Beyond Thomas: New Strategies Needed


July 07, 1991|By GARLAND L. THOMPSON

Discussion of Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas's fitness for the job has centered on his pronounced lack of agreement with the agenda to which Thurgood Marshall gave his life's work. That's unsurprising, given Justice Marshall's historic role in American race relations. Add in the continuing outrage over Ronald Reagan's eight-year attack on civil rights and the failure of George Bush to shift course away from that attack and disquiet becomes still more understandable.

But Clarence Thomas is mostly irrelevant. Before he announced his retirement, William Rehnquist's court had come down 6-3 against Justice Marshall on nearly every issue he cared about.

Evening Sun editorial page editor Ray Jenkins has written that George Wallace succeeded through the presidencies of Messrs. Reagan and Bush, and he is right.

The Reagan Revolution also ushered in the "me first" years. A political philosophy that was anti-government, anti-taxes, anti-social services seemed to so many to be healthy when an Arthur Laffer could show on graphs that lower taxes really would mean more for everyone. "Morning in America" would provide -- through good old economic opportunity -- what the whole junkpile of Great Society programs had not. Why didn't blacks, Hispanics and other minorities give up their tired old rhetoric and give it a try?

Thus, we see a black man described as a "conservative" nominated to the Supreme Court, with "conservative" politicians looking on and laughing, as "liberals," supported by their black colleagues and friends, struggle to block his path.

What's really needed here is a top-to-bottom reassessment of strategies for the people who want to open all the doors. Thurgood Marshall's own life story provides ground for optimism, despite his later frustrations.

The 1896 Plessy vs. Ferguson decision put the underpinning in to support legal segregation of the races in the South, and that is the world into which Thurgood Marshall was born. By 1915, however, attorneys representing the new National Association for the Advancement of Colored People had begun attacks of their own. After two decades of trying, some progress had been made but many cases were being lost.

Justice Louis Brandeis told Charles H. Houston in an aside that a sympathetic court was turning back some challenges because the points simply were not well argued. So Houston instituted rigorous new training at Howard University's law school. He took the young Thurgood Marshall under his wing, and two years after his 1933 graduation, attorney Marshall won a major suit against the University of Maryland, forcing admittance of a black student because the state, de jure segregated, had no law school for blacks. Twenty more years of sustained assault brought the Supreme Court's decision in Brown vs. Board of Education, ripping down the edifice of degradation.

If Houston and his cohorts could use Plessy vs. Ferguson, the arch-segregationist's dream ruling, to attack segregation, some lines of attack must have been opened in the Burger- and Rehnquist-led courts' attempt to close the doors now.

What will be needed to find these new lanes of attack and develop the social-policy arguments that support them will be a new Charles Houston and a new convening of minds. From this vantage, the best candidate is Derrick Bell, the law professor who shocked Harvard with demands for the hiring of a black woman professor at a school long dominated by white males.

Professor Bell has worked in the U.S. Justice Department, been an NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund attorney, a deputy for civil rights at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare and director of the Western Center on Law and Poverty. He joined the Harvard faculty, then left to be dean of the Oregon Law School, then returned. He has solid credentials in teaching as well as in civil rights practice, and long experience. And he is clearly frustrated over the recent setbacks over civil rights.

Nobody asked me, but I would suggest the Joint Center for Political Studies as the home for the new effort. That Washington-based think tank has the credibility and expertise to assemble the social scientists, economists and writers needed to buttress Professor Bell's legal eagles in developing the new civil-rights thrust. Only this time, rather than a heavy document for dissemination, short-time discussion and quick disappearance from the public prints and airwaves, the end product would be two decades of brand-new assault on the exclusions that have kept blacks three-fifths as well off as whites economically and almost all the way "hyper-segregated" in urban living areas.

It wouldn't be easy, but then, nothing is. Charles H. Houston and Thurgood Marshall demonstrated that it could be done once, in an atmosphere poisoned by a segregation. They did it in a nation whose constituent states still condoned lynching, at a time bitter race riots had been used to drive blacks completely out of some lines of work and some living areas.

Compared to that, nothing can look impossible.

Garland L. Thompson writes editorials for The Sun.

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