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“Strange Justice, Indeed”: The Day Clarence Thomas Gained Power, He Lost Dignity

Should he stay or should he go?

The wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas may have denounced the rumor that the controversial conservative may be planning to leave the bench next year, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the rumor is false. If Thomas does decide to call it a career in 2017, it will bring an end to one of the greatest legal tragedies in modern American history.

As Thomas noted in his 2007 memoir, My Grandfather’s Son, there was a time when he was on the left side of the political spectrum, even voting for George McGovern in 1972. The ultimate catalyst for his shift to the far right was when he began to question the logic of federal desegregation programs, which made him a receptive audience for the pseudo-intellectualism of syndicated columnist and wingnut icon Thomas Sowell in the mid-1970s:

I felt like a thirsty man gulping down a class of cool water. Here was a black man who was saying what I thought–and not behind closed doors, either, but in the pages of a book that had just been reviewed in a national newspaper…It was far more common in the seventies to argue that whites, having caused our problems, should be responsible for solving them instantly, but while that approach was good for building political coalitions and soothing guilty white consciences, it hadn’t done much to improve the daily lives of blacks. Sowell’s perspective, by contrast, seemed old-fashioned, outdated, even mundane–but realistic. It reminded me of the mantra of the Black Muslims I had met in college: Do for self, brother.

My Grandfather’s Son is a morbidly fascinating work, one that provides insight into the odd personality that has occupied Thurgood Marshall’s seat on the High Court for over two decades. Indeed, this Friday marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of President George H. W. Bush’s nomination of Thomas to the Court.

In My Grandfather’s Son, Thomas wrote that prior to the announcement of his nomination, Bush promised him, “Judge, if you go on the Court, I will never publicly criticize any of your decisions.” One wonders if Bush privately regrets making such an awful nomination, just as he openly regrets the rise of Donald Trump. Remember when the 41st President referred to Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann as “sick puppies”? Considering the horrible votes he has cast over the past 25 years, that term is far more applicable to Thomas.

One also wonders if Thomas will ever take a hard look at his legacy once he steps down from the bench. Had Thomas never fallen for Sowell’s shtick, perhaps he would have gone on to become one of America’s great champions of civil rights, as opposed to an explicit enemy of equality. Maybe Thomas didn’t deserve some of the harsh race-based insults he received over the years–after all, no one ever accused Antonin Scalia of being a self-hating Italian-American–but he certainly deserves strong criticism for his profoundly bizarre interpretation of the Constitution, most recently on display in Utah v. Strieff. (Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s dissent was seemingly written to challenge Thomas to confront the real-world implications of his disregard for the Fourth Amendment, or to suggest that one day, Thomas will have to face those very implications firsthand.)

It is interesting to note that in My Grandfather’s Son, Thomas actually admitted that the Republican Party he chose to embrace after being seduced by Sowell’s sentences didn’t have much use for African-Americans. Describing his days as head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission during the Reagan administration, Thomas observed:

Too many of [President Reagan’s] political appointees seemed more interested in playing to the conservative bleachers–and I’d come to realize, as I told a reporter, that ‘conservatives don’t exactly break their necks to tell blacks that they’re welcome.’ Was it because they were prejudiced? Perhaps some of them were, but the real reason, I suspected, was that blacks didn’t vote for Republicans, nor would Democrats work with President Reagan on civil-rights issues. As a result there was little interest within the administration in helping a constituency that wouldn’t do anything in return to help the president. My suspicions were confirmed when I offered my assistance to President Reagan’s reelection campaign, only to be met with near-total indifference. One political consultant was honest enough to tell me straight out that since the president’s reelection strategy didn’t include the black vote, there was no role for me. 

Clarence Thomas is 68 years old. He knows what his national reputation is. He knows that for many Americans, he is a symbol of extreme ideology and extreme ambition. He knows that the day he gained power, he lost dignity. When he leaves the bench, how will he live with himself?

