Clarence Thomas: Conservative Black Nationalist
September 25, 2019 6:19 AM   Subscribe

Clarence Thomas's Radical Vision of Race - "Thomas has moved from black nationalism to the right. But his beliefs about racism, and our ability to solve it, remain the same."
By consensus, Thomas is the most conservative member of the Court. So it’s surprising that the central theme of his jurisprudence is race. When he was nearly forty years old, just four years shy of his appointment to the Court, Thomas set out the foundations of his vision in a profile in The Atlantic. “There is nothing you can do to get past black skin,” he said. “I don’t care how educated you are, how good you are at what you do—you’ll never have the same contacts or opportunities, you’ll never be seen as equal to whites.” This was no momentary indiscretion; it was the distillation of a lifetime of learning, which began in the segregated precincts of Savannah, during the nineteen-fifties, and continued through his college years, in the sixties. On the Court, Thomas continues to believe—and to argue, in opinion after opinion—that race matters; that racism is a constant, ineradicable feature of American life; and that the only hope for black people lies within themselves, not as individuals but as a separate community with separate institutions, apart from white people.

This vision is what sets Thomas apart from his fellow-conservatives on the bench, who believe that racism is either defeated or being diminished. It’s a vision that first emerged during Thomas’s early years, when he was on the left and identified, on a profound level, with the tenets of black nationalism. Like most ideological commitments, Thomas’s politics are selective, but much of the program he embraced in his youth—celebration of black self-sufficiency, support for racial separatism—remains vital to his beliefs today. Those beliefs are coming closer, each term, to being enshrined in the law. Thomas writes, on average, thirty-four opinions a year—more than any other Justice. Despite that, the only things most Americans know about him are that he was once accused of sexual harassment and that he almost never speaks from the bench.
Corey Robin '89 Explains the Enigmatic Clarence Thomas - "With the conclusion of the 2018-19 term, Thomas has finished his twenty-eighth year on the Court. At the age of seventy-one, he is far younger than Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Stephen Breyer, who are eighty-six and eighty-one respectively, and Anthony Kennedy, who retired in 2018 at the age of 82. Should Thomas remain on the court for another nine years, he will be the longest-serving justice in the history of the United States. His imprint will be broad and deep."

'The Enigma of Clarence Thomas' Makes a Strong Case for Its Provocative Thesis - "In his new book, Corey Robin argues that the black nationalism underpinning Thomas's jurisprudence is a 'secret hiding in plain sight.'"

Deconstructing Clarence Thomas - "The justice's reactionary legal philosophy rests on faith in the power of adversity to fuel black progress."

Is the Story of Clarence Thomas an American Tragedy? - "In a new book, Corey Robin attempts to explain the life and complicated views of a Supreme Court justice whose decisions have profoundly shaped our world."

Interpreting Clarence Thomas - "How to grapple with the justice's unique judicial thought, rather than dwell on his biography."

The Conservative Black Nationalism of Clarence Thomas - "Joshua Cohen and Corey Robin discuss the black nationalism at the heart of Thomas's conservative jurisprudence—and what it means for those on the left who often dismiss the justice's use of race."
posted by kliuless (21 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
And yet, he voted to strike down section 4b of the voting rights act, disenfranchising how many? Sorry, I'll read tfa.
posted by eustatic at 7:12 AM on September 25, 2019 [3 favorites]

If black nationalism requires the African-American community to only rely upon itself, then excluding that community from the larger community of (white) America could easily be part of that. So striking down VRA protections can fit well with that.

