Stokely Carmichael and Clarence Thomas

“This [the opposition to segregated schools] reinforces, among both black and white, the idea that ‘white’ is automatically superior and ‘black’ is by definition inferior.”
—Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton, Black Power
“This position [against segregation in schools] appears to rest upon the idea that any school that is black is inferior, and that blacks cannot succeed without the benefit of the company of whites.”
—Clarence Thomas, Missouri v. Jenkins


  1. Jim November 16, 2017 at 11:36 pm | #

    I haven’t read Missouri vs. Jenkins but would just say that Thomas’ decision seems to assume that segregated (de facto or de jure) schools will be better off than integrated schools for black students. This is definitively disproved by the fact that many high schools (many in the north and decidedly not upper class public schools) have minority students that excelled and went on to college (whether community or regular college). Speaking from personal family experience.

    • Lorenzo from Oz November 17, 2017 at 1:29 am | #

      You should read Justice Thomas’s decision: that is not what is claiming, not remotely.

  2. Jomo November 17, 2017 at 1:07 am | #

    Both comments cavalierly ignore the reality that poor children do better in better funded schools. In Brown v Bd of Ed , if the concept under examination was poor and middle class, not black and white, it would have reflected reality and justice better

    • Hal Ginsberg November 17, 2017 at 9:00 am | #

      I don’t think the comments ignore the importance of adequate funding. Thomas and Carmichael are saying that integrated schools are not necessarily better at educating African-Americans than all-black schools. They (or at least Carmichael) would almost certainly argue that the superior outcomes that some black students who graduate from integrated schools achieve derives from the fact that the integrated schools (A) have 1) smaller class size, 2) nicer facilities, 3) well-trained teachers, and (B) address disciplinary problems better. In other words, the integrated schools are better funded.

      I remember my Constitutional Law professor telling our class 30 years ago that one reason for Brown v. Board of Education was that the Supreme Court believed integration was more politically possible than a mandate that separate schools be truly equal. The latter would have necessitated spending much more money on African-American schools.

  3. Halima Brewer November 17, 2017 at 4:36 am | #

    I would go with Stokely Carmichael. Segregation is a bad idea. The only way to true diversity is for people to mix until colour of skin is not even something anyone thinks about when interacting with one another.

    • Hal Ginsberg November 17, 2017 at 6:38 am | #

      That’s not what Carmichael is saying. His argument is that by their reflexive opposition to a segregated education, civil rights leaders are sending a message that all black and all-black schools are inferior. But Carmichael clearly does not agree.

  4. Tom November 17, 2017 at 7:48 am | #

    Looking at discussions of Brown vs Board of Education, Warren argued that it was necessary to overturn Plessy; it was not enough to invalidate specific forms of segregation on the geounds that they were unequal. From my persepctive, there is overwhelming empirical evidence that separate schools were unequal in practice, and allowing segregation to continue would be an invitation to continue to attack inequality. We see this today; we have de facto segregation of schools. Conservatives try to sell school choice as part of a solution, but in practice it appears to increase segregation.

    Anyway, the Brown plaintiffs cited psychological research that segregation was indeed harmful, and de jure was worse than de facto. Given that it was carried out in the context of centuries of discrimination and cultural bombardment with the idea that blacks were inferior, it is hard to see how it could be otherwise, in practice.

    I don’t know the context of the quotes, but unless they are made with some consideration of the evidence against it, I don’t see much to them. I also don’t see much connection between the two; both are denying the framework Brown. There is no obvious reason to think this is anything but two people independently making the same superficial, and wrong imo, statement.

  5. Chris Munro November 17, 2017 at 9:04 am | #

    “This [the opposition to segregated schools] shines a light, for both black and white, on the idea that ‘white’ is systematically treated as superior by existing white power structures and ‘black’ can more effectively be treated as inferior.”

    — Alternate Universe Stokely Carmichael

    “This position [against segregation in schools] appears to rest upon the idea that any school that is black has been treated as inferior by white power structures, and that blacks cannot succeed without the benefit of protections that limit the ability of whites to segregate them for the purpose of denying resources which can be marshalled for the exclusive benefits of whites.”

    — Alternate Universe Clarence Thomas

    Or, put another way, it looks to me (absent investigating the full context of both quotes), that both get it wrong in roughly the same way. Both look to have created the same strawman position to argue against anti-segregationists without engaging the arguments for attempting to address the impacts of systemic racism.

  6. Jenny Brown November 17, 2017 at 12:31 pm | #

    Carmichael in this period is arguing for a separate Black power base as the main way to overcome. Is Thomas?

  7. Dean November 17, 2017 at 12:36 pm | #

    The sentence immediately preceding the one Corey quotes from Thomas is: “In effect, the court found that racial imbalances constituted an ongoing constitutional violation that continued to inflict harm on black students.” Thomas simply doesn’t want to consider that racial imbalances and infliction of harm might be two outcomes of a common cause. Instead, he poo-poos “questionable social science research,” and implies that correlation not being causation, the courts got it wrong. His concurring opinion opens with a marvelous reflection: “It never ceases to amaze me that the courts are so willing to assume that anything that is predominantly black must be inferior.” Despite the total absence of supporting references, I think he’s probably on to something. I wish he had pursued that avenue in his opinion.

