Blacks feel anger, anguish over Thomas nomination

August 03, 1991|By Arch Parsons | Arch Parsons,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON TB — WASHINGTON -- He is being attacked as an "Uncle Tom" and a "hustler," compared unfavorably with a snake and rejected as unfit to shine the shoes of the hero he would succeed.

These and other expressions of anger are being directed at Clarence Thomas, a judge of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia and President Bush's nominee for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Opposition in the national black community to Senate confirmation of Judge Thomas goes beyond the institutional level -- exemplified by his recent rejection by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People -- to an visceral, persoanl anger that appears to be coming mainly from individual opinion leaders, politicians, civil rights activists, black-affairs analysts.

They agree that Judge Thomas' nomination has created more acrimony within the black community than any issue they can remember.

Nevertheless, much of the anger appears to be ahead of black grass-roots sentiment. Recent polls showed that 54 percent to 57 percent of blacks who were polled favored Judge Thomas' confirmation; only about 17 percent opposed it; and the remainder either were undecided or gave no opinion.

And amid the anger there is also anguish -- even among some of those who have been most outspoken in their attacks on Judge Thomas.

Mary Frances Berry, a veteran member of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, a professor of law history and a liberal, has described Mr. Bush's nomination of Judge Thomas as "insulting to those who marched, went to jail and died in the civil rights movement." But Ms. Berry is also distressed:

"This debate amounts to a great joke on African Americans," she said. " 'Get the blacks divided,' whites say. Then they can say, 'Look at those blacks fighting each other.' "

Eddie N. Williams, president of the liberal-oriented Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, the nation's leading black-affairs research organization, describes what he calls "soul-searching" in the black community:

"This nomination has pierced some very long-standing, deep-seated, complex feelings that blacks generally have not sorted out.

"First, [liberal] blacks at the leadership level cannot countenance a black conservative Republican. They see that as an inherent contradiction in terms.

"Second, with anybody appointed by Ronald Reagan -- and increasingly anybody appointed by George Bush -- there's an automatic sense of hostility and suspicion.

"So we are torn. . . . Part of that has to do with . . . a legacy of slavery: You draw the circle when anybody is attacked from the outside."

From interviews with some of those who have been most outspoken in their criticism, and from their public statements, several reasons emerged for their anger:

* There is profound distaste among some blacks at accepting Judge Thomas as the successor to a hero, Justice Thurgood Marshall, who is retiring after having been, for 23 years, the only black ever to sit on the Supreme Court.

At the same time, there is frustration among blacks who sense that if the Senate should vote against confirming Judge Thomas' nomination, President Bush's next nominee would not be another black -- and most likely would be considerably more conservative than the current nominee.

"Black people are very embattled," said Mr. Wilkins. "They took a pasting from Ronald Reagan. Now they're getting one from George Bush.

"Bush is saying, in effect, 'We're gonna give you your black seat on the Supreme Court -- and present a person to fill it whose views are at odds with yours,' " Mr. Wilkins said. "Black people don't like white people

picking their spokesmen. That makes them angry."

* The nomination of Judge Thomas climaxed a long and bitter struggle between black conservatives and black traditional liberals.

"A lot of black conservatives have been very nasty about black traditional liberals," said Roger Wilkins, a veteran activist who is professor of law history at George Mason University.

On the other hand, the Rev. Buster Soaries, a Baptist pastor who is one of the leaders of a group of black conservatives hastily formed to advance Judge Thomas' cause, described the liberal anger directed at the nominee as "a national lynching."

Liberal Ronald Walters, chairman of the Howard University political science department, recently seemed bent on divorcing Judge Thomas from the black race. In an article on the op-ed page of the Washington Post, Mr. Walters wrote that the judge "will be found out not to be the 'black' nominee to the [Supreme Court], because 'blackness' ultimately means more than color; it also means a set of values from which Thomas is apparently estranged."

Conservative Robert L. Woodson, president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise -- who insists upon describing himself as an "independent radical" -- said:

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