Is his jurisprudence really a manifestation of his earlier beliefs? Or is there just a consonance between them that results in the same thing? I'm a little wary of over-simplifying the relationship, but this is a fascinating history:

On the eve of his appointment to the Supreme Court, Thomas was still summoning Malcolm as a witness for the prosecution against the liberal establishment. “I don’t see how the civil-rights people today can claim Malcolm X as one of their own,” he said. “Where does he say black people should go begging the Labor Department for jobs? He was hell on integrationists. Where does he say you should sacrifice your institutions to be next to white people?”
posted by pykrete jungle at 7:36 AM on September 25, 2019 [2 favorites]

The idea that black people can advance only with the help of whites is anathema to Clarence Thomas, who has identified with Wright’s protagonist throughout his life. For him, white benevolence denies black people the pride of achievement. By contrast, if one is black and overcomes the barriers of Jim Crow, one can be assured that the accomplishment is real. Thomas often invokes the example of his grandparents, who, despite segregation, managed to acquire property and support their family. Though they “had to work twice as hard to get half as far,” they knew, however far they got, that the distance was theirs. When black people succeed in the shadow of white benefactors, that certainty is lost.

This is *so* the respectability politics / "pull up your pants" thing that non-black people would keep lauding Bill Cosby for saying.

It also embodies this idea that you can demonstrate virtue through hard work, but then extends that to presume that the lack of an equivalent amount of work is a lack of virtue. But it holds that comparison to within the community and doesn't question the lack of virtue of a white kid who doesn't work as hard. Many might fail to ask that question because they just presume whiteness as default. Maybe Thomas doesn't ask that question because he regards that kid as hopelessly fallen.
posted by pykrete jungle at 7:48 AM on September 25, 2019 [15 favorites]

Rather than trying to piece together the sphinx's riddle of how a black nationalist could ever also be the most conservative justice on the supreme court, it seems much easier to square the circle by noting that his brand of black nationalism, his arch conservatism and his obvious hatred of women are all entirely consistent with his idolizing the hateful patriarch who abused him growing up and who he honors by abusing those under his power now.
posted by Reyturner at 7:49 AM on September 25, 2019 [25 favorites]

Randall Kennedy's got a whole chapter about Clarence Thomas in Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal.
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 8:12 AM on September 25, 2019 [2 favorites]

Thomas is a far more radical activist on the court than even Scalia was. Even with the two stolen Republican SCOTUS seats, he'd be my first pick if we're getting rid of justices.
posted by aspersioncast at 8:16 AM on September 25, 2019 [3 favorites]

"By consensus, Thomas is the most conservative member of the Court. So it’s surprising that the central theme of his jurisprudence is race."
Why is this surprising? Conservative politics is all about race.
posted by homerica at 8:18 AM on September 25, 2019 [8 favorites]

What I enjoy most about Corey Robin is that he takes the difficult route of listening to conservative ideas, and that creates a much different picture of Thomas than you get from the usual discussion. By laying out Thomas' intellectual history--by showing that it is a history, something that has evolved over time--he humanizes someone who is usually just portrayed as an inexplicable conservative monster.

It doesn't mean Thomas is right, and doesn't mean he's just means that the people in power are humans who have biographies that tell how they got to where they are today, and it's a complicated story but not too complicated to understand. (I'm still troubled by the above comment that sees Thomas through the lens of childhood trauma, because it seems to simplify him too much, to leave off the whole rest of his life, the thinkers he encountered, the books and ideas that influenced him.)

I really look forward to the book!
posted by mittens at 8:38 AM on September 25, 2019 [13 favorites]

Thomas is the truest, most honest person in the modern American conservative movement. What is unique among conservatives is how he understands the impacts of racial injustice and, quite frankly, doesn’t care to do anything about it because he feels nothing can be done.

It is a negative, nihilistic worldview but dovetails so neatly with white denialism that he’s leaving a profound scar on the American project.
posted by Big Al 8000 at 9:45 AM on September 25, 2019 [16 favorites]

Black Nationalism is inherently conservative. Occasionally there may be some "socialist" black nationalists, but in the end, nationalism tends to be inherently conservative and reactionary.
posted by symbioid at 10:52 AM on September 25, 2019 [7 favorites]

Thomas is a far more radical activist on the court than even Scalia was. Even with the two stolen Republican SCOTUS seats, he'd be my first pick if we're getting rid of justices.

