In nominating Judge Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court, President Bush has chosen the most widely experienced black conservative on the short list of prospective justices who have been considered by this administration. It is a controversial choice, one that will challenge the liberal civil rights philosophy that has long prevailed among African Americans and has been articulated on the court by Justice Thurgood Marshall, whose resignation cleared the way for the Thomas selection.
Whatever the outcome of the coming Senate confirmation battle, it will provide insight into the current state of race relations and attitudes in America. Not least will be the clear contrast between Justice Marshall and the man who would succeed him. While both men experienced the wounds of segregation -- Justice Marshall in the Baltimore of the 1930s, Judge Thomas in the Savannah of the 1950s -- they came to different conclusions, remedies and philosophies.
Justice Marshall has long stood for integration and for group benefits and preferences to help black Americans overcome historic disadvantages. Judge Thomas has been described by a sympathetic interviewer as something of a black nationalist -- a man skeptical that blacks will ever be fully accepted by whites and, therefore, a believer that blacks have to make it on their own.
The Senate will have ample opportunity to examine just how this line of thinking has affected Judge Thomas' record as a judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals and might affect his future Supreme Court opinions. As chairman in the 1980s of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission -- an agency, ironically, that grew out of the mainstream civil rights movement so closely associated with Justice Marshall -- Mr. Thomas displayed vigor in prosecuting cases where individuals were victims of discrimination but drew liberal criticism for his reluctance to push group action cases.
Often before his elevation for the U.S. Court of Appeal in Washington a year ago, he displayed a conservative distaste for welfare (which he felt encourages dependency), for affirmative action (which he felt implied that blacks could not help themselves) and for black-and-white-togetherness (which he considered unrealistic). Judge Thomas is closer in approach to Booker T. Washington than to W.E.B. Dubois, to Malcolm X than to Martin Luther King Jr. He believes in black businesses, black colleges and has even been described as dubious about Brown vs. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court decision that ordered the desegregation of public schools.
Should Judge Thomas be confirmed, he would be joining a Supreme Court that has become solidly conservative through a barrage of Reagan-Bush nominees. Presumably he would add to the trend, but justices are hard to predict. He would also be maintaining a "black seat" on the court, though the very thought runs against his grain, and he would be restoring a "southern seat" on the court that has been vacant since the resignation of Justice Lewis F. Powell.