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Clarence Thomas Whines His Way to the Bank

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas's woe-is-me booktour peddles persecution from the same "left-wing zealots" who attacked his confirmation hearings 16 years ago.
 
 
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What's the difference between a low-tech lynching and a high-tech lynching? A high-tech lynching brings a tenured job on the Supreme Court and a $1.5 million book deal. A low-tech lynching, not so much.

Pity Clarence Thomas. Done in by what he calls "left-wing zealots draped in flowing sanctimony" -- as he describes anyone who challenged his elevation to the court -- he still claims to have suffered as much as African-Americans once victimized by "bigots in white robes." Since kicking off his book tour on 60 Minutes last Sunday, he has been whining all the way to the bank, often abetted by a press claque as fawning as his No. 1 fan, Rush Limbaugh.

We are always at a crossroads with race in America, and so here we are again. The rollout of Justice Thomas's memoir, My Grandfather's Son , is not happening in a vacuum. It follows a Supreme Court decision (which he abetted) outlawing voluntary school desegregation plans in two American cities. It follows yet another vote by the Senate to deny true Congressional representation to the majority black District of Columbia. It follows the decision by the leading Republican presidential candidates to snub a debate at a historically black college as well as the re-emergence of a low-tech lynching noose in Jena, La.

Perhaps most significant of all, Mr. Thomas's woe-is-me tour unfolds against the backdrop of the presidential campaign of an African-American whose political lexicon does not include martyrdom or rage. My Grandfather's Son may consciously or not echo the title of Barack Obama's memoir of genealogy and race, Dreams from My Father , but it might as well be written in another tongue.

It's useful to watch Mr. Thomas at this moment, 16 years after his riveting confirmation circus. He is a barometer of what has and has not changed since then because he hasn't changed at all. He still preaches against black self-pity even as he hyperbolically tries to cast his Senate cross-examination by Joe Biden as tantamount to the Ku Klux Klan assassination of Medgar Evers. He still denies that he is the beneficiary of the very race-based preferences he deplores. He still has a dubious relationship with the whole truth and nothing but, and not merely in the matter of Anita Hill.

This could be seen most vividly on 60 Minutes , when he revisited a parable about the evils of affirmative action that is also a centerpiece of his memoir: his anger about the "tainted" degree he received from Yale Law School. In Mr. Thomas's account, he stuck a 15-cent price sticker on his diploma after potential employers refused to hire him. By his reckoning, a Yale Law graduate admitted through affirmative action, as he was, would automatically be judged inferior to whites with the same degree. The 60 Minutes correspondent, Steve Kroft, maintained that Mr. Thomas had no choice but to settle for a measly $10,000-a-year job (in 1974 dollars) in Missouri, working for the state's attorney general, John Danforth.

What 60 Minutes didn't say was that the post was substantial -- an assistant attorney general -- and that Mr. Danforth was himself a Yale Law graduate. As Mr. Danforth told the story during the 1991 confirmation hearings and in his own book last year, he traveled to New Haven to recruit Mr. Thomas when he was still a third-year law student. That would be before he even received that supposedly worthless degree. Had it not been for Yale taking a chance on him in the first place, in other words, Mr. Thomas would never have had the opportunity to work the Yalie network to jump-start his career and to ascend to the Supreme Court. Mr. Danforth, a senator in 1991, was the prime mover in shepherding the Thomas nomination to its successful conclusion.

Bill O'Reilly may have deemed the 60 Minutes piece "excellent," but others spotted the holes. Marc Morial, the former New Orleans mayor who now directs the National Urban League, told Tavis Smiley on PBS that it was "as though Justice Thomas's public relations firm edited the piece." On CNN, Jeffrey Toobin, the author of the new best-seller about the court, The Nine , said that it was "real unfair" for 60 Minutes not to include a response from Ms. Hill, who was slimed on camera by Mr. Thomas as "not the demure, religious, conservative person" she said she was.

