CLARENCE Thomas says the nuns who taught in his parochial school in Savannah, Ga., gave him advantages that many of his white and black peers did not have -- a sense of self-respect, discipline and learning that gave him a chance of success denied to many others.
Thomas' rise to the Supreme Court illustrates the remarkable educational achievements of the 2.4 million black Catholics, a minority within a minority.
The City University of New York's national survey of religious identification substantiates this phenomenon.
These achievements -- graduating from high school and college -- are greater than those of other blacks, equal to those of other Catholics and higher than the overall American average regardless of race.
The 1990 survey, in which 113,000 Americans were interviewed, shows black Catholics are more likely than all Americans to complete high school and college.
Among the respondents, only 18 percent of black Catholics dropped out of high school compared with 31 percent for the total black population and 21 percent for the overall white population.
Nine percent of black Americans are Catholic.
The majority of blacks identify with Baptist churches and other Protestant denominations.
Two percent are Moslem and 6 percent say they have no religious affiliation.
Scholarly literature and the survey's data show that in the last 50 years the graduation rate from high school and college of white Catholics has surpassed that of all whites.
The survey showed that the graduation rate of black Catholics now parallels that of white Catholics.
Our data show that black Catholics are 40 percent more likely to graduate from college than other black Americans.
In the 40-to-59-year-old age group 26 percent of black Catholics, 25 percent of white Catholics, 24 percent of all whites and 15 percent of all blacks are college graduates.
Variations in employment and income appear to reflect these educational differences.
Black Catholics are more likely to be employed full time than blacks as a whole (66 percent to 55 percent).
And black Catholics have 50 percent more households earning more than $50,000 a year than the rest of the black population.
Black Catholics' annual median income is $21,800 and white Catholics' median income is $29,100, so parallel education achievements are not yet reflected in comparable income.
What accounts for this extraordinary difference in the black community?
Thomas recalls that the nuns in his "strict" school were "adamant that I make something of myself." His experience is not unique.
Regardless of their religion, many families who want to overcome the problems of poverty and to integrate themselves into mainstream America enroll their children in Catholic schools.
Thus, about 70 percent of the students enrolled in Harlem's parochial schools are Protestant.
In 1980 and 1981, researchers at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago found that Catholic-school students from disadvantaged backgrounds, including minorities and parents with limited education, fared better than public-school students of similar backgrounds.
One reason why Catholic schools often enable their students to overcome class and racial handicaps is that they expect and reward academic diligence and personal development. Many people believe that the traditional values they teach help in the struggle against many social ills affecting inner-city youth.
Catholic schools do something not usually found in most public and private schools: They teach the rich, the middle class and the poor the same way with the same curriculum and thus provide a framework for uniform accomplishment.
Not all students succeed in Catholic schools, but the successes are numerous and noteworthy.
The big question is, what can the public schools, which enroll most American blacks, including the desperately poor, learn from all this?
Seymour P. Lachman is university dean of the City University of New York. Barry A. Kosmin directs the CUNY graduate school's national survey of religious identification.