Clarence Thomas’s Political Journey

Clarence Thomas’s Political Journey

In his new book, Corey Robin argues that the Supreme Court justice’s embrace of black nationalism in the 1960s and ’70s is central to understanding his conservatism in ’80s, ’90s, and today.


Works on the history of African Americans in the conservative movement have become increasingly prominent in recent years. Leah Wright Rigueur’s The Loneliness of the Black Republican, Joshua Farrington’s Black Republicans and the Transformation of the GOP, and Corey D. Fields’s Black Elephants in the Room: The Unexpected Politics of African American Republicans are just a few recent examples in a growing trend of historians and political scientists taking seriously the long history of African Americans in the conservative movement. Corey Robin’s latest book, The Enigma of Clarence Thomas, attempts to do the same by exclusively focusing on arguably the most powerful African American in the nation today.

Robin, the writer of previous works on American politics like Fear: The History of a Political Idea (2004) and The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism From Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin (2011), argues that Thomas’s embrace of black nationalism in the 1960s and ’70s is central to understanding his conservatism. Black nationalism wasn’t something that Thomas discarded on his road to the right; instead, its “fusion of solidarity and separatism, of collective self-reliance and self-help” continues to exert a powerful influence on his thinking and jurisprudence today. Robin spoke with The Nation about Thomas’s political and intellectual trajectory and about his own work on the history of conservative ideas. This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

—Robert Greene II

Robert Greene II: Why were you driven to write this book? How does it relate to your other works?

Corey Robin: It was by accident. Two political scientists, Melvin Rogers and Jack Turner, were preparing an anthology of essays on African American political thought about six or seven years ago. They were asking various scholars to write different chapters on all the canonical figures. They felt there was a real absence of representation of black conservative voices, and they wanted someone to do something on Clarence Thomas.

Initially, I was reluctant to do it, as I felt I was done thinking and writing about the right. But the second I began work on it, I was transfixed by this man. Part of it was the biography—I knew very little about his life. But far more fascinating for me was the personality of his writings. Supreme Court opinions tend to be impersonal and dry as dust, but Thomas’s writings weren’t like that—they grab you and don’t let go. His voice is so filled with contradiction and conviction. The more I read, the more I was pulled in by his world. So this book isn’t just about one man—it’s really about America, writ large, in a lot of ways.

RG: How does this book relate, if at all, to your two previous works—on fear as a political idea and on conservatism as a political idea?

CR: It definitely relates to my book on conservatism, The Reactionary Mind—though I do feel that some of the people who’ve championed it, the defenders of that book, have slightly misread it. Both its critics and its defenders see the argument in The Reactionary Mind as simply that conservative ideas are irrelevant, that conservatism is a reflexive defense of hierarchical power. That wasn’t the book’s argument; it was about ideas in defense of hierarchies of power. There is, at the heart of conservatism, a type of heroic vision: Human excellence is demonstrated under conditions of tremendous exigency. Thomas is indebted to that idea of human greatness, and that underlies the synthesis of conservatism and black nationalism that he advances.

RG: How do you define “black nationalism” in The Enigma of Clarence Thomas? I think most people would blanch at a description of Thomas as that.

CR: The assumption many people have about black nationalism is that it automatically has a left valence. But we know, historiographically, that’s not true: Black nationalism has a range of political valences. For example, William Jeremiah Moses’s The Golden Age of Black Nationalism, 1850-1925, begins precisely with that point—that historically, during its heyday, black nationalism was quite conservative. Now, that’s not my argument, but I think it’s important to remember that black nationalism as an ideology doesn’t map neatly onto the right-left divide. At its core, there is a belief that the fate of black people in this country is irreparably separate from the fate of white people and that the larger polity cannot accommodate black fate or aspirations. Some black nationalists favor the creation of a sovereign state; others have argued in favor of emigration. Often what it has meant is some kind of aspiration to autonomy and some form of separation apart from white people.

One book that influenced me, Dean Robinson’s Black Nationalism in American Politics and Thought, argues that the shape and form of black nationalism during any time period reflects larger currents of culture and politics. Black nationalism is not hermetically sealed from other parts of American politics and culture. So the black nationalism that has such an effect on Clarence Thomas in the late 1960s and early 1970s is not going to look the same as other moments of black nationalism.

Thomas began as a serious black nationalist on the left during his time at Holy Cross. There he developed a lot of the convictions and commitments that survive his shift to the right. Journalists and some biographers have known Thomas had this past—but the assumption was that he gave it all up, that it was a marginal moment in his life. I found just the opposite. Despite his shift to the right between 1975 and 1990, when President George H.W. Bush names him to the court of appeals as a political actor and a judge, it survives. It’s important to understand that these commitments survive his political changes in the mid-1970s.

