Eleven Things You Did Not Know About Clarence Thomas

17 Apr

1. The first time Clarence Thomas went to DC, it was to protest the Vietnam War.

2. Clarence Thomas grew up a stone’s throw from the Moon River that Audrey Hepburn sang about in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

3. In the 1970s, Clarence Thomas kept a Confederate flag on his desk. [Correction: It was the Georgia State flag, which features quite prominently the Confederate stars and bars. It was a large flag, apparently, and he hung it over his desk.]

4. There’s a law review article about Clarence Thomas called “Clarence X?: The Black Nationalist Behind Justice Thomas’s Constitutionalism.”

5. Clarence Thomas attended antiwar rallies in Boston where he called for the release of Angela Davis and Erica Huggins.

6. Clarence Thomas told Juan Williams that “there is nothing you can do to get past black skin. I don’t care how educated you are, how good you are—you’ll never have the same contacts or opportunities, you’ll never be seen as equal to whites.”

7. Clarence Thomas is the only Supreme Court justice to have cited Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois in his opinions.

8. In college, Clarence Thomas hung posters of Malcolm X on his wall, memorized his speeches, and studied his writings. “I’ve been very partial to Malcolm X,” he told Reason in 1987. “There is a lot of good in what he says.”

9. Clarence Thomas does not believe in color-blindness: “I don’t think this society has ever been color-blind. I grew up in Savannah, Georgia under segregation. It wasn’t color-blind and America is not color-blind today…Code words like ‘color-blind’ aren’t all that useful.”

10. Yale Law scholar Akhil Reed Amar has compared Clarence Thomas to Hugo Black:

Both were Southerners who came to the Court young and with very little judicial experience. Early in their careers, they were often in dissent, sometimes by themselves, but they were content to go their own way. But once Earl Warren became Chief Justice the Court started to come to Black. It’s the same with Thomas and the Roberts Court. Thomas’s views are now being followed by a majority of the Court in case after case.

11. Clarence Thomas resents the fact that as a black man he is not supposed to listen to Carole King.

24 Responses to “Eleven Things You Did Not Know About Clarence Thomas”

  1. aletheia33 April 17, 2014 at 11:27 pm #

    disappointed that you do not comment at the end of this summation–how does corey robin parse all this?

  2. Virginia Blaisdell April 18, 2014 at 12:15 am #

    Oh Jesus, Clarence. “Act As If,” as they used to say in the Yale drug dependence unit. You can convince a lot of people that way into thinking you’re smarter than they think you are.You might also grow to be a bit smarter yourself. Maybe you could learn something from the women on the court, though maybe your view of them has been tainted by the porn movies you favored in law school.

  3. Paul H. Rosenberg April 18, 2014 at 1:56 am #

    Actually, I did know a fair number of these. Why? Because I read (and reviewed) Clarence Thomas: A Biography by Andrew Peyton Thomas way back in 2001. AP Thomas (no relation) was a sympathetic, conservative biographer, but not an authorized one. He also reached the conclusion that Thomas perjured himself in his confirmation hearing when he said he’d never thought about or discussed Roe v. Wade. It’s an interesting book partly because is doesn’t totally make sense of a man who obviously can’t make sense of himself–but it does a much better job than Thomas could himself.

  4. I indeed knew some of these things about Clarence Thomas, and this was because a polemicist named Nat Hentoff wrote a series of columns for the Village Voice in support of Thomas’ appointment to the Supreme Court. He even invoked Thomas’ references to Malcolm X as part of that support to win over skeptical progressives. Clarence Thomas also found a defender in Catherine MacKinnon who believed that (as she stated) because he is a conservative he would come to women’s defense as an anti-porn champion on Supreme Court — indeed, Prof. MacKinnon believed that women’s rights and the First Amendment were on “a collision course” (her words). One suspects that she felt that their collision would be adjudicated by a Court with Thomas as a sitting Justice.

    After Thomas’ ascension to the court, Mr. Hentoff wrote a column in which he regretted his advocacy for Thomas’ appointment. While he did cop to not being adequately informed about the legal and political temperament of Mr. Thomas (seriously, how could he not??) Mr. Hentoff would not give credit to his dissenters who had every right to say, “I told you so”. My own suspicion is that Mr. Hentoff, a very smart dude, did not believe that Thomas would make to the bench, given the level of opposition to his appointment. Thus he may have felt it safe to act as a kind of liberal contrarian “bravely” facing the inevitable progressive backlash against the appointment. This last is just a guess.

    One does wonder what MacKinnon’s own position on Thomas is now.

    Lastly, I recommend that everyone dig up the New York Times’ essay on Thomas titled “The Angriest Justice”. It is a chilling document, and very prophetic as regards the rage of this particular conservative justice and of American conservatism generally.

