Sixteen years have passed since the first President Bush nominated Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, calling him “the best qualified at this time,” sixteen years since the “high-tech lynching”–Thomas’s famous phrase–left him a bitter and isolated man. During his time on the bench, Thomas has had more than a few opportunities to prove himself to be the most right-wing Justice in modern times (at least since FDR’s nemeses retired during the New Deal). Thomas, of course, almost always follows the lead of Antonin Scalia in claiming to embrace the “original intent” of the Founders, but only Thomas has argued that students have no free speech rights at all. Thomas alone has argued that the First Amendment’s separation of church and state applies only to the federal government, not to the states, meaning that Utah could declare itself a Mormon state or Georgia could declare itself a Baptist state. Thomas alone agreed with the second President Bush’s recent argument in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld that the President has the power to hold US citizens at Guantánamo indefinitely without a court hearing. In 2005 Scalia was asked at an appearance at a New York synagogue to compare his own judicial philosophy with that of Thomas. Jeffrey Toobin was in the audience, and in his new and fascinating book The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court, he reports Scalia’s answer: “I am an originalist, but I am not a nut.”
Scalia’s colleague has now published a memoir. It is a howl of rage and pain, and Thomas’s anger toward those who opposed his confirmation sixteen years ago is so lacerating that the New York Times editorial page suggested he recuse himself from cases involving the ACLU of Southern California, Yale Law School and Joe Biden, all opponents of his confirmation about whom he is particularly vituperative. But what’s even more striking about My Grandfather’s Son is Thomas’s belief that America is deeply, inescapably, incurably racist, and his view of himself as a black man hunted by white racists. He likens himself at his confirmation hearing to Bigger Thomas, the main character of Richard Wright’s 1940 novel Native Son, who is convicted of the murder and rape of a white woman. Thomas, of course, was accused not of murder or rape but rather of sexual harassment, and his accuser, Anita Hill, was black, not white; nevertheless, he says he felt as if “I’d been thrust back into Bigger Thomas’s world, a dark, cramped hell devoid of hope.”
Thomas has always believed America to be a racist country. In his college days at Holy Cross, in the 1960s, he was a black militant and an activist; he marched for the first time in 1968 after the King assassination and later helped to organize a Black Student Union walkout. He also worked in a Black Panther-style free breakfast program, brought Bayard Rustin to the campus, put a Malcolm X poster up in his dorm room and immersed himself in Malcolm’s speeches. After graduating from Holy Cross in 1971 he went straight to Yale Law School, where he worked part-time at a clinic screening poor people seeking free legal services, probably met fellow student Bill Clinton and devoted most of his effort to succeeding at Yale. He says he voted for McGovern in 1972. He also says that after graduation in 1974, all his white classmates ended up in good jobs, but he didn’t get a single offer. The explanation is obvious to him–he was black.
Up to this point, the story Thomas tells mostly resembles the one told in the indispensable Supreme Discomfort: The Divided Soul of Clarence Thomas, by Kevin Merida and Michael Fletcher, Washington Post staffers whose 2002 newspaper profile of Thomas detailed, for the first time, the extreme degree of his bitterness and isolation. They’re the first black journalists to write a book about him, something that they suggest gave them access–and perhaps insight–unavailable to whites; they interviewed several hundred people, including Thomas’s mother. Thomas, however, refused to talk to them. They did talk to one of his eleven African-American classmates at Yale, who says that most of the eleven received pretty good job offers.
Thomas eventually landed a job: as an assistant attorney general working for a Yale alum–Jack Danforth, at the time Republican attorney general of Missouri, who later spent eighteen years in the Senate. Thomas says he got the job because he was “talented.” But Merida and Fletcher were told a different story by Guido Calabresi, a Yale law professor. Calabresi said that in 1974, Danforth asked him to recommend a graduating law student who was “preferably an African American.” Calabresi recommended a black student who didn’t want the job, and that classmate suggested Thomas. The point is significant: Thomas got his first job as the result of a kind of affirmative action. It’s especially important because it was Danforth who led Thomas to the Republican Party, to White House appointments and to the Supreme Court.