Justice Thomas' silence speaks volumes to critics

December 17, 2000|By Gregory Kane

HERE'S HOW the life of a black conservative goes in America as the year 2000 draws to a close.

You've been called every name in the book - Uncle Tom, sellout, traitor, house Negro, handkerchief-head. You're constantly told that you only parrot the line of white conservatives, as if black liberals don't parrot the lines of white liberals, displaying such blind obedience that they banned black author James Baldwin from speaking at the March on Washington in 1963.

You're constantly told that your views don't represent those of African-Americans, as if all blacks in America are somehow obligated to think alike, as if we're not members of a vibrant, vital and contributing ethnic group but part of a herd.

You suffer all this, telling the black liberals and nationalists committed to making your life miserable that they have no monopoly on the views within an African-American community that is anything but monolithic.

You get threats from folks who believe you and all black conservatives should be executed. You defend Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, the conservative who's the second black to serve on the court, arguing that he has a right to vote on how he sees things, not how his predecessor, Thurgood Marshall, would have seen them. You are then vilified as a traitor "like Clarence Thomas."

You go through all this grief, and then find that for the past nine years - 108 agonizing months of defending Thomas - you've been wasting your damn time.

Twice this month, the U.S. Supreme Court heard lawyers arguing whether the Florida Supreme Court should have ordered a recount of the state's votes in the presidential election. In both hearings, several justices asked probing, provocative questions to better help them render a decision. In both hearings, Thomas pulled a Harpo Marx. He dummied up, asking not one question. It's as if, to paraphrase the late Sage of Baltimore and Evening Sun writer H. L. Mencken, "the itch to know things didn't afflict him."

The day after five Supreme Court justices voted to end the foolishness associated with the 2000 presidential race - ruling, in effect, that the Florida Supreme Court had not provided a uniform and fair standard of recounting the state's presidential votes - Thomas couldn't shut up. Speaking to a group of high school students, Thomas tried to justify his silence.

"There's no reason to add to the volume," the justice said. "I also believe, strongly, unless I want an answer, I don't ask things. I don't ask for entertainment, I don't ask to give people a hard time. I have some very active colleagues who like to ask questions. Usually, if you wait long enough, someone will ask your question. The other thing, I was on the other side of the podium before, in my earlier life, and it's hard to stand up by yourself and to have judges who are going to rule on your case ask you tough questions. I don't want to give them a hard time."

What? He doesn't want to "give them a hard time"? Apparently nobody ever told this fool that, as a justice on the highest court in the land, it's his job to give lawyers who come before the bench a hard time.

All of his colleagues were lawyers once, too. You don't hear them whining that they don't ask questions because they don't want to give lawyers a "hard time." For what the lawyers for Al Gore and George W. Bush were getting per hour, a hard time from the justices should have been the least of their worries.

But Thomas didn't stop there, in what is obviously a cruel and ruthless campaign on his part to embarrass black conservatives. He then went into some pitiful tale about how he spoke a "Geechee" dialect of English when he was growing up. It left him self-conscious. He decided he'd listen more, the better to learn.

Oh, don't break my heart, Justice Thomas! I don't think I can bear it!

Let's assume we all buy this flapdoodle, as assuredly some of us will. There are times to make an exception to every rule, even personal ones strongly held. The cases about the presidential election will go down as two of the most historic in Supreme Court history. Thomas is 52 years old and has been on the court nine years. He may never see another two cases like this in his lifetime. But 50 years from now, when historians could have written, "Justice Clarence Thomas, the second black on the Supreme Court, asked lawyers such-and-so," they'll probably write "Justice Clarence Thomas uttered not a word because he didn't want to give lawyers a hard time."

But it's more likely that - in the matter of the most important decision Thomas will ever face - they won't write about him at all.

Black conservatives have had to defend Thomas against the charges that he was hardly the most qualified black judge, let alone the most qualified, to fill Marshall's place when he retired. By his own words, Thomas might have proved his critics right.

"Unless I want an answer, I don't ask things," he said. Even a first-year law student would have wanted at least one answer in the most important Supreme Court cases in decades.

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