Tuesday, October 02, 2007

More than his Grandfather’s Son:
Understanding Clarence Thomas
Earl Ofari Hutchinson

A little more than a year after his bruising Supreme Court confirmation battle a media gun shy Clarence Thomas made his first cautious public appearance. He wanted the friendly of friendliest audiences and chose Mercer University, a conservative law school in Georgia for his speech. In his talk, Thomas got right to what he wanted to say or more particularly whom he wanted to lambaste. He cloaked himself in the martyr’s garment and said that he expected to be treated badly by blacks for daring to challenge the tenets of racial orthodoxy. “You were considered a traitor to your race, and not considered a real black person.”

A decade and a half later Thomas hasn’t budged one inch from his relentless public and private war against civil rights leaders and liberal Democrats. In his autobiography, My Grandfather’s Son, his war of ideology and words shows no signs of abating. He wraps himself just as tightly in the martyr’s garment as he did in his Mercer speech. He sledgehammers liberal Democrats and civil rights groups just as hard as before.

In trying to make sense of Thomas' doctrinaire, contrarian court votes and opinions, and his private war against civil rights groups the plain answer is that they are payback to civil rights and civil liberties groups for trying to wreck his confirmation to the high court. But there‘s more to it than that. For the thin-skinned Thomas race has always lurked close to the surface—often too close. And it’s intimately, but falsely, intertwined with the debate over conservative ideology.
In the Mercer speech, and anyplace else where he’s gotten the chance, Thomas has repeatedly bristled at the knock that civil rights leaders don’t consider him a real black person because of his ultra conservative views. He railed at that and them in his Mercer speech but for far different reasons than his black critics say. Many blacks expect whites to espouse conservative views. That expectation is deeply colored by race. They can’t separate racism from conservatism. Since many blacks view whites as racist or as having racist views, they believe that conservatism must be an expression of racial blinders. But racism and conservatism can be mutually incompatible. There is no one to one correlation between a conservative’s espousal of free market economics and their attack on government regulations and them being a racial bigot. Yet the notion that a conservative is by definition a racist is deeply ingrained in the belief of many blacks.

Thomas has occasionally warned Republicans about racial insensitivity. And there are many blacks whose views are just as conservative as his in opposing abortion and gay rights and affirmative action and are just as hard line on crime and punishment. It matters not. Thomas can’t win. Civil rights leaders will continue to brand him as a fake, inauthentic black man. He’s the black guy who sold his soul for a few pieces of conservative and even racist silver to them. The gentile 60 Minutes profile on him so infuriated Thomas bashers that they announced that they’d take the airwaves to set the record straight about him.

The notion that Thomas is not just a Judas and traitor but unfit to be called a real black man bothered the man that Thomas replaced on the high court, Thurgood Marshall. The liberal, activist, blunt spoken, civil rights icon Marshall is everything that civil rights groups consider to be the stuff that makes up a real black man. In other words everything Thomas isn’t. But in a two hour meeting after his nomination, Marshall warned Thomas that he would be held to a far harsher standard of scrutiny on and away from the bench than a white conservative in the same spot.

That’s even more glaring in the way civil rights leaders link Thomas to Antonin Scalia. The ultra conservative Scalia is so organically welded to Thomas in their lock step judicial votes and opinions, civil rights groups routinely slam him as Scalia’s lackey. That’s another way to say that black conservatives are the puppets and Republicans are the string pullers. Yet there was not a peep of criticism that Marshall and liberal justice William Brennan were virtual bopsy twins in their votes and opinions. There was no suggestion that Marshall took orders from the liberal white justice.

Thomas’s conservative, unorthodox, views and legal opinions on the death penalty, age and gender bias, first amendment, prisoner rights and affirmative action cases were well known by the time he hit the court in 1991. It could hardly be said that Thomas latched on to judicial conservatism solely to curry favor with white conservatives to snatch a seat on the high court. Yet the belief that he did guarantees that the grandfather’s son will be man civil rights groups and Democrats will perennially loathe as the black that got away. Judging from his book, Thomas will return the favor.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics (Middle Passage Press, October 2007).