 

By: D. R. Tucker, Political Animal Blog, The Washington Monthly, June 26, 2016

June 29, 2016 Posted by | Clarence Thomas, Conservatives, Right Wing Extremisim, U. S. Supreme Court | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“A Cinder In The Public Eye”: Clarence Thomas Says Black NBA Players Give SCOTUS A Reason To Gut Anti-Discrimination Law

On Thursday, the Supreme Court saved a key interpretation of the Fair Housing Act—a historic 1968 law that prevents discrimination in the housing market—by ruling in a 5-4 decision that a complaint does not have to prove a policy was overtly or intentionally discriminatory to be valid. It upheld the “disparate impact” standard, which allows complainants to show a policy led to unequal results, no matter the original intention.

Conservative Justice Clarence Thomas dissented from the decision, penned by Justice Anthony Kennedy. He argued that “disparate-impact doctrine defies not only the statutory text, but reality itself.” To make his case, Thomas pointed out that minorities sometimes do quite well. His examples: The Jews in Poland and, in America, the success of black professional basketball players.

Racial imbalances do not always disfavor minorities. At various times in history, “racial or ethnic minorities . . . have owned or directed more than half of whole industries in particular nations.” These minorities “have included the Chinese in Malaysia, the Lebanese in West Africa, Greeks in the Ottoman Empire, Britons in Argentina, Belgians in Russia, Jews in Poland, and Spaniards in Chile—among many others.” “In the seventeenth century Ottoman Empire,” this phenomenon was seen in the palace itself, where the “medical staff consisted of 41 Jews and 21 Muslims.” And in our own country, for roughly a quarter-century now, over 70 percent of National Basketball Association players have been black. To presume that these and all other measurable disparities are products of racial discrimination is to ignore the complexities of human existence.” [Legal citations omitted].

Thomas continues:

And if that “racial balancing” is achieved through disparate-impact claims limited to only some groups—if, for instance, white basketball players cannot bring disparate-impact suits— then we as a Court have constructed a scheme that parcels out legal privileges to individuals on the basis of skin color.”

Sports was a popular example for the dissenting justices. Justice Sam Alito, who wrote a separate dissent, cited the NFL to make a slightly different point:

 Of the 32 college players selected by National Football League (NFL) teams in the first round of the 2015 draft, it appears that the overwhelming majority were members of racial minorities […] Teams presumably chose the players they think are most likely to help them win games. Would anyone say the NFL teams made draft slots unavailable to white players “because of ” their race?

This is the same court that crippled civil rights legislation two years ago by striking down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act.

 

By: Rebecca Leber, The New Republic, June 25, 2015

June 29, 2015 Posted by | Clarence Thomas, Discrimination, Fair Housing Act | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“You’re Not Worthy Of Respect”: Clarence Thomas’s Disgraceful Definition Of Human Dignity

During a break on my reporting trip to Ferguson, Missouri this spring, I visited the museum inside the Old Courthouse, a magnificent, green-domed federal-style building that sits in the shadow of the St. Louis Arch. It houses artifacts and displays relating to the Dred Scott case, tried there in 1847; ten years later, in 1857, the United States Supreme Court would hand Scott—an enslaved man suing for freedom for himself and his family—his final judicial defeat. In arguably the worst decision ever handed down by any American court, in words that are displayed today inside that museum in large, bold, white letters, Chief Justice Roger Taney wrote that African Americans were “beings of an inferior order,” so much so that they had “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

Taney’s statement is anathema to the very idea of equality. But he asserted that the Founding Fathers, as indicated in the Constitution itself, would have thought the same of people who looked like Scott, or me. In historical terms, Taney wasn’t far off. The Constitution needed correcting, and it wasn’t until the Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868, eleven years after the Scott decision, that this got cleared up.

But I wondered again this morning, as marriage equality became the law of the land, what Constitution Clarence Thomas is reading, and in what America he lives. On Friday, Thomas—a black man who grew up in the Jim Crow South, a man who should know precisely the meaning of equal protection under the law—issued one of four individual written dissents in the case, Obergefell v. Hodges. It begins in the strict constitutionalist vein that Thomas is known for, but broadens to cover not only the Constitution but also the nation as a whole. For Thomas, the decision isn’t so much about laws as it is about principle:

The Court’s decision today is at odds not only with the Constitution, but with the principles upon which our Nation was built. Since well before 1787, liberty has been understood as freedom from government action, not entitlement to government benefits. The Framers created our Constitution to preserve that understanding of liberty. Yet the majority invokes our Constitution in the name of a “liberty” that the Framers would not have recognized, to the detriment of the liberty they sought to protect. Along the way, it rejects the idea—captured in our Declaration of Independence—that human dignity is innate and suggests instead that it comes from the Government.

