Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is “a person of grievance” harboring “resentment, [and] anger,” reported no less an authority than Hillary Clinton during an appearance last week on CBS. In ignoring Thomas’s ideas to smear his temperament, Clinton pulled from the same playbook leftists have been using against Thomas since even before his 1991 confirmation hearings.
The New York Times once called Thomas the Supreme Court’s “youngest and angriest.” Times columnist Frank Rich accused him of “rage” and “unreconstructed racial bitterness.” His colleague Maureen Dowd has over the years variously described the justice as “barking mad,” dishonest, and “angry, bitter, self-pitying.” In the article, “Why Is Justice Thomas So Angry?,” CNN legal correspondent Jeffrey Toobin concludes, “His fulminations … are hurtful to the court’s mission and reputation.”
Forming something of a bitter consensus, his critics exhibit behavior every bit as intriguing as that they claim to condemn.
Let’s Go to the Source
The best place for insight into Thomas’s “anger” is with the man himself. In his autobiography, “My Grandfather’s Son,” Thomas says his bouts with anger in early life were at their most intense when, during his college years, he grew “drunk with revolutionary rhetoric.”
Black-nationalist ideas didn’t suit him long, however. As his life evolved, so did his thinking. The hostility he once directed at a racist American society for mistreating blacks found new targets.
His personal anger can be interpreted in the context of its inverse relationship with happiness. Alongside his brother, Thomas was raised by their grandfather, Myers Anderson, whom, taking after their mom, they called Daddy. A self-employed deliveryman and farmer with an inexhaustible work ethic, Thomas portrays Anderson as akin to a drill instructor.
As the price of their shelter, the two boys labored so intensively in maintaining the farm that Clarence once reminded his grandfather slavery had ended. “Not in my house,” Anderson answers. Without hard work, self-reliance was impossible, Anderson taught the boys, and only through self-reliance can men earn their freedom. That was to be his gift to them.
“He knew that to be truly free and participate fully in American life,” Thomas writes, “poor blacks had to have the tools to do for themselves.” Very few would argue that, absent this individual liberty, personal happiness is even possible.
Clarence Thomas Meets Karl Marx
Thomas credits self-reliance for his success as a student. Raised Roman Catholic, his elementary school years were spent at St. John Vianney Minor Seminary, where he excelled athletically and academically. With plans of becoming a priest, he left Georgia to attend high school at Immaculate Conception Seminary in Missouri.
After a change of heart, he returned to Georgia, where one of his grammar-school nuns persuaded him to apply to Holy Cross. Before heading back north to attend college, a friend introduced him to “The Communist Manifesto.” This introduction to Marx soon blossomed into something else.
As a child Thomas had been taught that a man’s life is his own responsibility, but according to Marxist theories of racial oppression, progress comes through “revolution.” To black nationalist Marxists, white racism explained every problem, Thomas says. It was “the trump card that won every argument.” He co-founded the Black Student Union, a leftist group whose advocacy included anti-Vietnam protesting.
At one BSU rally, he says that after the crowd worked itself into a frenzy with leftist sloganeering, “We drank our way to Harvard Square, where our disorderly parade deteriorated into a full-scale riot.” It went on through the night. After returning to campus early the next morning, Thomas became horrified: “I had let myself be swept up by an angry mob for no good reason other than that I, too, was angry.”
In the whirlwind of irrational violence, the BSU students, he realized, had perpetuated an unwelcome stereotype, that of the angry black man. This anger was sanctioned. Thomas describes black students flagrantly violating the student code of conduct and making tall demands, only for the administration to cave every time.
Black students also bonded through black-nationalist politics. Mixing radical politics with the entitlement mentality the administration encouraged quickly proved toxic. Already unprepared for living among whites, Thomas says, many of these unprepared black students gave up class in favor of drugs and “cultlike Eastern religions.” Others dropped or failed out.
Thinking Freely Makes Vicious Enemies
In his senior year, Thomas read the uber-individualist books of Ayn Rand and began questioning the groupthink of his black peers. But to embark on free thinking meant making enemies of “the government, the racists, the activists, the students, even daddy.”