Ms. Hill, who once taught at Oral Roberts University and is now a professor at Brandeis, told me last week that CBS News was the only one of the three broadcast news divisions that did not seek her reaction to the latest Thomas salvos. Mr. Kroft told me that there were no preconditions placed on him by either Mr. Thomas or his publisher. "Our story wasn't about Anita Hill," he said. "Our story was about Clarence Thomas."

In any event, the piece no more challenged Mr. Thomas's ideas than it did his insinuations about Ms. Hill. As Mr. Smiley and Cornel West noted on PBS, 60 Minutes showed an old clip of Al Sharpton at an anti-Thomas rally rather than give voice to any of the African-American legal critics of Justice Thomas's 300-plus case record on the court. In 2007, no less than in 1991, a clownish Sharpton clip remains the one-size-fits-all default representation of black protest favored by too many white journalists.

The free pass CBS gave Mr. Thomas wouldn't matter were he just another celebrity "get" hawking a book. Unfortunately, there's the little matter of all that public policy he can shape -- more so than ever now that John Roberts and Samuel Alito have joined him as colleagues. Indeed, Justice Thomas, elevated by Bush 41, was the crucial building block in what will probably prove the most enduring legacy of Bush 43, a radical Supreme Court. The "compassionate conservative" who turned the 2000 G.O.P. convention into a minstrel show to prove his love of diversity will exit the political stage as the man who tilted American jurisprudence against Brown v. Board of Education . He leaves no black Republican behind him in either the House or Senate.

While actuarial tables promise a long-lived Bush court, the good news is that the polarizing racial politics exemplified by the president and Mr. Thomas is on the wane elsewhere. Fittingly, the book tour for My Grandfather's Son began just as word of Harry Dent's death arrived from South Carolina last weekend. An aide to Strom Thurmond and then to Richard Nixon, Mr. Dent was the architect of the "Southern strategy" that exploited white backlash against the civil-rights movement to turn the South into a Republican stronghold.

Mr. Dent recanted years later, telling The Washington Post when he retired from politics in 1981 that he was sorry he had "stood in the way of rights of black people." His peers and successors have been less chastened. One former Nixon White House colleague, Pat Buchanan, said on "Meet the Press" last weekend that it was no big deal for Republican candidates to skip a debate before an African-American audience because blacks make up only about 10 percent of the voting public and Republicans only get about a tenth of that anyway. It didn't occur to Mr. Buchanan that in 21st-century America many white voters are also offended by politicians who snub black Americans -- whether at a campaign debate or in the rubble of Hurricane Katrina.

Republicans who play the race card may find that it has an expiration date even in the South. In 2000, Mr. Bush could speak at Bob Jones University when it still forbade interracial dating among its students, and John McCain could be tarred as the father of an illegitimate black child in the South Carolina primary. No more. Just ask the former Senator George Allen, the once invincible Republican prince of Virginia, whose career ended in 2006 after his use of a single racial slur.

Mr. Thomas seems ignorant of this changing America. He can never see past his enemies' list, which in his book expands beyond his political foes, Yale and the press to "elite white women" and "paternalistic big-city whites" and "light-skinned blacks." (He does include a warm mention of Mr. Thurmond, a supporter in 1991, without mentioning that the senator hid away a child fathered with a black maid.) Always eager to cast himself as a lynching victim, Mr. Thomas is far more trapped in the past than the 1960s civil-rights orthodoxy he relentlessly demonizes.

The only way he can live with his various hypocrisies, it seems, is to claim that he's the rare honest, politically incorrect black man who has the guts to tell African-Americans what no other black leader will. Thus he asserted to a compliant Jan Crawford Greenburg of ABC News last week that everyone except him tiptoes around talk of intraracial crime and out-of-wedlock births.

This will come as news to the millions of Americans who have heard Mr. Obama, among other African-American leaders whose words give the lie to this bogus claim. But the fact that America's highest court harbors a justice as full of unreconstructed racial bitterness as Clarence Thomas will prove more eye-opening still.

© 2007 The New York Times

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