    • BillR April 18, 2014 at 12:07 pm #

      Hentoff is a “very smart dude” indeed:

      Two altogether opposed political stances can each draw an audience’s attention. One is to be politically consistent, but nonetheless original in one’s insights; the other, an inchoate form of apostasy, is to bank on the shock value of an occasional, wildly inconsistent outburst. The former approach, which Chomsky exemplifies, requires hard work, whereas the latter is a lazy substitute for it. Thus Nat Hentoff, the hip (he loves jazz) left-liberal writer, would jazz up his Village Voice columns by suddenly coming out against abortion or endorsing Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court nomination.

      http://www.counterpunch.org/2003/09/10/hitchens-as-model-apostate

      • As I have said often, BillR has the best links!

        Hey, I was wondering when someone would respond to my mention of NH. I thought I was the last one who had anything to say about him. I finally stopped reading him after he opposed abortion rights by claiming a belief in what he called “the seamless garment doctrine” of life, which he says he got from a Catholic thinker, and claimed as consistent with his pacifist agenda. I wasn’t buyin.

        But I remember that essay by Finkelstein – and I agree with it one hundred percent – plus, I had written my own obituary on Hitchens, but I have not been presented with an opportunity to post it in any comments section. It greatly overlaps with Finkelstein’s assessment of him – and mine is far less kind. I am, however, rather proud of it (but I do give it the occasional grammatical tweak now and then). I will defend Nat in one important respect: he largely did not abandon the left to mock and deride from within the comfy and welcoming confines of the right. This is what Hitchens did, and it made it him a willing tool of bloodthirsty imperialists.

        So, I cut Hentoff a micro bit of slack. NH was my first serious introduction to leftist reading on a consistent basis. But I very quickly discovered many, many others and discovered as well through these other writers (especially the non-MacKinnon-esque feminists) the serious problems in many of Hentoff’s positions. Hey, I just got out of my teens when I started reading him! In my late 20’s, it was time for me let him go.

        However, I cut zero slack for Hitchens. I think there was something wrong with CH that was far more serious that anything NH represented. I think Hentoff was actually genuine in his writings; Hitchens, on the other hand, was a blood-lusting egomaniac who cast his lot with power in a historic gamble that he’d eventually be seen as this generation’s George Orwell. This, I think, accounted for his often mind-bending hatred of pacifists, and of anyone who was suspicious of America’s wars. I’d love to send you my Hitchens obit.

        Now, Chomsky. He brings together scholarly rigor with a moral vision that is reinforced by that scholarly rigor. He makes me feel smart because the political ethics he lives out and adopts and promulgates is backed up a correct understanding of the publicly available and independently verifiable facts of recent history. He doesn’t cherry pick or mis-interpret the facts that constitutes his work. Chomsky downplays his own skills and labors, but he does this, I think, to show that what he does others can do. And the best part: we will never have to worry in the future about the value that Chomsky brings to the serious issues of the day. He will be read long after he is gone.

        And now to come back ‘round. Being very smart and being ethical are two different things. There are too many examples of smart folks who take suspect positions and, sometimes, for suspect purpose: Andrea Dworkin, Catherine MacKinnon, Hentoff, Hitchens, Booker T. Washington, William F Buckley, Antonin Scalia, Paul Berman, Friedrich Nietzsche. And so on. I like to think that, with a little effort, I can perceive the difference. And if I need a little help in that project (which is often, as I am getting older) I come to this site.

      • s. wallerstein April 18, 2014 at 6:27 pm #

        Donald Pruden, Jr,

        How does Nietzsche, of all people, fit in on your list?

      • BillR April 18, 2014 at 11:50 pm #

        Hitchens’s political nursery was the IS as he himself wrote a couple of decades ago:

        http://www.lrb.co.uk/v16/n01/christopher-hitchens/in-the-bright-autumn-of-my-senescence

        A response from another Sixties radical who didn’t sell out–and went on to produce excellent work, especially on Latin America–seemed to capture the zeitgeist of that nuthouse well:

        Of all the leftist sects that emerged in that period to take advantage of the global revolutionary upheaval that shook established institutions in every country, the IS was possibly the most pernicious, the most arrogant, and the most blindly sectarian. Inspired by deranged fakirs, of whom Peter Sedgwick was but one outstanding example, the IS dragged half a generation into a one-way alley of political despair, mixing half-baked Marxist incantations with sentimental appeals to a vanishing labourism.

        Last I heard of them in the news, they were being accused of covering up rape:

        http://www.theguardian.com/society/2013/mar/09/socialist-workers-party-rape-kangaroo-court

        Only someone who had the bad sense to spend years in such a cult could be an “apostate” a la Hitchens.

