Thomas Debate Puts Sharp Focus on Principles

GARLAND L. THOMPSON

August 03, 1991|By GARLAND L. THOMPSON

In nominating former Equal Employment Opportunity Commission chief Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, President Bush at once achieved two long-sought goals of the Republican right.

First, he brought to the fore a black man who repudiates nearly all of the traditional civil-rights agenda, relieving the right of the need to defend its own positions against charges of racism. Second, naming Mr. Thomas to replace Thurgood Marshall in the highest appointive post ever held by a black American offered the potential of the ''new leadership'' that has been a holy grail of whites distressed by the continuing, contentious attacks by blacks and other minorities on the barriers which still keep them out of the American mainstream.

Unfortunately for Mr. Bush, the nomination also delivered into the hands of the civil rights community a golden opportunity. In Mr. Thomas, the great-great grandson of a slave who rose to prominence writing passionate assaults on the civil-rights movement which freed him from segregation, Mr. Bush has found an advocate who by his very activity focuses attention on the fundamental principles at issue.

And beside the fact that the job of Supreme Court justice precludes work as the spokesman Mr. Bush wants, there will never be another Booker T. Washington, hand-picked to lead blacks as America's whites see fit. That is the import of John Hope Franklin's dissection of Washington's record in the epilogue to the NAACP's statement opposing the Thomas nomination.

Thus, it is not surprising that the Congressional Black Caucus rejected Mr. Thomas' nomination out of hand. The NAACP weighed its decision carefully, waiting after its convention to meet with Mr. Thomas and examine his views at length before opposing him. But Mr. Thomas had shown his disdain for the Congress already, writing in a Cato Institute article that ''it reflected disgracefully on the whole nomination process that Judge [Robert] Bork is not now Justice Bork. By turning Supreme Court nominations into power struggles,'' the civil rights establishment had ''transformed the court into another majoritarian institution.''

''Not that there is a great deal of principle in Congress itself,'' he said, examining the role of the courts and the federal bureaucracy. ''What can one expect from a Congress that would pass the ethnic set-aside law the court upheld in Fullilove v. Klutznick,'' a landmark 1980 ruling recognizing broad congressional power to enact minority set-aside programs.

How Mr. Thomas, a graduate of Yale Law School, ever thought the high court which returned the Dred Scott pro-slavery decision before the Civil War and Plessy v. Ferguson after the Reconstruction had come to be anything but ''majoritarian,'' even if it did change its mind in Brown v. Board of Education, is baffling. Did he miss class when Franklin D. Roosevelt's ''court-packing'' scheme, and the nation's reaction, came up for discussion?

The NAACP's response to Mr. Thomas is also not surprising. Somehow, right-wing whites had assumed the organization's broad support of black advancement in every sphere could blind its leaders to the antagonism Mr. Thomas has displayed to its philosophy and its actions, but that was not to be. Rather, as Mr. Thomas' white opponents within the civil rights and labor organizations have observed, the NAACP's decision stripped away the comfort zone Mr. Bush had sought in naming a black right-wing ideologue to the nation's highest court. Once again, the discussion returns to center on principles.

That is as it should be. Mr. Thomas' own speeches and writings argue unstintingly for a recognition that black Americans are a diverse group, with widely differing outlooks. The NAACP, in rejecting him as a fit replacement for Thurgood Marshall, the ultimate architect of NAACP achievement, has said on a very basic level: It is true that blacks are different in their backgrounds, temperaments and outlooks. Clarence Thomas' differences are so stark in comparison to the mainstream of black thought that we find him repugnant.

That things should be this way is curious. Mr. Thomas is proud to recount his upbringing by a grandfather who, unlettered, believed deeply in education and, shackled by segregation, fought to make a good life for his family. But Mr. Thomas' grandfather, a lifelong supporter of the NAACP, fought also for black people as a group. Grandson Clarence, in some fairly bitter quotations, has frequently recognized that discrimination paints all blacks with a broad brush. He told Juan Williams in an Atlantic Monthly article of his conviction that ''there is nothing a black man can do to be accepted by whites.'' Attacking the barriers set up on a group level, however, is out of bounds.

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