The Enigma of Clarence Thomas

The Enigma of Clarence Thomas is a groundbreaking revisionist take on the Supreme Court justice everyone knows about but no one knows.

Most people can tell you two things about Clarence Thomas: Anita Hill accused him of sexual harassment, and he almost never speaks from the bench. Here are some things they don’t know: Thomas is a black nationalist. In college he memorized the speeches of Malcolm X. He believes white people are incurably racist.

In the first examination of its kind, The Enigma of Clarence Thomas delves deeply into Thomas’s biography and his jurisprudence, reading his Supreme Court opinions against the backdrop of his autobiographical and political writings and speeches. The hidden source of Thomas’s conservative views, the book shows, is a profound skepticism that racism can be overcome. Thomas is convinced that any government action on behalf of African-Americans will be tainted by racism; the most African-Americans can hope for is that white people will get out of their way.

There’s a reason why liberals often complain that Thomas doesn’t speak but seldom pay attention when he does. Were they to listen, they’d hear a racial pessimism that can sound similar to their own. Cutting across the ideological spectrum, this unacknowledged consensus about the impossibility of progress is key to understanding today’s political stalemate.

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New York Times Editors’ Choice
Best Book in American Political Thought Award
The Spectator Best Books of the Year 2019
Excerpted in The New Yorker

Further Praise for The Enigma of Clarence Thomas

“Makes a strong case for its provocative thesis… Rigorous yet readable, frequently startling yet eminently persuasive… One of the marvels of Robin’s razor-sharp book is how carefully he marshals his evidence…. It isn’t every day that reading about ideas can be both so gratifying and unsettling, and Robin’s incisive and superbly argued book has made me think again.”

—The New York Times

“The remarkable achievement of Robin’s thoroughly researched, cogently argued work is that it makes a compelling case for what is, initially, a startling argument.”

—The New York Times Book Review

“Robin sees a powerful continuity between Thomas’s black nationalism and his conservatism, extrapolating from his words a coherent worldview that helps explain his approach to a slew of issues, from voting rights to gun ownership, from the Commerce Clause to gender relations…. The Enigma of Clarence Thomas is the first book to fully tease out these strands of his thinking. The results are fascinating…. The brilliance of Robin’s counterintuitive argument is that it relies so little on speculation. Reading the book can feel a bit like the first time you watched those last few minutes of The Usual Suspects: It all starts clicking, dreamlike, into place.”


“Important and well argued…Robin has produced a thoughtful and careful explication of Thomas’s core ideas, showing how they emerge partly from his biography and setting out their disturbing implications. This is as good a synthesis of Thomas’s intellectual world as we are likely to get.”

—The Washington Post

“In his provocative new book, The Enigma of Clarence Thomas, Corey Robin… is deconstructing a sphinx, and his point carries the uncomfortable ring of truth.”

—The Atlantic

“Few writers take their adversaries more seriously than Robin…judiciously braiding intellectual and biographical analysis.”


“Superb…A bold and original book…Like all the best biographies The Enigma of Clarence Thomas aims to reveal the inner workings of its subject, and Robin achieves this not by trawling through Thomas’s private life and talking to his colleagues but by anatomizing his 700 authored opinions….Robin creates the impression of not hearing so much as overhearing Thomas’s thought processes.”

The Guardian

“Robin is one of our sharpest explicators of the right from the left, and the case he makes is round and convincing.”

Mother Jones

“When Robin sat down to read the opinions that Thomas has produced in his nearly quarter century on the court, he realized that there was a story that other writers hadn’t told.”

Vanity Fair

“Robin is the rare left-wing observer who takes Thomas’s political and legal mind seriously…. Thoroughly researched and engagingly written… this book is a valuable and overdue engagement with the nexus between Thomas’s early life, his black nationalism, and his political views.”

—National Review

“Corey Robin has done all US citizens a great service by reading Thomas with such care, and by providing a fascinating and original interpretation of the man who, in many cases, quietly determines the direction we are taking.”

—Los Angeles Review of Books

“One of the strongest features of the biography, apart from the rigorous research and close reading of his subject’s enormous judicial output, is Robin’s serious engagement with African-American intellectual and political history.”

—Against the Current

“Robin’s book is crisply written, modeling all-too-rare virtues of comprehensiveness, curiosity, and charity without giving up its critical edge. Living up to John Rawls’s maxim to interpret one’s interlocutors in ‘the best and most interesting way,’ and to try to ‘understand their problem and their solution from their point of view and not from ours,’ Robin reveals Thomas as far more interesting and unsettling than most have supposed.”

—Political Theory

“When Clarence Thomas took his seat on the Supreme Court, no one could have predicted that he would become both the silent justice and the most influential justice. Corey Robin’s elegant and insightful analysis shows how Thomas’s blend of black nationalism and conservatism helped him fashion a jurisprudence that will shape American life for years to come. This is the book Court watchers—which we all should be—have waited for.”

—Annette Gordon-Reed, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Hemingses of Monticello

“Clarence Thomas is by far the Supreme Court’s most interesting and perplexing justice, criticized by many and understood by few. Working through Thomas’s writings, Corey Robin tells a remarkable story about a remarkable figure—a man of complex views whose austere philosophy has been hiding in plain sight. Robin shows us Thomas’s black nationalism, his deep pessimism about race relations, his fervent embrace of capitalism, and his stern demand for a severe and uncompromising system of criminal justice. What emerges is a portrait that is as fascinating as it is disturbing. You may think you know who Clarence Thomas is, but you don’t know the half of it. This book is a revelation.”

—Jack M. Balkin, author of Living Originalism

“It requires the ferocious curiosity and intellectual courage of a Corey Robin to brave one of the most vexing mysteries faced by Supreme Court watchers: How to reconcile Clarence Thomas’s radical conservatism with his unforgiving use of race as jurisprudential lodestar? For conservatives blinkered to Thomas’s essentialism on race, and for liberals who refuse to reckon with his lived experience of black marginalization and stigma, this book will be equally discomfiting and eye-opening.”

—Dahlia Lithwick, senior editor, Slate

“Only a political diagnostician as keenly incisive as Corey Robin could render such a complex and fascinating portrait of Clarence Thomas. This meticulous analysis of the touchstones and turning points in Thomas’s life finds ideological consistency in the seemingly quirky patchwork of his thought: an odd amalgam of ultra-libertarian revanchism, patriarchal fundamentalism, black nationalism, and state-backed authoritarianism. Robin delivers a riveting guide to the multiple paradoxes that underlie Thomas’s unusually self-protective persona, and masterfully shows their resonance in the juridical rulings that govern us all.”

—Patricia J. Williams, author of The Alchemy of Race and Rights