Yet free thinking yielded an immediate payoff for his temperament, for he was also being liberated of ideologically imposed passions that universities countenanced: “I already knew that the rage with which we lived made it hard for us to think straight. Now I understood for the first time that we were expected to be full of rage. It was our role — but I didn’t want to play it anymore.”
Graduating cum laude in English, Thomas was accepted to Harvard Law, but opted instead for Yale, which he felt was less conservative. Yale was further down the racial-preference road than Holy Cross, which cast suspicion over the entire black student body, as author John Greenya quotes Thomas: “You had to prove yourself every day because the presumption was that you were dumb and didn’t deserve to be there on merit.”
Affirmative Action Destroys Opportunities
To put his abilities beyond doubt, Thomas eschewed classes on civil rights and constitutional law in favor of corporate, tax, and antitrust law, seeking out professors with a reputation for hostility to blacks, where he strived still. Aspiring a return to his Atlanta-area hometown where an elite law degree could be of service to needy blacks, his plans were frustrated after every application was rejected, and his anger was born anew.
“Prospective employers dismissed our grades and diplomas … assuming we got both primarily because of preferential treatment,” Thomas told the Macon Telegraph. Believing his Ivy League education was overvalued, he affixed a $.15 stamp to his degree, the value of a Yale education when it “bore the taint of racial preference.”
In The New Yorker, Toobin wonders whether Thomas overplays this notion, asserting perhaps these rejections stemmed from simple racism, the very thing “affirmative action was designed to combat.” Perhaps. But would an already racist employer be any less skeptical of a black applicant owing to admissions’ racial preferences?
‘That Stopped Me Cold’
At Yale, Thomas had worked for the social-services group New Haven Legal Assistance, where he encountered the “beneficiaries” of government welfare programs. Many of those seeking eligibility feigned poverty and victimization and called for assistance.
Thomas nonetheless believed that as American society condemned blacks to an outlook of scant hope, redressing social imbalances was legitimate government work. Around this time he happened to befriend future U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, who introduced Thomas to a new set of ideas.
In a debate over whether mandating helmets for motorcyclists was meritorious policy — Thomas felt accident-related health care costs demanded such a rule — Bolton asked him: “Clarence, as a member of a group that has been treated shabbily by the majority in this country, why would you want to give the government more power over your personal life?”
“That stopped me cold,” Thomas writes:
I thought of what Daddy had said when I asked him why he’d never gone on public assistance. ‘Because it takes away your manhood,’ he said. ‘You do that and they can ask you questions about your life that are none of their business. They can come into your house when they want to, and they can tell you who else can come and go in your house.’ Daddy and John, I saw, were making the same point: real freedom meant independence from government intrusion, which in turn meant that you had to take responsibility for your own decisions. When the government assumes that responsibility, it takes away your freedom — and wasn’t freedom the very thing for which blacks in America were fighting?
Thomas’s worldview made a prodigal return “to the real world.” In many eyes, though, this made him a traitor, for it positioned him as an opponent of programs advertised as pro-black.
Clarence Thomas Meets Thomas Sowell
Thomas was soon recruited by Missouri’s attorney general, John Danforth, a Yale alum. Danforth’s Republican affiliation posed a near-crisis of conscience for a man who’d recently voted for George McGovern and felt there was no such thing as a self-respecting black Republican.
After being assured of the same treatment as every other staffer, Thomas accepted a job offer, to the derision of his Yale classmates. While the position was intellectually satisfying, its meager salary soon sent him into the private sector, where he encountered the opposite dilemma: satisfying pay but meager opportunities for intellectual challenge.
Thomas then stumbled upon a book review of Thomas Sowell’s book, “Race and Economics,” which ended with this passage:
Perhaps the greatest dilemma in the attempts to raise ethnic minority income is that those methods which have historically proved successful — self-reliance, work skills, education, business experience — are all slow developing, while those methods which are more direct and immediate — job quotas, charity, subsidies, preferential treatment — tend to undermine self-reliance and pride of achievement in the long run. If the history of American ethnic groups shows anything, it is how large a role has been played by attitudes — and particularly attitudes of self-reliance.