Let’s consider this passage literally, and let’s consider the kind of liberty that the “Framers” recognized. The Constitution was ratified in 1787, in a new nation in which the enslavement of kidnapped Africans and their descendants—to say nothing of the abuse, murder, and rape they suffered—was already a national institution. Their notion of liberty didn’t include folks who looked like Dred Scott, me, or Thomas himself; Thomas’s “liberty” wasn’t open to gay or lesbian Americans in that day and age, either.

In a paper written in time for the nation’s bicentennial 39 years ago, Louis Crompton noted that homosexuality was punishable by the death when this country began. Its abolition plodded through the states over the next few decades. (In 1792, Thomas Jefferson, Crompton notes, called for the castration of those found guilty of sodomy in a Virginia bill.) Penalties were reduced to imprisonment in most cases; South Carolina, perennially the last state to act in the name of its most vulnerable citizens, was slowest to change, repealing their death penalty only eight years after the Civil War. To use Thomas’s words, I’d argue, strongly, that all of this constitutes the government stripping away the dignity of those suffering legal punishments for being who they are.

Thomas, however, appears to define dignity more strictly, as the quality of being worthy of respect. That’s strange to hear coming from a man who, while the head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, sexually harassed Anita Hill and likened criticism of his reprehensible behavior to a “high-tech lynching.” But I’ll allow that the idea of preserving dignity and therefore proving oneself as worthy of respect is an idea Thomas, a high-achieving student who nonetheless chose to study English literature in college to help him shed the burden of his Gullah dialect, is quite familiar with.

What I can’t stomach, however, is Thomas’s tendency to ignore the systemic effects of prejudice, and in the process serve as an agent to foster them. By not recognizing what plagues so many, he allows hatred and ignorance to swell. Thomas clearly wants marginalized people to pull themselves up by the bootstraps, all while he’s committed to taking those same bootstraps away. This is his legacy, a disgraceful sequel to the term of the man he succeeded, Thurgood Marshall. Granted, Thomas sometimes interprets symbols—such as burning crosses or Confederate flags—as offensive. But the actual, institutional bias those symbols promote escapes him. Thomas frequently infuses respectability politics into his rulings, which demonstrates his continued obliviousness to reality: It is not the responsibility of a vulnerable people to convince the powerful they are worth protecting. It is not the duty of the marginalized to prove they have dignity and therefore become worthy of being treated as equals; that task lies squarely across the shoulders of the rulers. And, in this regard, Thomas’s blindness shows. This is a person who, during the demonization of black people in the Reagan era, thought we were the main problem.

He returns to the notion of dignity later in the dissent in a passage that is even more shocking and incorrect. Citing the Declaration of Independence’s “all men are created equal”—a phrase that in an increasingly gender-aware nation, should already raise alarms about a lack of inclusion—he writes:

…human dignity cannot be taken away by the government. Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved. Those held in internment camps did not lose their dignity because the government confined them. And those denied governmental benefits certainly do not lose their dignity because the government denies them those benefits. The government cannot bestow dignity, and it cannot take it away.

We live in a nation whose industries, cities, and towns grew out of fertile soil wet with the blood and sweat of slaves. The United States has long been full of unmarked geysers of prejudice, blasting their ignorance on continuously marginalized people—including the LGBTQI Americans who in many ways continue to live, despite this ruling, as second-class citizens. Marriage equality does not close the housing, employment, and healthcare disparities that exist between us cisgender straight folks and those who are not. It is only the beginning of another long march.

We live in a nation where a young white man with a racist manifesto can study the Bible with a group of African Americans and then murder them, and in the aftermath the chattering class will engage in debates about whether a racist act has occurred. We live in a place where Matthew Shepard can be slain for being gay in 1998, and Wyoming, the state where he died, can remain one of five without a hate-crime law nearly two decades later. This is a place where, since its founding, the government has had a strong say over just how much dignity a person is allowed. The right of same-sex couples to marry was one that many straight men were not bound to respect, depending upon their state. There are still many of these men, but they cannot remove the dignity the government has today bestowed.

