NEW YORK — New York. -- I do not like the mean conservative politics of Clarence Thomas. But I like even less the suggestion that he has no right to be a conservative because he happened to be born black.
The most important struggle in American politics today is between forms of individualism and community. ''You're on your own, buddy!'' vs. ''We're all in this together.'' The first, individualism, you may have noticed, has been on a roll for the past 10 years.
That is the side Mr. Thomas chose, and he has been handsomely rewarded for that choice, being named a high federal official, an Appeals Court judge and now, at the age of 43, nominated to be a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
It doesn't get much better than that. If Judge Thomas can be accused of hypocrisy or opportunism in becoming one of the few black men in right-wing politics -- he used to parade around in sharecropper bib overalls, a uniform of the left, at Yale Law School -- those traits have also been found in white men and women of both liberal and conservative persuasion.
This is, after all, the land of opportunity and opportunism. We almost all have the chance to invent or re-invent ourselves in the pursuit of happiness or power.
Judge Thomas is against affirmative action for minorities, particularly his own, a position he once described as the litmus test for blacks wishing to be accepted by Republicans suspicious that blacks are liberals and Democrats from the day of conception.
But, although he has almost certainly benefited from the liberal notion that it is in the national interest to do something extra to bring blacks into the economic mainstream, Judge Thomas is more typical than he knows among successful American blacks.
The era of affirmative action began when Mr. Thomas was a poor teen-ager in Savannah, Ga. In March of 1961, President Kennedy signed an executive order that set the tone of civil rights legislation beginning in 1964, stating that private companies receiving federal contracts ''will take affirmative action to ensure applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color or national origin . . . ''
For a time after that, elite institutions such as Yale or Harvard, which had traditionally served young men of the most privileged backgrounds, began affirmatively searching for the most underprivileged. But in 1981, exactly one generation later, Derek Bok, the president of Harvard University, told me something that seemed surprising, at first:
''Affirmative action may be, by its very nature, a one-generation phenomenon. We find tremendous pressure from black faculty members who do not want their own credentials demeaned by the awarding of the same credentials to a new generation of blacks seen as less deserving.''
Human nature, I suppose. Clarence Thomas, insisting he did it all himself, does not want his luster dimmed by giving some other black kid a break. He's entitled.
And his perception of how things work is as valid as that of younger blacks, Spike Lee, the filmmaker, among them, who seem to think that men like Mr. Thomas demonstrate that the civil rights activities of the 1960s and 1970s were the white man's way of skimming off potentially troublesome black leadership -- as the British took in hand the best and the brightest of young colonials and made them sergeants in the occupying army.
It is only politics, after all. There is a kernel of truth in President Bush's claim that there was no trace of affirmative action in selecting Clarence Thomas. He was going to appoint a conservative anyhow, so what difference if he happens to be black?
The president has that power, and the only way to change directions is to change presidents.
Whatever Republicans really think of their few black supporters -- and Mr. Thomas himself has said they are not welcoming at all -- it would be a good thing if the Grand Old Party was more attractive to black voters. One of the great distortions of American politics since John F. Kennedy won over Martin Luther King, by helping to get him out of jail in 1960, has been the almost total political migration of blacks to the Democratic Party.
Clarence Thomas has said he does not believe that the United States can ''get beyond'' racism, that we just have to live with it. I agree with that.
One of the reasons it is becoming more and more difficult for the Democratic Party to win national elections is because it is identified as ''the'' black party. So, more power to black Republicans; may they moderate the GOP. The more black Republicans there are these days, the better off we will all be: Republicans, Democrats, and people of every color and creed who can't stand either party.
Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.