        P.S. Another horror story that emerged a few months ago of the type of “deranged fakirs” Hitchens used to write paeans for when he was proud to be a Trotskyite:

        http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/london-slavery-case-maoist-sect-leader-comrade-bala-claimed-he-was-jesus-christ-8966680.html

  5. Ralph Goldberg April 18, 2014 at 4:23 pm #

    your number 7 is clearly incorrect unless you mean in the same opinion.i believe justice douglas cited dubois on reconstruction in one of his opinions. rsg

    Date: Fri, 18 Apr 2014 03:11:37 +0000 To: attorneygoldberg@hotmail.com

    • Corey Robin April 18, 2014 at 4:27 pm #

      Nope, it’s correct. Thomas is the only Supreme Court justice to have cited Frederick Douglass AND W.E.B. DuBois in his opinions.

  6. Ralph Goldberg April 18, 2014 at 4:48 pm #

    in fact , there is no citation to web dubois from justice thomas on westlaw. however in jones v. alfred mayer , 392 us 409, justice douglas cited douglass ans dubois and reconstruction. rsg

    Date: Fri, 18 Apr 2014 03:11:37 +0000 To: attorneygoldberg@hotmail.com

    • Corey Robin April 18, 2014 at 7:09 pm #

      What do you know, you’re right about Jones v. Alfred Mayer. Mark Tushnet, the scholar who I was citing, seems to be wrong about that. But you’re wrong about Thomas never citing DuBois. He opens his concurrence in United States v. Fordice with a quote from DuBois.

  7. Andrew Burday April 18, 2014 at 8:16 pm #

    I didn’t know any of this (or wouldn’t have if I hadn’t been following your twitter stream). I’m not too surprised by much of it, though. I don’t understand e.g. the Georgia flag. I can see why Thomas is against all the things he’s against; I just don’t understand why he’s for the things he’s for. I can understand being angry at white liberal hypocrisy on race; I don’t understand how you convince yourself that being Reagan’s figurehead Civil Rights Commissioner is a productive response to that. It looks like grossly self-serving cynicism.

    A specific note, not necessarily related to the above: if Thomas really resents the fact that he is not supposed to listen to King, that’s sad and perhaps telling. Most adults who care figure out that the record industry’s slimy racialized marketing is nothing but slimy marketing. That Thomas would take it seriously enough to resent it is surprising.

  8. jonnybutter April 18, 2014 at 10:52 pm #

    if Thomas really resents the fact that he is not supposed to listen to King, that’s sad and perhaps telling. (…) That Thomas would take it seriously enough to resent it is surprising.

    I’m always hearing law-types say that Thomas is actually very smart, but I have my doubts. I think he’s really a mediocrity, and one who volunteered to be a token to boot. He is unhappy with himself and he should be.

  9. juantenorio April 20, 2014 at 4:47 pm #

    So Thomas was a young black ‘leftie’ back in the day, and now he’s an old black ‘rightie’?

    Eldridge Cleaver, black panther leader in the sixties who raped a white woman and wrote a book about it (among other things) claiming it was a political act;

    and who then had a wild life of being a fugitive and an exile;

    was finally pardoned some how and came back home to Oakland where he became a realtor and a REPUBLICAN.

    Cleaver died a card-carrying rich white man with black skin.

    Clarence Thomas has done the same thing, ‘cept he hasn’t died yet.

    It’s the structure of power and the ruthlessness of power that oppresses us: not the color of the skin of the people who wield the power.

  10. Bart April 20, 2014 at 5:26 pm #

    Your list reminds me of what some spies do abroad: burrow into the other country, and for months or years develop a normal but bogus life while waiting for instructions to act. It seems Thomas was preparing for his big chance.

  11. @ s. wallerstein:

    I read your reply to my comment on the weekend but I was looking at someone else’s computer so I could not reply to your reply. When I read it I went looking about for links to list to justify my inclusion of FN to my list. I am also a close personal buddy to both retired philosophy professors and authors Mark Roberts and David Allison (look’em up). From them personally, I obtained a lot of free education about ol’ Freidrich, and went to my copies of their books on my shelf. But I realized that I did not have to. Corey’s already done if for us. Just go on over the Tag Cloud and click on “Nietzche” right there. There are (so far) ten topics explored by our host that, I believe, allow me to cite FN as someone as a smart person possessed of suspect beliefs, arguments, theses, and positions. There is a reason that Corey finds, let is say, resonances, of Nietzche in the writings of the many famous right wing economists. I admit that I am still wrapping my limited intelligence around that, seeing that I am neither an economist nor a philosopher.

    But be that as it may. Given the readily available scholarly evidence, is my own statement about him (or, my inclusion of him in my list) really so controversial? I ask that seriously, without snark.

