Behind Clarence Thomas' strange complaint is one very angry man

August 03, 1998|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- There is a disquieting quality in the complaint of Justice Clarence Thomas at the treatment he has received from prominent black political leaders.

On the face of it, the Supreme Court justice has a valid point when he argues that black leaders should not be required to accept liberal orthodoxy simply because they are black. Race should not be an intellectual straitjacket.

But the fact that the argument comes from Clarence Thomas raises two significant questions.

First, Mr. Thomas seems to ignore his own history. When he was nominated for the court by then-President George Bush, it was not because he was on everyone's list of distinguished jurists who were obvious possibilities for the high court. Although Bush insisted otherwise, it was no secret that he was looking for a black justice to succeed Thurgood Marshall Jr. on the court.

Thus, in the most obvious way, Mr. Thomas was a beneficiary of the kind of affirmative action he has consistently rejected both on the court and earlier in his public career.

This is old stuff, however. The irony of Mr. Thomas' career juxtaposed against his views on affirmative action was a central issue in his confirmation hearings before the Senate and has been discussed ad nauseum for the past seven years.

What is more intriguing -- and perhaps more significant -- is that Clarence Thomas still feels so full of resentment that he chooses to express his anger publicly. It makes you wonder if he has the kind of temperament to function as a judge at the very highest level.

The justice chose a forum he knew was certain to be contentious, the National Bar Association, the nation's largest organization of black lawyers. And he made the speech even after, once again, many prominent members of the NBA had tried to force the invitation to be rescinded.

For these conventionally liberal leaders, Mr. Thomas' sin is that he has failed to recognize that, by being chosen to succeed Marshall, he has a special responsibility. Only slightly simplified, their argument is that he has been given what is called "the black seat" on the Supreme Court and thus has an obligation to represent a special constituency -- an obligation he clearly has not met.

Mr. Thomas called the criticism "bilious and venomous assaults" in which the liberal leaders are trying to proscribe the views he should express "as though I was an intellectual slave because I'm black."

The implication of the criticism, said Mr. Thomas, is that he is following the thinking of conservative whites on the court with whom he often votes. "What else could be the explanation when I fail to follow their ideology or anti-intellectual prescription?" he asked. "The stench of racial inferiority still confounds my olfactory nerves."

Given the fact that he now has been sitting on the court for seven years, the justice's language seemed remarkably personal and defensive. At one point, he described the attractions of racial solidarity that he rejects.

"Despite some of the nonsense that has been said about me by those who should know better and so much nonsense -- or some of which -- subtracts from the sum total of human knowledge, despite all this, I am a black man, an American. And my history is not unlike that of many blacks from the Deep South. And in many ways it is not that much different from that of many other Americans," he said.

"It goes without saying that I understand the comforts and security of racial solidarity, defensive or otherwise. Only those who have not been set upon by hatred and repelled by rejection fail to understand its attraction."

Mr. Thomas suggested, however, that affirmative action implies an inferiority he does not share.

The Thomas speech to the NBA was by no means the first controversial message some Supreme Court justice has delivered off the bench. What made it noteworthy was the tone. Mr. Thomas depicted himself as a man beset by critics who hound him endlessly because he does not agree with them.

The obvious question then is whether this mind-set is a factor when he deals with cases involving issues of race. Does he feel some obligation to rebut critics? Does he worry about his own consistency in dealing with such cases?

It may be, of course, that Justice Thomas is able to maintain the kind of intellectual detachment that is prized in any jurist. But his speech to the NBA convention was one delivered by a very angry man.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 8/03/98

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