WASHINGTON. — In the midst of an ugly, partisan furor over whether Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas sexually harassed a female assistant a decade ago, the high tribunal itself opened a watershed term Monday.
The first case before the court told us that, with or without Judge Thomas, this man of strange and secret views about most things, the Supreme Court has become the promoter and protector of a mean and ugly shift in American rights and attitudes.
This Supreme Court, gingerly without Judge Thomas or brazenly with him, seems destined to end all meaningful federal pressures for the desegregation of the public schools. And perhaps, at the behest of the Bush administration, to say that federal judges should back off in trying to desegregate public colleges.
In the first case of this term, eight justices heard lawyers say that despite federal court orders over 20 years, most black children in DeKalb County outside Atlanta attend schools that are at least 90 per cent black, and most white children attend schools that are virtually all-white.
County officials argued that ''white flight'' away from black people and black concentrations in all-black communities had made real desegregation impossible. So, they argued, if no state-sponsored discrimination was involved, the federal courts ought to bug out.
In 1989 the federal appeals court in Atlanta sided with the black parents and students, saying that DeKalb County officials never obeyed the original desegregation order. It encouraged ''white flight'' and other circumventions of court orders. The appeals court threatened to order massive busing to desegregate the schools.
Will the Rehnquist-Scalia conservative court junk the views of the appeals court?
Two remarkable changes are involved in this case:
* For almost half a century, the White House has been an active supporter of school desegregation, though Eisenhower's devotion to ending Jim Crow was suspect. The Bush administration is the most blatant in 60 years at demanding that federal courts yield to local racial passions.
* New black confusions, manifest in weird ways by Judge Thomas, are reflecting anger, distrust, surrender, a bizarre expression of ''black pride,'' that has dragged many black people back to a self-defeating acceptance of ''separate but equal.''
''We've seen that these white people will never allow our children to go to school with their children, so to hell with em!''
''My child doesn't have to sit beside some white child to learn. All I want are equal facilities and good teachers.''
''The public schools have failed. Just give me the choice of having the government pay to send my kid to a private school.''
Those are just some of the black reactions that drive to despair ''Mr. Civil Rights,'' Thurgood Marshall, whose Supreme Court seat Mr. Bush chose to fill with Clarence Thomas. But those black cop-outs delight the modern white supremacists.
Naturally, I watch these tragic changes in the law as it is applied to issues of racial justice; but I watch with as much concern the likelihood that that court will, especially with Judge Thomas, alter profoundly the quality of American life in terms of free speech, religion and the state, press freedoms, family planning and abortion rights, the preferences for businesses as against consumers, and much more.
This term of the Supreme Court will enlighten us painfully to the fact that in electing a president who serves two four-year terms at most, we in effect ''elect'' a Supreme Court that will affect every facet of our lives for two generations.
Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.