He perjured himself over Anita Hill's accusations at his confirmation hearings, so yeah. And as a bonus, it'd set a nifty precedent for Kavanaugh.
posted by Gelatin at 11:20 AM on September 25, 2019 [9 favorites]

I'm not impressed by Thomas's supposed radicalism. He says that blacks asking for government "help" is an admission of inferiority. But that's just the standard racist conservative line: When black people demand government services, it's a handout. When white people do, they are simply getting the services their birth and tax dollars entitle them to. In his acceptance of that narrative, Thomas demonstrates he still believes black citizenship to be contingent and inferior.
posted by xigxag at 11:38 AM on September 25, 2019 [11 favorites]

Just-world fallacy in action. If the victim would just stop being so victim-ey then their issue would be resolved. If it can’t be resolved then that’s a clear sign that they brought this calamity upon themselves.
posted by amanda at 12:37 PM on September 25, 2019 [3 favorites]

unless the 'victim' is a powerful white man, in which case the victim narrative is a boon.
posted by supermedusa at 12:40 PM on September 25, 2019 [2 favorites]

FWIW I read Thomas's autobiography My Grandfather's Son a while ago, and it was the closest I ever came to having my head actually explode. My brain just could not contain all the contradictions.
posted by flug at 12:54 PM on September 25, 2019 [2 favorites]

I do really like Corey Robin. More than anyone else I’ve read, he takes “wrong” arguments seriously. Most leftist criticism uses the language of the left, and its targets ignore it; this is why we have so many talking heads screaming over each other. Robin, like an artist, takes the time to understand nuance and render a portrait of an idea that, while its by no means sympathetic, is at least recognizable to those on the right. And then he smashes it. He’s a treasure.
posted by kevinbelt at 1:05 PM on September 25, 2019 [8 favorites]

I read through all of these, and the only comment I could find on the Voting Rights Act being overturned, or the only vague mention in the general direction of voting rights at all, was that Thomas is favorable to the idea that black people did better for themselves during Jim Crow. It's still two giant leaps from that position toward declaring sections 4 b and 5 unconstitutional, on the basis that racism is supposed to be over.

If racism is never able to be ended in the United States, you would think that sections 4 B & 5 would still apply in 2013.

It just seems a more likely and intellectually honest explanation to say that Clarence Thomas is rich.
posted by eustatic at 3:01 PM on September 25, 2019

This is *so* the respectability politics / "pull up your pants" thing that non-black people would keep lauding Bill Cosby for saying.

Right. How is this conservatism not viewing one s self through an appeal to white culture? None of this makes much sense.

This book seems like a white professor gawking at black nationalism a bit, and cashing in on it.

Maybe it s the interviews, maybe it's Princeton, but is no one going to talk about the money Thomas and lady Thomas get paid?

Thanks for posting the link to the Randall Kennedy book.
posted by eustatic at 3:18 PM on September 25, 2019

Corey Robin’s book might be a great follow up to my recent listen to this NPR Code Switch podcast that helps decipher the concept of Black Republicans. That episode featured the author of Black Elephants in the Room.
posted by Stu-Pendous at 3:28 PM on September 25, 2019 [2 favorites]

Years back, Dios called me out here for repeating a lazy line about Thomas simply copying everything that Scalia did—he pointed out that Thomas wasn't conservative like Scalia; Thomas had a deeply weird, nihilistic radicalism that made his opinions some of the most interesting to read.

He was right—Thomas routinely has views that question the foundation of nearly all laws, and are, if nothing else, a lot more difficult to refute than the rote revanchism of most Republican jurisprudence.

One thing that I kinda wish that this profile would have gone into more is that Thomas seems to have maintained a very Protestant (Calvinist, even) view of sin even after leaving his wife's church to return to Catholicism.
posted by klangklangston at 5:09 PM on September 25, 2019 [6 favorites]

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