His wrenching, soul-searing confirmation hearing notwithstanding, Clarence Thomas is so little known to most Americans that almost any decent biography of him would seem revelatory. Kevin Merida and Michael Fletcher’s study of the man known as the “silent justice” of the U.S. Supreme Court is better than decent. It is deeply and carefully reported (though without the benefit of Thomas’s authorization or assistance), and written in measured, lucid, unbiased prose.
Most important, it focuses on that aspect of Thomas’s being that seems to provoke more anguish, questioning, and wonder than any other: his race. Clarence Thomas, the authors write, “is in constant struggle with his racial identity—twisting, churning, sometimes hiding from it, but never denying it, even when he’s defiant about it.” And he is almost always defiant about it—necessarily so, since his ideas about race, constitutional interpretation, and related issues diverge so sharply from those of the fraternity who over the years have been pleased to call themselves the leaders of the black community.
How sharp is the divergence? Sharp enough that, as Merida and Fletcher point out, Ebony magazine, still required coffee-table reading in most of black America, “routinely leaves Thomas off its [annual] tally” of the hundred most influential African Americans. As a member of the Supreme Court—and of its now ascendant conservative bloc—Thomas is at least as influential as any member of Congress or civil-rights leader on the list. So is he, in Ebony’s view, not an African American? “It pains me deeply—more deeply than any of you can imagine—to be perceived by so many members of my race as doing them harm,” Thomas told a gathering of black legal professionals in 1998. Nevertheless, he refused to forswear “my right to think for myself, to refuse to have my ideas assigned to me as though I was an intellectual slave because I am black.”
This book began as a story that Merida and Fletcher, both black men and reporters for the Washington Post, did for that newspaper’s Sunday magazine. But its real genesis was an incident at “a party of black professionals” where a small discussion about Thomas quickly turned into “a roaring, improvisational debate.” “As we saw it,” the authors write,
no other public figure in American life had the ability to spark such intense passions among blacks—if not seething anger, then the restless need to analyze him, to come up with some piece of sideline sociology to explain the vast gulf between arguably the most powerful African American in the land and so many members of his own race.
In one sense, Supreme Discomfort is about the playing out in this era of the long-running conflict between black conservatives and black liberals—a conflict that goes back to Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois. Here white readers get to listen in on this black family conversation.
Truth to tell, on some real political/judicial issues the gulf between Thomas and his prominent black critics is probably wider than that between Thomas and the ordinary black person. Take school desegregation and busing, for example. For most black people, there was a very practical logic behind school desegregation: The white majority will always make sure that their children receive what they need to get a proper education, so the best way to assure an equal education for black children is to make sure they are in the same schools and classrooms. At some point, however—and at least partly owing to the reasoning on which the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision was based—the established black leadership began speaking of desegregation and integration interchangeably, as an ideal to be celebrated for its own sake and worth pursuing regardless of the cost.
The cost, as often as not, was long bus trips for black children in pursuit of fleeing whites. If segregating black children because their race inflicted a sense of inferiority so grievous as to be, in the words of the Brown decision, “unlikely ever to be undone,” what would be the effect of chasing whites over ever-greater distances in the interest of an integrated—and thus, putatively equal—education? (Whites were, more often than not, able to arrange things so that their children did not have to ride those buses.)
Thomas considers that sort of thing foolish and he said as much when Ben Carson, the famous black neurosurgeon, confronted him on some of his controversial views. “I had heard what everyone else had: ‘This guy is a sellout. He doesn’t care about black issues,’” Carson told Merida and Fletcher. “But as I got to know him, I saw this was a complete lie.”
But the fact remains that Thomas’s ideas—opposition to race-based affirmative action in education; opposition, really, to almost any governmental action based on race—are seen by most black Americans as contrary to their interests at this point in history and favorable to those who would turn back the clock on racial progress in the country. Many blacks fear that the “colorblind” ideal of justice to which Thomas subscribes would cement in place the results of centuries of white privilege and black disadvantage.
Merida and Fletcher report that Thomas sees things differently. As with school busing, he discerns a trap for black people in embracing race-based solutions. Eventually, the worm will turn and blacks will find themselves hurt by such solutions. And many of his conservative decisions that black people and others now find obtuse will, he believes, be seen in the future as farsighted. Thomas has cited approvingly the lonely example of Justice John Marshall Harlan, the sole dissenter in the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson decision that gave the nation the pernicious doctrine of separate but equal. It is clear from his discourse on Plessy that “Thomas sees a lot of himself in Harlan,” Merida and Fletcher say.
Perhaps. But some of Thomas’s opinions will be seen as simply and irredeemably obtuse. One such: his 1992 opinion in Hudson v. McMillian that the sadistic beating of a prisoner in the Louisiana state penitentiary by two guards did not violate the Constitution’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment.”
As black men, Merida and Fletcher brought to their project some advantages of insight and understanding that non-blacks might not have. A small example: They recognized as a decided advantage the “nine years of parochial school education” that Thomas had growing up in Georgia. In black communities across this country, it has long been known that a black parent who wants to assure his or her child a proper education usually has only one way to do so: send the child to a Catholic school.
At the same time, for Merida and Fletcher as black men, writing about Clarence Thomas had to be a stiff test of their journalistic skills and commitment. They pass the test by treating their subject fairly and by refusing to caricature him. They cannot be said to have explained Clarence Thomas. But they give readers what they need in order to peer with some understanding into his “divided soul.”
In this volume full of excellent reporting and valuable insights, chapter 11, “Marshall’s Footprints,” may be the most insightful of all. There the authors compare the biographies and judicial philosophies of the second black member of the U.S. Supreme Court, Clarence Thomas, with those of the first, the late Thurgood Marshall. The authors arrive at a provocative conclusion:
Thomas is far more pessimistic about race than Marshall ever was, which is ironic given his insistence on a color-blind view of the law and given his personal history. Thomas has lived most of his life as the only black—or one of a tiny minority of blacks—in overwhelmingly white settings. But almost every step of the way, he has been nagged by doubts and has burned with anger at slights, real and imagined. One bitter lesson Thomas has taken from his experience is that racism is a sad, immutable fact. The sooner black people realize that and gird themselves for that reality, he says, the better off they will be.
Ironic, indeed. But only one of many ironies in the life and work of the “silent justice.”