Soon after President Clinton called for a yearlong dialogue about race, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and his unrelenting critics again became the center of an emotional debate about his role as the nation's most prominent black official.
Thomas, the court's most vocal opponent of affirmative action and racial preferences, remains a lightning rod for criticism from black leaders and politicians. The historian heading Clinton's new race relations commission has denounced him. A black news magazine even caricatured him as a black jockey statue and a shoeshine boy -- symbols of subservience to whites.
"Almost anything he does on the court is antithetical to the interests of black people, as measured by the attitudes of most black people. For the next 40 years, he's going to stick it to us," says Roger Wilkins, George Mason University professor of American history and culture.
Thomas' supporters object to the tone of such criticism. "There is a feeling, particularly in the civil rights community, that anybody who doesn't march to the beat of a particular drummer is clearly a traitor," says Dr. Benjamin S. Carson, director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital and a friend of Thomas'. "I think it's incredibly stupid."
The controversy surrounding the justice is seemingly ceaseless.
Soon after Clinton named John Hope Franklin in June to head an advisory board to plan the proposed national dialogue on race, the famed historian became an issue himself for a bitter denunciation of Thomas.
Franklin had been asked by a magazine some months earlier about Thomas' opposition as a justice to affirmative action even though he personally had benefited from racial preferences at times. In reply to the Oklahoma magazine Humanities Interview, Franklin said:
"You always have such people in any group. I don't know what name I would call them. I suspect they may be Judases of a kind, betrayers, opportunists, immoral opportunists. It's very tempting, I suppose, for people of weak character to be co-opted by the majority that can use them. They are rewarded in one way or another. If not on the Supreme Court of the United States, then some other way."
Patrick McGuigan, editorial page editor of the Daily Oklahoman, came across that interview after the Franklin appointment. He dashed off a column in his newspaper, saying: "One could call those words a slander of the highest ranking black man in the U.S. government. And this is the man Bill Clinton chose to serve as chairman of his advisory committee on race relations."
In Georgia, Thomas' home state, black legislators were angered by his vote on a redistricting case near the end of the court's last term.
For the second time in two years, the court dashed the hopes of black voters for a larger share of voting control of the state's congressional districts. Once there were three districts with black majorities; now there is one, and the court approved that result.
Thomas supplied one of the five majority votes. Said state legislator Tyrone L. Brooks of Atlanta: "I'm used to these five persons voting to turn back the clock on voting rights, school desegregation, affirmative action. Mr. Thomas will vote with the four who vote against us all the time."
Complained veteran civil rights activist Julian Bond, a former Georgia legislator: "Thomas is a continual affront with every decision, with every ruling. His jurisprudence is at the far, far right of the mainstream. The fact that he is an affirmative action 'hire,' and he repudiates all that, it's just a continual affront."
NAACP president Kweisi Mfume -- a sharp critic -- has given up on the notion of modifying Thomas' viewpoints. He has several times urged the black community to "end the Clarence Thomas fixation" and use the energy saved "to change things we can change." Noting that as a congressman he had repeatedly criticized Thomas, Mfume remarked: "At some point in time, I've got to move on to something else."
Defenders never tire
If any aspect of the controversy is changing, it is that Thomas' supporters are increasingly energetic -- and aggressive -- in defending him.
Gerald A. Reynolds, a friend of Thomas' who is president of the Center for New Black Leadership, a conservative group that strongly opposes racial preferences in public policy, blames organizational politics in the civil rights movement for the continuing assault on Thomas.
"Over time," Reynolds said, "the traditional black civil rights organizations have had an impact in the black community [regarding Thomas]. The perception of many blacks is that he is a bad man, an evil man. The facts don't bear that out. He has challenged some of the organizations' sacred cows -- busing, racial preferences. [But] Justice Thomas can wait 'em out."