Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has been famous and more than a bit of an outlier in American life from the moment he came on the public stage over the summer of 1991. Today I noted an interesting book review by Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson in the October 4, 2019 NYTimes Book Review. “How Should We Understand Clarence Thomas?” explores two books about Thomas: THE ENIGMA OF CLARENCE THOMAS By Corey Robin and CLARENCE THOMAS AND THE LOST CONSTITUTION By Myron Magnet.
The bulk of Patterson’s comments focus on the Robin book. Here is an extended excerpt that should challenge your views of much public discussion and government policy:
The secret key to understanding Thomas, Robin writes, is race: “Thomas is a black nationalist whose conservative jurisprudence rotates around an axis of black interests and concerns.” The remarkable achievement of Robin’s thoroughly researched, cogently argued work is that it makes a compelling case for what is, initially, a startling argument. Thomas, it is well known, was a black nationalist and disciple of Malcolm X during his college years: He rejected integration and strongly believed that race and racism were immutable, that liberalism and white benevolence were emasculating forms of patronage that led to dependency, the denial of black pride and any assurance in blacks’ own achievements. All that they needed was to be left alone and guaranteed their right to be armed for self-defense.
Contrary to what Magnet and other white admirers assume, Robin shows that Thomas never gave up this deep-seated black nationalism. He systematically goes through Thomas’s copious work to show that race informs it all. Thus, Thomas rejects affirmative action not because it harms whites, as other conservatives claim, but because it harms blacks, brands them with a “badge of inferiority,” elevates whites to the status of benefactors and perpetuates white supremacy. Policies aimed at the desegregation of schools and housing are rejected because they imply that blacks are inferior and need whites to learn how to create viable communities. Thomas has declared flatly that “the whole push to assimilate simply does not make sense to me.”
Robin demonstrates that Thomas firmly believes blacks will eventually be saved only through engaging with the capitalist economy, as his grandfather did, and that black interests can never be satisfied through the state, which only does harm, as it did through centuries of slavery and Jim Crow. Moving full circle to a position similar to the racial pessimism of the extreme left, he argues that race is so historically and structurally entrenched that liberal policies amount to mere tinkering, entailing the good will of whites, which can always be revoked. Black agency can be found only outside of politics, through an elite of economically independent black men.
Thomas has come to an extreme view of freedom in which economic decisions are seen as moral choices and hence amount to the exercise of freedom of speech, or moneyed speech. This is what Elena Kagan calls “weaponizing the First Amendment,” allowing the court to strike down many forms of economic regulations. It is, for Thomas, the philosophical basis of the landmark Citizens United decision on campaign finance. Thomas has become the leading advocate of this “liberation of commerce,” and the main defender of plutocracy on the court, his commercial jurisprudence distinguished by the fact that “it is in the market … that the leadership customarily associated with politics is to be found.”
Thomas is at his most conservative in his arguments that the harsh punishments of the American carceral state are necessary to undo the evil consequences of a liberal culture that breeds dependency and irresponsibility among the black poor, and to restore the values that “permitted blacks in this country to survive the brutality of slavery and the bitter rejection of segregation.” The state, furthermore, should enhance the authority of teachers and parents and punish deadbeat fathers. Stringent policing in black communities is necessary to control black-on-black crime and promote black businesses. As for the risk of prison brutality, Thomas dismisses this as of no concern to the Supreme Court. It is opinions like these that once led The New York Times to label Thomas, in an editorial, the “cruelest justice.”
Robin, without critical commentary, displays Thomas’s many contradictions. For example, Thomas repeatedly makes the stoic case that a person’s dignity can never be taken away, not even by slavery and Jim Crow. Yet he assails government policies aimed at helping the poor on the grounds that they quickly destroy autonomy and self-respect. According to Thomas, affirmative action by the state crushes the dignity of blacks and assumes their moral inferiority, but the same is not true for gays if the state denies them the right to marry. Thomas never explains why the liberal state harms blacks by making whites their benefactors, but the white-controlled prison system is good for them.
In this year marking 400 years since the first enslaved African arrived on this continent and 400 years of white supremacist public and private actions, maybe Thomas is right. At least right about white racism, not right about the efficacy of free market capitalism as a vehicle for autonomy and fulfillment.