Dignity may be innate, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be taken away from you. It can become a two-way street. You can consider yourself worthy of honor or respect, as Oxford defines it, all you wish. But if institutional discrimination deprives you of such basic human rights as health care, education, and the right to marry whomever you love, honor and respect is not afforded you. Sometimes, in the course of history, states and people need to be bound by law to respect you. Relying upon human nature, or the Founders’ supposed intentions is ridiculous when you consider yesteryear.

Thomas, having lost the argument over marriage equality, chose to offer a pernicious, unsympathetic dissent that gives short shrift to the forces of discrimination and subjugation legalized by government while further emboldening his self mythology, this legendary story he keeps feeding us. Thomas would have you believe that because he himself could survive the indignities forced upon him by Jim Crow—a system of legal discrimination that eventually came to be made illegal, after a variety of Supreme Court decisions very much like today’s ruling—and that somehow, others should be able to endure something similar without the benefit of the very legal recourse that he can deliver from his perch. Using himself as the basis for a legal argument is asinine. Doing so in the service of discrimination is inexcusable.

 

By: Jamil Smith, Sr Editor, The New Republic, June 26, 2015

June 27, 2015 Posted by | Clarence Thomas, Marriage Equality, U. S. Constitution | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Clarence Thomas’ ‘Sadness’ On Race”: How Things Have Changed, The Views Of “My Grandfather’s Other Son”

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas gave a speech in South Florida yesterday, where the jurist, one of only two African Americans to ever serve on the high court, reflected on racial issues.

“My sadness is that we are probably today more race and difference-conscious than I was in the 1960s when I went to school. To my knowledge, I was the first black kid in Savannah, Georgia, to go to a white school. Rarely did the issue of race come up,” Thomas said during a chapel service hosted by the nondenominational Christian university [Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach].

“Now, name a day it doesn’t come up. Differences in race, differences in sex, somebody doesn’t look at you right, somebody says something. Everybody is sensitive. If I had been as sensitive as that in the 1960s, I’d still be in Savannah. Every person in this room has endured a slight. Every person. Somebody has said something that has hurt their feelings or did something to them – left them out.

“That’s a part of the deal,” he added.

At a minimum, the Justice’s comments appear to be at odds with his 2007 autobiography, which paint a different picture of Thomas’ youth. Yesterday, Thomas said race was “rarely” an issue growing up in Savannah,” but as Adam Serwer noted, Thomas wrote several years ago that as a kid in Savannah, “No matter how curious you might be about the way white people lived, you didn’t go where you didn’t belong. That was a recipe for jail, or worse.”

Thomas even said he left his seminary in 1968 after feeling “a constant state of controlled anxiety” over being a racial minority.

That said, Thomas’ broader point about Americans being more conscious of racial issues may be true, though it’s not entirely clear why he, or anyone else, would consider this a discouraging development.

Jamelle Bouie’s take rings true.

Let’s say that Americans are more sensitive about race (and gender, and sexuality) than they were in the 1960s. This is a good thing. If blacks in Jim Crow Georgia were willing to answer to “boy” and shrug at “ni**er,” it’s because they risked danger with any other reaction.

But that’s changed. We’ve made progress. And now blacks, as well as other minorities and women, feel entitled to public respect in a way that wasn’t true in the 1960s. In turn, there’s a public recognition that we should be sensitive to the concerns of these groups. This isn’t a setback – it’s progress.

Jon Chait added:

Maybe the reason race came up rarely is that the racial situation in 1960s Georgia was extremely terrible.

For instance, for the first 14 years of Thomas’s life, Georgia had zero African-Americans in its state legislature. Majority-black Terrell had a total of five registered black voters – possibly because African-Americans were so satisfied with their treatment that they didn’t see any reason to vote, or possibly because civil-rights activists in Georgia tended to get assassinated.

So maybe “reluctance to bring up racial issues” is not, in fact, the best measure of a society’s racial health.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Madow Blog, February 12, 2014

February 13, 2014 Posted by | Clarence Thomas, Racism | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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