A life of challenging racial assumptions

October 03, 2004|By Ken Foskett

IN RESEARCHING my biography of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, I was continually struck by the depth and ferocity of the attacks against him by black intellectuals, academics and politicians. Justice Thomas, who begins a new term on the court tomorrow, has been called Judas, a traitor to his race and a white man masquerading in black skin. His face has been caricatured into a kerchief-wearing Aunt Jemima and a big-lipped lawn jockey.

A common ingredient to the vitriol is that Justice Thomas, descended from Georgia slaves, has sold out the interests of black Americans. Having benefited from programs such as affirmative action, Justice Thomas has voted to eradicate them. Critics see a craven self-interest in Justice Thomas' behavior on the Supreme Court: He got to the top but wants to keep everyone else off the hill.

The criticisms raise a provocative question: Does the court's lone black jurist have a responsibility to his race? The question is all the more timely because White House lawyers, as I learned in my reporting, have already consulted Justice Thomas about succeeding Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist should Justice Rehnquist, who turned 80 on Friday, step down.

Based on my hours of conversations with Justice Thomas, I believe he would answer the responsibility question strongly in the affirmative. But Justice Thomas has chosen to fulfill that obligation in a way that differs dramatically from his predecessor, Thurgood Marshall, and many of his contemporaries who came of age during the civil rights activism of the 1960s and 1970s.

On the Supreme Court, Justice Thomas is the strongest advocate of school vouchers because they allow black parents to send their children to parochial schools, which played such an enormous role in his own life. Born to a teenage mother in a tin-roof shack outside Savannah, Mr. Thomas credits the Catholic schools he attended with pulling him out of poverty and launching him to college.

In other areas, Justice Thomas is the harshest Supreme Court critic of policies and laws that he believes perpetuate racist stereotypes. He thinks affirmative action presumes that black Americans are inferior to whites and can't compete with them unless their college admissions applications are adjusted to compensate for skin color.

Justice Thomas has voted against forcing urban and suburban schools to integrate because he sees an assumption that black kids can't learn unless they sit next to whites, or that any school that is all black must be all bad. He has voted against using race to draw voting districts because he thinks that so-called racial gerrymandering presumes that skin color pre-determines political orientation.

Justice Thomas reacts so strongly to assumptions about black Americans because he's been battling negative presumptions all of his life. Even after legal barriers for black Americans came down in the 1960s, he found that society still had tightly proscribed ideas about what was acceptable for black Americans such as himself to do and think.

Just out of Yale Law School in 1974, Mr. Thomas wanted a corporate law job. Large, white law firms, however, weren't interested in a black associate working with their rich, mostly white clients, and instead wanted to talk to Mr. Thomas about opportunities in civil rights law. When he later voiced conservative political opinions, the attitude he encountered was that such views, acceptable for whites, were off-limits to blacks.

Even the Republican Party kept many doors closed to Mr. Thomas. Ronald Reagan plucked him out of obscurity in 1981 and offered him civil rights jobs at the Education Department and later at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Mr. Thomas had studied tax law and wanted assignments that matched both his expertise and interest. But the so-called black jobs were the only ones offered. Swallowing his pride, Mr. Thomas took the assignments and, I suspect, has never regretted any decision more.

Today, many Americans think that Justice Thomas simply does the bidding of his white colleague, Justice Antonin Scalia, as if he were intellectually incapable of arriving at similar judicial conclusions himself. Now in his 14th year on the Supreme Court, Justice Thomas challenges assumptions about who and what he should be. His message to Americans of all colors, I believe, is that you can be whatever you want to be if you ignore society's expectations and have the strength to follow your own.

Ken Foskett, an investigative reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, is the author of Judging Thomas: The Life and Times of Clarence Thomas.

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