How does Rep. Kweisi Mfume, Maryland's only black member of Congress, assess the Clarence Thomas nomination to the Supreme Court? In a meeting yesterday with Sun editorial writers, the Baltimore lawmaker made these assertions:
* It is his "gut feeling" that Judge Thomas, a black conservative nominated to replace Justice Thurgood Marshall, will be confirmed.
* The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, taking the same path as the National Urban League, will wind up taking no position ("the best position for civil rights organizations") for or against Judge Thomas.
* The Congressional Black Caucus, of which Mr. Mfume is a member, lost "leverage" by vigorously opposing the nomination before it had a chance to interview Judge Thomas. Mr. Mfume, saying he was surprised by the rush to judgment by older caucus members, said he left the meeting before the vote was taken.
* If Judge Thomas is denied confirmation, President Bush will nominate a conservative Hispanic, a move that would lock up the Southwest, Florida and New York for the Republicans.
* At confirmation hearings, Judge Thomas' views on abortion rights will prove to be more pivotal than on affirmative action or civil rights.
As for his own position, Mr. Mfume said he hopes to meet with Judge Thomas and prefers to wait for Senate hearings before making a decision. He said he is troubled by some of Judge Thomas' judicial interpretations, most especially hints that he disapproves of the landmark Brown school desegregation decision.
The Fourth District Democrat added, however, that "there is a lot of Clarence Thomas I like," not least the "sensitivities" he would bring to the court from having grown up poor and black. He also identified with Judge Thomas' belief in "radical self-help" so that blacks can succeed in spite of the system. "The federal role should be to help people out of situations, not keep them in situations," Mr. Mfume remarked. "I reject dependency."
We find these views of Mr. Mfume realistic and, in many ways, compelling. Too many Americans made their minds up instantly for or against Judge Thomas on the basis of capsule summaries of his career, snippets from his published commentary or his conservative label. Yet the man has many facets that the Senate Judiciary Committee should examine carefully before coming to judgment.
This is Mr. Mfume's stand, and we support it. In the congressman's view, race relations in America are "severely worse" than any time in his memory. The Thomas nomination should not be an occasion for increasing this dangerous polarization.