We’re slowly moving past the clichés of Clarence Thomas

If you haven’t been following all the Clarence Thomas news, I’ve been talking with a lot of media outlets about him, the corruption scandal, how it fits with his larger life story, and where things are headed with Thomas and the Court. At the bottom of this post is a roundup of all the interviews and programs and pieces I’ve been involved in.

Aside from tooting my own, I’ve for a reason for listing all my media appearances about Thomas. As you’ve probably noticed, there has been a demonstrable uptick in interest about Thomas—and his Black nationalist origins—since last year. It began with his infamous concurrence in the Dobbs decision, which I wrote about at The New Yorker, and it hasn’t let up since then. The latest corruption scandal is, to my mind, a continuation of the newfound interest in Thomas.

The question is: What explains this interest? For years, Thomas was ignored, dismissed as the judge who never speaks, the judge who doesn’t think for himself or write his own opinions, the judge who isn’t smart. The only question I ever got from people was: Why doesn’t he ask questions from the bench? Then, with Trump’s appointment of three right-wing judges to the Court, and the Court’s dramatic shift to the right, people began to recognize that Thomas has a lot of power. It’s not the John Roberts Court; it’s the Clarence Thomas Court.

We no longer hear much about that silent Thomas, the stupid Thomas, or Scalia’s puppet. Instead, it’s the corrupt Thomas, the con man Thomas, which, say what you will about those epithets, none of them treat him as stupid. All of those epithets—some of which are totally fair (Thomas does get a lot of unsavory gift from very rich men), some of which are not fair at all (that he’s con man)—show that people are now reckoning with the most salient fact about Clarence Thomas, which is that he’s powerful.

But those epithets still try to evade another salient fact about Thomas: that he has a well developed jurisprudence that reflects his deep philosophy about race, wealth, and the Constitution. Harlan Crow didn’t create that jurisprudence; Clarence Thomas did.

What I really appreciate about all the shows I list below is that they are made by journalists who are trying to get beyond the easy stories and lazy stereotypes about Thomas. Thomas is powerful and he is corrupt—and he also has a well developed, constitutional vision of Black people in America and their relationship to wealth and power. Those elements of his persona may be in tension, they may make for contradictions, but they cannot be captured or understood by clichés and slogans.

So read or listen to these stories and shows I mention below, and see what you think.

On Sunday, I joined the NPR show, Notes from America with Kai Wright, to talk about “Clarence Thomas and his Hotep Supreme Court.” I first heard the term “hotep” applied to Thomas in Twitter conversations with Tressie McMillan Cottom, and as soon she made the connection to me, it all made sense. I was happy to hear Kai Wright pick up on it in our conversation, and that it’s in the title of the episode. Our local NPR station in New York, WNYC, is currently featuring the show as its “top story” on the website, and it has a great description of my thesis on Thomas: “Justice Thomas is a Black nationalist — but that doesn’t mean he loves all Black people. We unearth his ideological roots and what they mean for the Court’s looming opinions.” Anyway, have a listen to the show here.

Last week, the wonderful NPR podcast series More Perfect aired a lengthy episode on Thomas, which has been in the works for more than a year, and which they called “Clarence X.” That Clarence X is a reference to an article that a former Thomas Clerk, Stephen Smith, wrote about the influence of Malcolm X and Black nationalism on Thomas—and as the More Perfect producers found out, when Smith sent Thomas the article, Thomas wrote back an appreciative reply, which he signed “Clarence X.” The producers also discovered that Ginni Thomas has apparently sent out irate emails about my book to a listserv of Thomas clerks, “railing about how this Marxist professor thinks he understands her husband better than she does.” The whole podcast is filled with tidbits like these and voices like Juan Williams, who, more than any other journalist, put Clarence Thomas’s name on the map back in 1980, and Angela Onwuachi-Willig, the Dean of Boston University law school, who was one of the early legal scholars to notice Thomas’s Black nationalist roots and their influence on his jurisprudence. I loved working with Julia Longoria, the host of the show, and the entire team of producers and editors and researchers, who were absolutely dedicated to getting the full story on Thomas. The episode is a triumph of narrative journalism.

Last month, I talked with Brooke Gladstone of NPR’s On the Media, and we dove deep into Thomas’s views on money and rich men, and how those views have structured his approach to the First Amendment (on campaign finance and commercial speech) and help us understand this latest corruption scandal.

I also talked to Briahna Joy Gray on her Bad Faith podcast, where we discussed how Thomas shows that the real culture war between left and right is about money.

Finally, I wrote up some of my thoughts on the Clarence Thomas scandal in Politico.

And there’s one more big show coming out on Thomas in the coming weeks; I’ll keep you posted.

Update (May 31, 2023)

Slow Burn, which is an excellent podcast from Slate, hosted by Joel Anderson, has just begun its multi-episode season 8, which is entirely devoted to Clarence Thomas. The first episode, “America’s Blackest Child,” is out. But you should listen to the whole series; each new episode comes out on a Wednesday. It’s really going to be good.

Update (June 6, 2023)

I went on Chapo Trap House.

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