Every Thomas employer, from Danforth, who gave him his first job, to President George H.W. Bush, who nominated him to the Supreme Court, chose Thomas at least partly because he is black. Race is the central fact of his meteoric rise, and Thomas has alternately denied it and resented it—all the way to the top.
Two Washington Post reporters have come up with one of the most intriguing portraits of the Supreme Court’s most conservative and controversial member, a profile of a stubborn man of complexity and contradictions who in the end emerges as an almost tragic figure—an often isolated human being starving for approval who nonetheless clings to the very traits and beliefs that ostracize him, brimming with self-justification, righteousness and self-pity.
The undertaking of writing this superb biography itself is the perfect illustration of the contradictions of Clarence Thomas. When the authors sought interviews with him over the years, he politely and consistently declined. Yet many family members (mother, sister) and colleagues (Scalia) cooperated while some refused. At the conclusion of the endeavor, the two reporters were left scratching their heads over the conundrum as they received reports that the subject had made it clear to some potential sources that he was displeased with the digging while some of those closest to him made themselves repeatedly available.
This having-it-both-ways mentality is evident throughout Thomas’s life, particularly in the area of his uneasy approach to race and class. During his college years at Holy Cross, he intentionally avoided "black classes" that would stereotype him, yet he was one of the founders of the Black Student Union that urged active recruitment of black faculty and students. After graduating from Yale Law School, where he concentrated on business law and avoided civil rights classes, he wound up working under John Danforth in the Missouri Attorney General’s office prosecuting criminal appeals and tax cases, successfully avoiding civil rights litigation. Yet he moved on to head Reagan’s EEOC, which could be viewed as a logical step for a civil rights activist. One of the most startling examples of Thomas’s uneasy stance on race relations is his admiration for Malcolm X.
In Malcolm, Thomas saw a perfect strain of conservatism: he preached self-reliance, thought white liberals were condescending, and considered black leaders who pushed for integration wrongheaded. These are Thomas’s views even today, though hardly anyone would call him a modern-day Malcolm X. In fact, he now dismisses the protests of his collegiate era as immature, infuriating fellow black Holy Cross alums who think Thomas either is playing politics or has developed a convenient case of amnesia.
As the book unfolds, case after case of contradiction emerges, puzzling the authors; Thomas often recounts in public racial slurs decades old from his childhood attendance at Catholic parochial schools, yet classmates remember him as gregarious, relaxed and high-achieving in environments more friendly than most at the time to minorities. Friends and critics alike agree that Thomas is thin-skinned and oversensitive, that he holds grudges for decades and nurses perceived slights, that he intentionally only addresses friendly conservative crowds because he can’t tolerate criticism. Where they part ways is on motivation. Foes chalk his timidity up to an unwillingness to face charges of obvious hypocrisy; allies imply a complexity far beyond nuance. Here’s one example:
There was much many of them just didn’t know about this man whose pattern was to present different sides of himself to different people, even to the point of telling different stories about the same subject. For example, Thomas told some intimates he never aspired to the Supreme Court, and yet others remember him specifically naming the high court as an aspiration. Same with Yale Law School. To some, he constantly disparaged the school; to others, he spoke of his Yale years longingly.
Every one of us is capable of selective remembrance from the smorgasbord of events that life presents us, but Thomas appears to have a capability of sustaining greater disparities over greater reaches of time than most. Take the fact that he is known, behind the scenes, for lobbying Republican senators for confirmation of stalled African American judicial appointees, even when those nominees clearly hold ideological views he abhors. Or that he is, at the same time, one of the staunchest advocates of a color-blind society yet preternaturally aware at every moment of race issues, attributing criticisms to his rulings or public statements to latent racism and persecution. For an advocate of Reaganesque bootstrap success, he has cultivated a hypercharged sense of personal victimhood that he calls upon more often than his fellow African Americans on the left.
Thomas is far more pessimistic about race than Marshall ever was, which is ironic given his insistence on a color-blind view of the law and given his personal history.... One bitter lesson Thomas has taken from his experience is that racism is a sad, immutable fact. The sooner black people realize that and gird themselves for that reality, he says, the better off they will be. It is an admonition that he carries into his view of the law.
All the charges against his legal qualifications, the authors pointed out, were also leveled at Marshall. Thomas, however, in carrying scars from his embattled nomination process, appears to have shrunk further into his shell as a result, rarely speaking from the bench, being charged with overreliance on clerks or following Scalia’s lead. (The authors speculate that some of Thomas’s notorious silence in his official capacity is due to being teased about an accent in his childhood.) Scalia scoffs in the book at charges that Thomas is a clone, and indeed many of Thomas’s opinions go far further than Scalia would in granting government authority and executive power. Thomas is often left alone in both his assents and dissents because of his absolutist views and unwillingness to compromise on language in his opinions.
He is relaxed and social in conservative crowds and in his chambers. There are many stories in this book of him prolonging visits and phone conversations with unexpected callers, of his genuine interest in and kindnesses offered to low-level court staff that other justices ignore, and of his advice and concern toward all the clerks—not just his own—who come through the system, regardless of their ideology. He seems most at home these days traveling America in his RV and fishing with acquaintances. He appears stranded in a bubble by his acute sensitivity, hungry for human contact yet wary of it. A surprising paranoia streak is revealed; he refuses to TiVo programs because he fears Big Brother is watching and his fear of terrorist attacks seemed as ramped up as the administration wants the rest of us to be.
Thomas’s greatest consistent scorn is reserved not for whites or even liberals, but for fellow African Americans who are light-skinned and elitist (as he thinks of them), whom he began encountering during his school years with resentment and now considers an entire class of personal nemesises. Part of this may account for some of the dynamics during the Anita Hill challenge, which haunts him to this day. And of course, on the Hill question, everyone who reads this will want to know: Does it become absolutely clear that Thomas lied or Hill lied? Short answer: No. After talking to contemporaries and a vast array of acquaintances of both, examining statements and evidence, the closest the authors can come to a definitive conclusion is probably summed up best in the book by Federalist Society member Steven G. Calabresi, who, according to the authors, "initially supported his confirmation, [and] later declared that he thought both Thomas and fellow Yale graduate Hill were telling the truth, as each saw it, when it came to Hill’s sexual harassment allegations against Thomas."
I confess that I first welcomed this book with the hope that it would lay to rest the Hill-Thomas controversy once and for all. After reading, however, the satisfaction lies in a truly vivid and well-analyzed portrait of a conflicted and complicated personality, thoughtfully written and attempting to capture the man in full. Perhaps words from the closing chapter best capture the feel of the book and the complexity of the subject’s character:
... Thomas ... in more than half a century of living has worn his blackness in numerous ways: as a poor, abandoned child awed by the stern, illiterate grandfather who took him in; as a teenager wounded by teasing about his dark sink, as a confused college student who collected recordings of Malcolm X’s speeches, as the darling of white conservatives who summoned the phrase high-tech lynching when his seat on the Supreme Court was about to slip away.
Today, Thomas wears his blackness like a heavy robe that both ennobles and burdens him. The problem of color is a mantle he yearns to shed, even as he clings to it.
Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here.Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.