The Two Clarence Thomases

One of my contentions in the book on Clarence Thomas I’m writing is that while Thomas was championed during his Senate hearings as a man of the South—the Pin Point strategy, they called it—he is in fact very much a product of the North. Specifically, a North that gave lip service to racial equality, that deemed racism a southern problem, but that was either exploding with raw hatred and bigotry or hiding that racism beneath a veneer of liberal do-good-ism.

Re-reading several books about Thomas’s time at Holy Cross, where he was an undergraduate in the late 1960s and early 1970s, you get a strong sense of this, not just from Thomas but also from his black classmates and close friends, men like Edward P. Jones, who would go onto write The Known World, which won the Pulitzer Prize.

You also get an eerie sense of premonition: the problems Thomas and his friends encountered at a relatively elite, predominantly white northern university in 1968— invisibility, condescension, marginalization, well-meaning but often clumsy overtures from administrators, professors, and students—sound almost identical to the problems students of color on elite campuses describe today.

On a different note, Thomas was the Court’s conservative pathbreaker in three critical areas of jurisprudence: campaign finance and the 1st Amendment, gun rights and the Second Amendment, and national regulation and the Commerce Clause. Three cases—Citizens UnitedDistrict of Columbia v. Heller, and National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius (the Obamacare case)—were, essentially, his babies. Even though he didn’t author the opinions, he was the intellectual godfather, the most right-wing justice, who lay down the markers that pushed the Court to these extremes. As Jeffrey Toobin writes of Citizens United, “the opinion was Kennedy’s, but the victory was Thomas’s.”

The point of this book: to bring the first Clarence Thomas, who speaks a lingua franca that is so familiar to liberals, and the second Clarence Thomas, who speaks a lingua franca that is so familiar to conservatives, together. They are one.



  1. xenon2 July 20, 2016 at 10:43 am | #

    Read amazon’s reviews : ‘The Known World compels attention because it is wonderful example of how not to story a people.’ From another amazon reviewer: ‘This book is awful.’

    What’s worse, it’s historical fiction.

    It’s as if history isn’t enough?

    (sorry, I watched the ‘Anita Hill’ hearings, and have no use for Thomas)

    • LFC July 20, 2016 at 4:03 pm | #

      Since the merits of Jones’s novel can’t possibly have any bearing on Thomas — they were college classmates apparently, but Jones wrote the book in question, not Thomas — I don’t understand this comment.

      Also, are you attacking historical fiction as a genre? Do you want to start by getting rid of, e.g., A Tale of Two Cities? War and Peace?

      • xenon2 July 20, 2016 at 8:09 pm | #

        I have no use for historical fiction, but I’m just one person.
        Let everyone read what he wants.

        There were enough people who chose The Known World
        for their book club, which doesn’t explain why it won the
        Pulitzer Prize.

  2. Dean July 20, 2016 at 6:21 pm | #

    I simply cannot understand or relate to an intellect which is so malleable that it vacillates between two extremes. What was true becomes false, what was false becomes true. I lose ALL respect for such an individual. There was no respect left after Anita Hill, but this new information simply “buries him” in my book. A person not to be taken seriously at any level. I wonder whether he is worthy of having a book written about him, and I do not envy Corey Robin’s chosen toil.

    • Donald Pruden, Jr., a/k/a The Enemy Combatant July 21, 2016 at 12:09 pm | #

      I don’t think whether someone is “worthy of a book being written about him” is an answerable question, certainly as long as “worthy” goes undefined. And that is to say nothing of who should be tasked with the work of such writing, and how such writing is to be undertaken.

      I, for one, have a very practical interest in seeing Corey’s book come out for our consideration. Justice Thomas’ decisions and concurrences (even those where the conservatives do not prevail) affect our lives, especially the lives American Blacks. Understanding him, as well as the other justices, permits us to understand institutional power’s role in our lives, and Thomas’ life is a model of personal and political negotiations with power — and of negotiating power. For those traditionally without power, such understanding is one step toward confronting its predations upon the weak and Justice Thomas has on more than one occasion participated in the facilitation of such predations. Thomas’ own personal story may at times seem removed from the visible articulations of contentious social relations — but what he is now would be impossible without the historic precedence that terminates in his current position.

      Therefore I would suggest that even though Thomas’ name may appear on absolutely every page of the book and whatever Corey may intend, the final work will be as much about us (as Americans) as it will be about Thomas.

      If that is the case, then permit me to submit that, in order to know ourselves “we” are worthy of a book being written about “us”. I am just glad that Corey has volunteered to take on that job.

    • Roquentin July 21, 2016 at 1:58 pm | #

      I had almost exactly the opposite reaction. Most people’s views change over time, to act otherwise is disingenuous. I think showing how Thomas got from point A to point B would be far more illuminating than just a historical account of his decisions. To get a little Marxist about it (I’ve been reading Lukacs “History and Class Consciousness”), you need to view things as part of a historical process, see how they connect to society in its totality.

      I don’t know if it applies to Thomas because I don’t know his backstory well, but political ideology is inextricably tied up with questions of power. Behind ideas is an endless dance of people trying to warm their hands at the fire of power and authority, get a little closer to the energy emanating from the throne. Part of it is recent events relating to the election, but I’m thinking in these terms a lot more now. So much of how ideas are legitimated has to do with the fact people in positions of power and authority are saying them. Perhaps at some point in his career, Thomas decided his interests would be better served by joining a different team.

  3. Ramesh July 20, 2016 at 9:48 pm | #

    I am simply surprised how clearly Corey sees. The first para hooked me. For it reflects my experience too. In a way Clarence Thomas is a microcosm of the state of society viewed via one person. If you will a study of human nature. Of course the book will be more than that. I came to hear of Clarence Thomas via his congressional hearings. I don’t know him. But from what Corey writes I know him. For he is me in some sense.

    • Glenn July 21, 2016 at 11:14 am | #

      Corey’s book is a must read for me, and more so for the reasons you list.

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