Finally, Thomas knew he wasn’t alone: “I felt like a thirsty man gulping down a glass of cool water.” But with newfound confidence came another challenge: Danforth had recently been elected Missouri’s junior senator and wanted Thomas to join his staff. A job that could be used to benefit other people was appealing, but Thomas knew his heretical thinking would make him a target in scandal-hungry D.C.
Being a Target Almost Scared Thomas Off
Not long into his tenure on the Hill, the Reagan administration asked if Thomas would serve as the assistant secretary for civil rights in the Department of Education. He almost didn’t. Washington Post reporter Juan Williams had recently published an article quoting Thomas as asserting welfare ruins blacks, mentioning his sister’s experience. The torrent of criticism that followed made him think twice about accepting a prominent executive branch position.
“Having felt the lash of public criticism, I questioned whether I had the strength — or the courage — to stand in the eye of the howling storm that surrounded civil-rights policies,” he writes.
He was likewise beset when later nominated to lead the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. As chairman, Thomas oversaw a massive increase in anti-discrimination litigation, and ideologically driven attacks against his character intensified. These began exacting a toll, especially as a longstanding fondness for alcohol turned into a form of escapism. He even nursed thoughts of suicide, Thomas writes:
I [asked] myself whether I might do better to back away from my political beliefs. Life, I knew, would be so much easier if I went along with whatever was popular. What were my principles really worth to me? As I gazed out my office window at the Potomac River, the answer came instinctively: They’re worth my life. I spoke the words out loud, knowing at once that they were true.
When Thomas was later offered the nomination for Supreme Court justice, he knew it meant subjecting himself to abuse for not thinking as white senators thought black men should. He says he accepted only out of loyalty to then-President George H.W. Bush: “By then I’d shed the last of my illusions about white liberals: I knew that their broad-mindedness stopped well short of tolerating blacks who disagreed with them.”
The campaign against him featured charges of tax fraud, Confederate sympathies, anti-Semitism, patronizing a cult-like church, and, of course, sexual harassment. These wild allegations obscured the motivation behind the campaign. According to Thomas: “I refused to bow to the superior wisdom of the white liberals who thought they knew what was better for blacks. Since I didn’t know my place, I had to be put down.”
‘A Few Crumbs from the White Man’s Table’
For noting the correlation between welfare services and an entitlement mentality, Thomas has endured beyond-the-pale personal attacks. After defending himself against a Playboy article (“Reagan and the Revival of Racism”) with a letter to the editor, the article’s white author responded: “As a Southerner, Mr. Thomas is surely familiar with those ‘chicken-eating preachers’ who gladly parroted the segregationists’ line in exchange for a few crumbs from the white man’s table. He’s one of the few left in captivity.”
Not even civil-rights leaders criticized this racist broadside. “What I found inexplicable,” Thomas writes, “was that so many of the people who went out of their way to tell me how strongly they disapproved of my views seemed to think that the mere act of pointing out the human damage caused by welfare policies was wrong in and of itself. Would they have felt the same way if I’d said that I was opposed to drunk driving because my sister had been hit by a drunk driver?”
In Grutter v. Bollinger, a 2003 Supreme Court case that upheld the constitutionality of the University of Michigan Law School’s admissions policies that favored some races over others, Thomas issued a dissent imbued with personal experience:
The majority of blacks are admitted to the Law School because of discrimination, and because of this policy all are tarred as undeserving. This problem of stigma does not depend on determinacy as to whether those stigmatized are actually the ‘beneficiaries’ of racial discrimination. When blacks take positions in the highest places of government, industry, or academia, it is an open question today whether their skin color played a part in their advancement. The question itself is the stigma — because either racial discrimination did play a role, in which case the person may be deemed ‘otherwise unqualified,’ or it did not, in which case asking the question itself unfairly marks those blacks who would succeed without discrimination.
After this decision New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd said Thomas’s failure to appreciate racial preferences was hypocritical: “It’s impossible not to be disgusted at someone who could benefit so much from affirmative action and then pull up the ladder after himself.” Toobin abused Thomas as a race traitor for his “intense resentment of efforts to help African-Americans.”
In 2002, five black law professors at the University of North Carolina boycotted a Thomas appearance, claiming: “[A]s a justice, he not only engages in acts that harm other African Americans like himself, but also gives aid, comfort, and racial legitimacy to acts and doctrines of others that harm African Americans unlike himself — that is, those who have not yet reaped the benefits of civil rights laws, including affirmative action, and who have not yet received the benefits of the white-conservative sponsorships that now empower him.”