  8. John Jackson November 17, 2017 at 2:53 pm | #

    Conservatives anticipated Thomas’s argument in the wake of the Brown decision. Both libertarian “Baldy” Harper and racist ideologue, Earnest Sevier Cox argued the same position in 1955:

  9. Matt_L November 18, 2017 at 11:03 pm | #

    I think Corey Robin is trying to highlight an elective affinity between Clarance Thomas and Stokely Carmichael. I don’t think it matters much what the context for either quotation is, but more that fact that Clarence Thomas’s phrasing parallels Carmichael’s so closely and hews to a Black nationalist line of thought. Justice Thomas is more radical than people give him credit for, albeit radical in the pursuit of a reactionary cause.

  10. mark November 19, 2017 at 4:52 am | #

    Confusion about this blog post probably would not have arisen had Corey’s recent twitter posting in which Clarence Thomas reveals what idea it was that led him to embrace Conservatism would have been appended.

  11. Camembert November 19, 2017 at 1:33 pm | #

    I think that it’s fairly clear that Clarence Thomas’s embrace of conservatism has a lot more to do with his profound, soul-searing misogyny than anything else.

  12. Roquentin November 21, 2017 at 10:01 am | #

    There always has been this sort of patronizing undercurrent to a lot of white liberal thought. I would imagine that it would be a constant source of irritation to either Carmichael or Thomas. It may be hard for people to grasp in 2017 when the branding of everything, and I mean everything, as falling into either the “liberal” or “conservative” camps has reached an apex, but certain experiences are universal. As reactionary as Thomas could be, he was still black, obviously, and certain things will always go along with that. Not that it’s in any way accurate to characterize Carmichael as a liberal, but I’m sure you catch my drift.

    Sadly, while they both have a point, in a society with finite resources in which those same resources are distributed in an extremely uneven manner, separate schools through no fault of the students will reflect that. School integration was more, to me at least, about making wealthier white parents have a “skin in the game” (I can’t believe I used an investment term, but here we are). If their children had to face the same conditions black children in poor neighborhoods face every day, it would be a public scandal and conditions would change overnight. To put it another way, it’s only okay when it’s happening to someone else’s kids.

  13. David Green November 21, 2017 at 1:28 pm | #

    An underlying issue is the validation of capitalism by “equal educational opportunity.” Integration may be a social good in many ways, but even if it does promote EEO (which in practice is hardly clear), it serves as “reform” that perpetuates the fundamental inequality endemic to capitalism. Carmichael likely mistrusted the underlying assumptions of EEO, and saw it undermining Black Power as a genuinely subversive force towards a broader solidarity; a radical meaning of “self-help.” Thomas obviously subscribes to a traditional notion of “self-help” rooted in the Booker T. Washingtonian tradition; blacks can find their place in capitalism, and perhaps eventually be represented in the upper echelons of a system that to him is just in its rewards in response to ability and effort. Self-help remains an ambiguous notion in black political thought.

  14. Bilikin November 22, 2017 at 1:21 am | #

    Thanks to David Green for mentioning Booker T. Washington. I was wondering whether Thomas views himself as carrying on Washington’s way of thinking. I doubt if Carmichael viewed himself that way.

    More context would help in interpreting both statements, but Carmichael’s remark is on the surface less extreme than Thomas’s. If one harbors a belief of the intellectual inferiority of Black people, the statement that school integration would benefit them could well reinforce those beliefs. Thomas, OTOH, fails to understand that school segregation, particularly de jure segregation, is a way of oppressing Black people. Booker T. Washington’s hope for fair and just treatment was not realized.

    Not that White liberals of the time were not condescending in their racial attitudes. Inviting some Black Panthers to your cocktail party was considered liberal chic. Liberal psychologists called Negros culturally disadvantaged. To be sure, some norms of Black culture met with disapproval in the dominant WASP culture, but the very term, “culturally disadvantaged”, implies cultural inferiority. It seems likely that both Carmichael and Thomas ran into such liberal White condescension and resented it.

  15. Peter Wolf November 23, 2017 at 3:09 pm | #

    I found this site after listening to a wonderful interview of Prof. Robin on the Leonard Lopate show.

    The problem with both Carmichael’s and Thomas’s conclusions is that they start with dogmatic assumptions rather than with the facts on the ground. If we assume that they both value black people doing well in school, and that currently there is a disparity between black and white achievement, then we can try to understand why, and then try to change the factors that lead to that result. Also, we can look at whether black students do better in integrated schools or not- whether or not that is due to under-funding of segregated schools or various psychological factors.

    It is true that black students can get a good education in a segregated schools. The question for parents is whether, in the present day reality, they will. This is a practical question, not an ideological one. In the meantime, we can try to improve education in segregated schools while giving black students access to integrated schools. It doesn’t have to be either-or

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