    • s. wallerstein April 21, 2014 at 10:40 am #

      Hello Donald Pruden Jr.

      Your list was all composed of Americans, except Nietzsche and was heavy on leftwingers who moved rightward, Hentoff, Hitchens and Berman, the same pattern that the original post notes in Thomas.

      Then there are two radical feminists: Dworkin and MacKinnon. I’m not sure why they are there, but I admit that I don’t know much about them.

      William F. Buckley is a straightforward rightwinger. No ambiguities there.

      You’re right that Nietzsche could be seen as a smart person. I guess that we all have “suspect” beliefs. The question is what we’re “suspected of”.

      I guess that I’d group Nietzsche with Buckley as being fairly straightforward in his elitist viewpoints. They’re both smart too and very witty.

      • No prob. Taking in whay you say, I can now see how FN sticks out — my worry was that my list was too American, and too recent, and too filled with the American huffing and puffing over “issues” that are also connected to news cycles (that is why I cited Booker T.W.).

        Dworkin and MacKinnon are listed directly because of their compelling natures and rhetorical flourish. Before she passed on, Andrea Dworkin wrote of the nightmarish nature of patriarchy as a blood-soaked, gynocidal war against women. Most of us likely know less about her than about the still kicking and active MacKinnon. I wrote long essays in college in opposition to their censorious (I would call them) proposals for anti-porn laws. To me, what makes these two facinating is the adaptive capacity of reaction to take up their seeming feminist cause for reactionary purposes. That THEY did not perceive this (at least not publicly, as far I could find) made me wonder if these two thinkers were in fact actually just another more visible 1980’s brand of cultural warrior for the right. Now, I would never confuse them with Schafly, but it is odd that their moment was concurrent with the anti-gay, post-Southern Strategy, ban-the-arts, “Tenured Radicals/Illiberal Education/Closing Of The American Mind”, campus speech codes’ cultural backlash of Reagan’s America. Ms. Dworkin herself advised feminists to (her words) “swallow your vomit” and make common cause with the religious right to ban porn – this is the same Dworkin who penned an intriguing essay titled “Right Wing Women”. Is there a reason that she understood them so well, and did so in the dawning years of post-1960s reaction?

        I concluded, provisionally anyway, that a feminism that joins the right is not power (or even a vicarious power) but is in fact a species of despair. I have not read Clarence Thomas’s memiors or the books about him (but given the reviews, I may start reading them) but I place Justice Thomas in the same category. Given the things listed above regarding the history of his politcal evolution(s), I’d say that his angry right wing politics is of the same character: his is a politics of despair.

      • s. wallerstein April 21, 2014 at 12:35 pm #

        Donald Pruden, Jr.,

        Thanks for the explanation.

  12. jonnybutter April 21, 2014 at 8:40 pm #

    Hey Donald, over on the CT thread for this post I cited your idea that C Thomas’ politics is an expression of despair. Just wanted you to know in case your ears are burning (or whatever is combustible in the cyber-ether).

    Here’s the comment:

    “Over at Corey’s own blog, the commenter Donald Pruden characterizes this weird contradiction as I more or less would: a kind of despair. But maybe from Thomas’ point of view, it’s just a reflection of his religious beliefs, and they come before everything. As I noted upthread, Thomas turned Lincoln’s ‘more perfect [union]‘ into ‘perfectible’, which is not only quite different in meaning, but also more of a religious concept, I believe (and would be yet another contradiction I guess). Maybe from his pov he is just a kind of a christian fatalist. He wouldn’t be the first.

    The advantage of this point of view is that he gets to not have his cake, and not eat it, too [in the form of a sales pitch]: All the resentment and anger, none of the feeling that he should do something about it.”

    • Thanks! I just read Corey’s 4/24 posting. I gotta tell ya’… I am gettin’ a lotta satisfaction from this comment he has made there: “What is surprising about Clarence Thomas is that he’s a Supreme Court justice who has married the bleakest vision of the black past to a document that is not only the fountainhead of that past but is also, on his account, the source of an alternative future—not, as Thurgood Marshall and other liberal constitutionalists would have it, because it is a “living Constitution,” but precisely because it is dead. That is indeed surprising, and worth puzzling over.”

      Wow, man! It is indeed rare that I get independent support that backs up my sense that I may be on to something.

      ‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky!

      • jonnybutter April 25, 2014 at 4:27 pm #

        I think you’re on to something plenty of times!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Random Things › <b>Eleven Things</b> You Did Not Know About Clarence Thomas | Corey <b>…</b> - July 16, 2014

    […] Corey Robin 1. The first time Clarence Thomas went to DC, it was to protest the Vietnam War. 2. Clarence Thomas […]

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