Is the ‘Angry Black Man’ a Projection?
How could good-faith efforts at furthering blacks’ progress be met with such derision? Much of it stems from his critics’ perception of what motivates his opposition to their social-engineering experiments. Toobin, Dowd, and others ascribe this heterodoxy to a perceived servility to “powerful” “conservative” elites.
Dowd, imagining herself as Thomas, wrote of his opinion in Bush v. Gore: “I used to have grave reservations about working at white institutions, subject to the whims of white superiors. But when Poppy’s whim was to crown his son — one of those privileged Yale legacy types I always resented — I had to repay The Man for putting me on the court even though I was neither qualified nor honest … But having the power to carjack the presidency and control the fate of the country did give me that old X-rated tingle.”
Others interpret Thomas as an ideological devotee to the take-it-as-it-comes judicial philosophy sometimes called “originalism” — a notion he’d reject.
“A philosophy that is imposed from without instead of arising organically from day-to-day engagement with the law isn’t worth having,” he writes. “Such a philosophy runs the risk of becoming an ideology, and I’d spent much of my adult life shying away from abstract ideological theories that served only to obscure the reality of life as it’s lived.”
Still, Thomas’s Supreme Court career is often blithely dismissed as the work of his ideological puppeteer, Scalia, supposedly because they often vote alike. In fact, according to ABC legal correspondent Jan Crawford Greenburg’s book “Supreme Conflict: The Inside Story for Control of the United States Supreme Court,” it is Scalia who often changed his opinions to more closely reflect Thomas’s.
In 2005, University of Iowa Law Professor Angela Onwuachi-Willig reported the court’s leftist justices were more likely to vote alike than Thomas and Scalia did, “with Justice Ginsburg agreeing in full with Justice Souter 85% of the time, Justice Souter agreeing with Justice Stevens 77% of the time, and Justice O’Connor agreeing with Chief Justice Rehnquist 79% of the time while Justice Thomas and Justice Scalia agreed in full only 73% of time.”
This notion that blacks choose not to think for themselves is not entirely foreign to these critics; The Times’s Dowd and Rich have joked that blacks who spoke at the Republican 2000 convention participated in a “minstrel show.”
It’s Old Racism in New Clothes
Thomas’s own explanation for his ideas is less conspiratorial. He thinks too many of these policies are premised on the idea that blacks are an inferior race. In 1995, the Supreme Court heard Missouri v. Jenkins, where the Kansas City school district was attempting to, in part, correct racial imbalances by opening schools catering to whites in a neighborhood they had long ago abandoned. In a concurring opinion, Thomas writes:
It never ceases to amaze me that the courts are willing to assume that anything that is predominately black must be inferior. Instead of focusing on remedying the harm done to those black schoolchildren injured by segregation, the District Court here sought to convert the Kansas City, Missouri, School District (KCMSD) into a ‘magnet district’ that would reverse the ‘white flight’ caused by desegregation. … Racial isolation itself not a harm; only state-enforced segregation is. After all, if separation is a harm, and if integration therefore is the only way that blacks can receive a proper education, then there must be something inferior about blacks. Under this theory, segregation injures blacks because blacks, when left on their own, cannot achieve.
It’s unclear whether affirmative action supporters’ professed ideal of racial equality better represents their actual thinking than preferences’ implications of black inferiority. President Biden certainly didn’t help the former case when he speculated aloud to The Washington Post about why Iowa’s public schools outperform D.C.’s: “There’s less than 1 percent of the population of Iowa that is African American. There is probably less than 4 or 5 percent that are minorities. What is in Washington? So look, it goes back to what you start off with, what you’re dealing with.” More recently Biden said, “Poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids.”
Hurting Black Kids to Make White Adults Feel Better
The preoccupation with means over ends exacts a toll on blacks, says Thomas. By pursuing busing programs meant to intermix students usually at the expense of quality education, blacks are essentially being used as guinea pigs in the experiments of white social scientists. This not only is demoralizing, but suggests that without whites, blacks are hopeless.
