The nomination of Clarence Thomas to succeed Thurgood Marshall on the U. S. Supreme Court has elated right-wing
politicians and dismayed those more progressive. President Bush, under pressure because of his stands against congressional civil rights proposals, has sought to defang critics by naming to the nation's highest court a black man who `D espouses ''conservative'' policies. The spectacle of blacks divided and liberal whites left off-balance over attacks on a black man who supports right-wing policies has the rhinocerous right chortling.
Mr. Bush and the right wing, at last, appear to have sparked a real debate over why America's blacks consistently reject the agenda which has banished the Democratic Party from the White House for 19 of the last 23 years. Unfortunately for him, Clarence Thomas, in the excellent summary of right-wing mistakes offered in his 1987 Heritage Foundation speech, reprinted in the July 7 Sun, has supplied the clearest answer: Racism.
''I am of the view that black Americans will move inexorably and naturally toward conservatism,'' Mr. Thomas said, ''when they are treated as a diverse group with differing interests; and when conservatives stand up for what they believe in rather than stand against blacks. . . .''
So long as those leading the right-wing movement hang on tightly to their preconceived notions about blacks and keep expressing hostility toward their progress, that great vocal majority of black Americans will reject everything they say.
And so long as ''conservative'' means anti-minority, anti-poor, anti-social responsibility, so long as ''conservatives'' command a Republican Party manifestly eager to use Willie Horton demagoguery to win elections, Americans of any color who think with their minds rather than their stereotypes will reject ''conservative'' ideology. If that evinces a ''herd'' mentality, it must be noted that the herd has always managed to keep most of its members safe from the wolves.
Let's go back. Mr. Thomas, a former aide to Missouri Sen. John Danforth, notes that he joined the Reagan administration after a career in energy, taxation and ''general corporate regulatory matters.'' The young man, who had grown up under segregation but was freed like millions of other Southern blacks by the civil rights movement he later disparaged, was ''insulted'' at being asked to take a civil-rights post. It was clear to him, then as now, that his race was the prime qualification.
But he took the job, and was subjected to a ''litmus test'' on liberal causes such as the Voting Rights Act extension and affirmative action (which actually was started by a black Republican, Arthur Fletcher, during the Nixon years) and on ''conservative'' attacks on welfare:
''For blacks the litmus test was fairly clear. You must be against affirmative action and against welfare. And your opposition must be constant and adamant. . . .''
It wasn't liberals whose stereotypes needed appeasing here, but white ''conservatives.'' It is fair at this time to ask why the ''herd'' should be pilloried for spying out accurately what the ''conservatives'' were all about.
It wasn't always this way. In Dwight Eisenhower's time, the Grand Old Party of the Republic remembered fondly its beginnings with Abraham Lincoln. The ''bloody shirt'' of Civil War heroism and the pro-freedmen activity which followed still provided potent symbolism that could move progressive whites and win endorsements from black leaders and black voters.
In 1960, blacks were leaning toward Dick Nixon over JFK, mainly because the Democrats' record in the South was so bad. Kennedy's famous call to a jailed and endangered Martin Luther King shifted the balance, but Mr. Nixon still received a large black vote.
Then George Wallace changed the racial picture with presidential campaigns filled with ugly appeals to white self-interest, as if self-interest outweighed every requirement for social responsibility, fairness or redress of long-standing grievances. Barry Goldwater's divisive 1964 campaign failed to win the White House, but helped him abscond with the soul of the GOP.
Strom Thurmond, a World War II hero and maverick South Carolina governor-turned Dixiecrat senator and presidential candidate, a ''state's rights'' segregationist, went Republican. Jesse Helms, a segregationist North Carolina newsman turned politician, marshaled opposition to civil rights in the GOP. George Bush of Texas fought passage of the Civil Rights Act. Mr. Nixon developed his ''Southern strategy,'' based on the racism that had been revealed, and won the White House.
That the strategy worked outside the South shouldn't surprise anybody. Southerners have made up a big part of the westward migration since the Dust Belt days, and Northerners trying to bar competition for the best-paying factory, utility and construction jobs have always been willing to discriminate, intimidate or even riot to keep blacks in a second-class status.
The record shows that it is time for a change on the right, not the left. Rather than continuing to ask, as Mr. Bush and his right-wing supporters do, when black Americans will give up their ''slavish'' devotion to the Democratic Party and ''liberal'' ideology, it is time to ask when the GOP's leaders will give up their irresponsible reliance on racial fears to maintain political dominance.
Blaming blacks for refusing to cave in to people who have reached the national leadership fighting for decades against their interest amounts only to continued dishonesty. There is no way a Clarence Thomas nomination could fundamentally change that picture. Read the lips of those you wish to persuade, Mr. Bush. No way.