand why people … buy into it and don’t see the long-term damage.”
He believes whites again have created a system where blacks have to stay in a certain place — this time ideologically, not geographically. Slavery evolved into segregation; segregation evolved into an entrenched system of racial preferences, paternalism and condescension — a modern-day system, Thomas says, that also keeps blacks inferior and ideologically segregated.
“Whites can think anything they want, and we can have opinions about frivolous things, like I could be a (Washington) Nationals fan, as opposed to being an (Baltimore) Orioles fan, Oh, that’s ok. But if it’s important, if you’re black, you all have to think the same thing,” Thomas says. “Can you imagine someone saying that about whites, that, ‘well, you’re white, you’re all supposed to think the same thing.’ That would be considered ludicrous.”
And the discussion of affirmative action, he says, is particularly damaging. It’s become an issue that pits blacks against whites, liberals against conservatives — to the point that it’s almost impossible to honestly debate its impact, Thomas said.
Thomas spoke at length about how his own experiences as a black conservative and a black justice prove his point. Because he was admitted to Yale Law School under affiramative action after graduating in the top two percent of his class at Holy Cross. benefited from affirmative action at Yale Law School, he said people have questioned his qualifications and discounted his achievements, he says. Even as a Justice, he says, people continue to believe he merely has “followed” Justice Scalia because a black man couldn’t possibly hold those views or be smart enough to come up with them on his own.
“Give me a break. I mean this is part of the — you know, the black guy is supposed to follow somebody white. We know that,” Thomas says. “Come on, we know the story behind that. I mean there’s no need to sort of tip-toe around that … The story line was that, well I couldn’t be doing this myself, he must be doing it for me because I’m black. That’s obvious.
“Again, I go back to my point. Who were the real bigots? It’s obvious,” Thomas says.
Centering the debate on affirmative action also distracts attention from more pressing problems within the black community, where the vast majority of poor kids don’t get far enough to even consider college, much less ever see a “benefit” from affirmative action, he says.
“We’ll expend huge amounts of energy over affirmative action, but very little over what’s really happening in the classroom for the bulk of these (other) kids or what’s happening in the home or the lack of home environment,” Thomas says. “So yes, you care about them in theory, as long as it’s this racial theory (you) agree with, but do you really care about them as individuals? Do you care where they go at night, what they’re doing, how they’re learning, what’s in the school, etc.? And you don’t see any passion expended on the latter.”
Thomas’s dissents opposing affirmative action and minority contracting programs, as well as efforts to draw voting districts along racial lines, prompt harsh criticism from African American leaders that he doesn’t care about black people and just follows the white conservatives. But Thomas raises different concerns about those programs than whites do. And in other race cases, he often writes dissents focusing on exactly the groups he talks about — poor blacks who are trying and struggling against high odds.
When Thomas was nominated to replace liberal icon Justice Thurgood Marshall, civil rights leaders were outraged, saying the conservative Thomas wasn’t worthy to replace Marshall, who as an attorney with the NAACP, had argued Brown v. Board of Education and had done so much to advance the cause of blacks in society.
“I mean, who are they? Justice (Ruth Bader) Ginsburg replaced Justice (Byron) White. Did anybody say she was unworthy to replace Justice White?” Thomas asked, referring to the liberal Ginsburg taking the place of the more conservative White. “They were different. They’re quite different.
“So why do you ask that question about black people?” he says. “That’s absurd…and the amazing thing to me is people don’t see the absurdity of it, that a white can replace a white and there’s no question. They’re quite different. But you never say, ‘Are they worthy to replace this particular person?’”
To continue on to Part II: The Integrator, please click here.