Once more, blacks become reliant on whites, and a theory that tacitly assumes black inferiority helps make it real. A 2019 Pew Research Center poll finds that, with the Great Society 57 years deep, black Americans are historically pessimistic, with more than 80 percent viewing their race as an impediment. Curiously, the more educated the respondent, the more likely he was to see his race as an obstacle, and half say America will never achieve racial equity.
Whites, too, see less progress, per Pew, but are twice as likely to be optimistic. This suggests efforts at racial redress atone for white guilt twice as well as they do boosting black progress. For this reason, Thomas sometimes says, racial preferences are intended more for their sponsors than their recipients.
Perhaps conventional repulsion for Republicans explains why more blacks haven’t had similar re-appraisals to the government’s efforts to improve their lot. While skepticism of government social work may well be an aspect of conservative political philosophy, for Thomas, it’s merely an affirmation of his life’s experiences. He is “conservative,” in other words, because he is black.
I Don’t Care What You Think. I Think for Myself
And it no longer matters what anybody says, a declaration he made in a 1998 Memphis speech. Speaking before the National Bar Association, a black lawyers group, Thomas did not apologize for his heretical beliefs. Instead, he said this:
I have come here today, not in anger or to anger, though my mere presence has been sufficient, obviously, to anger some. Nor have I come to defend my views, but rather to assert my right to think for myself, to refuse to have my ideas assigned to me as though I was an intellectual slave because I’m black. I come to state that I am a man, free to think for myself and do as I please. I have come to assert that I am a judge and I will not be consigned the unquestioned opinions of others.
This attitude is clearly unhelpful to those promoting preferences. Thomas, after all, is right: Racial preferences tar reputations. He has achieved the uttermost prominence, yet no matter what he achieves, it seems, his critics still argue he owes everything to preferences.
Dowd began an article, “He knew he could not make a powerful legal argument against racial preferences, given the fact that he got into Yale Law School and got picked for the Supreme Court thanks to his race.” Of Thomas’s nomination to the EEOC, Toobin says, “Though Thomas doesn’t say so directly, it’s clear he was given the job because he was black.”
Stripping pride from a man’s achievements is certainly an indecent thing. One wonders how Toobin would feel if it were constantly alleged that the only reason he got his job at CNN was because he’s a dyed-blue-in-the-wool Democrat. And how would Dowd respond to accusations that the only reason she owns premier real estate on The New York Times editorial page is because she’s a woman?
This claim effectively imparts ownership of racial-preference recipients’ achievements to those administering these programs. If that’s the choice — diminished personal sovereignty, or liberty — Thomas would rather be free, even if it means he fails. This is why Thomas began his Grutter v. Michigan opinion with a quote from his hero, Frederick Douglass:
Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us. Do nothing with us! If the apples will not remain on the tree of their own strength, if they are worm-eaten at the core, if they are early ripe and disposed to fall, let them fall! … And if the negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall also. All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own legs! Let him alone! … [Y]our interference is doing him positive injury.
Thomas’s life has been a struggle to stand alone, and he knows there are others. He’s long nursed an urge to return to Georgia and help his old neighborhood. At a book-signing party, he was asked whether he’d prefer any job over his current assignment. He could think of only one: “a small or medium-sized business” somewhere in the South where he could “be a part of my community.”
Thomas has often passed up these opportunities on the belief that positions of greater prominence held greater capacity for reform. Yet each step has met ever greater condemnation — sometimes infected with accusations of racial traitorship, always leading to the same regrettable conclusion: Black minds aren’t ready to be free.
But having untangled himself from the pull-strings of racial groupthink, leftist social dogma, political ideology, and popular opinion, Thomas was recently able to proclaim himself “the freest man on the court.” It’s this, his intellectual emancipation, that most infuriates his leftist critics. In proving their entire worldview fraudulent, Thomas continues to attract racist abuse because that’s all they have left to hurl.
Witnessing the way white progressives resort to racism the moment a black man breaks free from his intellectual shackles, surely younger black thinkers will realize there’s no value in accepting a set of beliefs simply because they were born a certain race. That would surely make Justice Thomas happy.
Tom Elliott is the founder and editor of Grabien. Follow him on Twitter @tomselliott.