RG: How important do you think the 1970s are to understanding our overall situation as a nation, including, of course, the question of race?

CR:: The historiography of the 1970s is a fascinating field. The defining characteristic of the ’70s was unsettlement. The outcome of the decade was undetermined—no one knew where things were going. The standard view of black leftists and Black Power movements is that everyone was staunchly anti-capitalist or Afro-Marxist. I was heavily influenced by several books, including The Business of Black Power, by Julia Rabig and Laura Warren Hill, a fantastic book that I recommend to people about all the ways that Black Power activists occupied this position of unsettlement, experimenting with different economic forms, including capitalism.

At the time, there was also a strong sense of political deceleration. Even at the height of Black Power, black participation in protest politics was not what it was during the earlier days of the civil rights movement. There was also an increasing dissatisfaction with black leaders. Many black activists took an economic turn and a turn away from politics, whether it was electoral politics or radical activism. Thomas was in that milieu. By 1975, when he reads Thomas Sowell’s Race and Economics, the seeds have been sown for this right turn. This reminds me of a quote from an Amiri Baraka essay, where he says about that period when a new kind of black conservatism was gestating that “there were pods growing in our cellars”—in other words, the seeds of black conservatism were growing in the midst of black activism.

RG: Would it be a stretch to say the presence of Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court is, arguably, one of lasting legacies of Thomas Sowell’s writings?

CR: Not a stretch at all. Intellectual influences and inspirations are an interesting and complicated question. Sowell brought it all together for Thomas. If you read Sowell’s book carefully, there’s a fascinating through line there—that there was one force in American history that white men couldn’t control, and that was the market itself.

What’s interesting here is that Thomas, in the 1970s, becomes familiar with debates over capitalism and slavery. He was certainly familiar with works by historians like Eugene Genovese and Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman. Thomas himself often reads history—for instance, he recently cited, extensively, Eric Foner’s work on the Reconstruction period in a court opinion. To go back to Sowell: In Race and Economics, he argued, similar to Fogel and Engerman, that the market placed serious restraints on treatment of the enslaved. Now, that is an argument that many more recent historians categorically reject, but we need to recognize Sowell as a force who brought different elements of thinking together—capitalism, black nationalism, conservatism—for Thomas.

RG: In your book, you write about a “Black Constitution”—one that originates in the Reconstruction era—and a “White Constitution,” from the antebellum period. How do these two Constitutions coexist in the legal mind of Clarence Thomas?

CR:: First we need to ask: What is a Constitution? Often we think of it as a fundamental code of laws; this is a modern idea. However, there is the older idea of a Constitution: that it is less a code of law or legal system and much more about the structure of a society, of the social order as a whole. This definition played a role in Thomas’s formation in the 1980s, via his influences at the time from Straussian intellectuals.

At the heart of Thomas’s vision of society is the role of black men. For him, black men are extraordinarily potent and important figures—they are the pillar of black society. At the heart of both Constitutions for Thomas is the fate of black men. Now, Thomas is distinctive among many originalists in that he takes the Reconstruction amendments to the Constitution seriously. He sees them as a second Constitution. The question of black people and their transformation is at the heart of that second Constitution. For Clarence Thomas, the fundamental freedom guaranteed by Emancipation—aside from the fact of emancipation itself—is the right to bear arms. He has this long opinion in McDonald v. Chicago in which he rereads the history of the Second Amendment through the struggle over slavery, Emancipation, and Reconstruction, and that this was the centerpiece of what was won for black men: the right to defend themselves and their families. As a result, not only is the black man—in the Black Constitution—a figure of authority, but he’s a particular kind of authority: a protector with a gun.

Now, Thomas thinks something went awry in the 20th century, with the rise of liberalism and the rights revolution of the 20th century. The three essential parts of the rights revolution, for Thomas, are the New Deal of the 1930s, the reforms of the criminal justice system—such as Miranda rights—and, finally, the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. He believes these three revolutions worked a kind of poison in the black community. Each of these reforms harmed the black man’s status as a symbol of authority: It made him dependent on the government, irresponsible sexually, and a criminal ne’er-do-well through the elimination of harsh punishment. Thomas believes, with all sincerity, that the assault on authority in society more generally has been very destructive to black men and therefore the black community.

The only way the black community will get back on its feet, according to Thomas, is through the restoration of black men. This can only be achieved in conditions of adversity and exigency; then a heroic black male spirit will emerge from that. Even though the state is overwhelmingly racist, this is immaterial to Thomas. The black community needs the inner strength of the black man, more than any other community needs the strength of its men, because of the particularly imperiled position black people are in. In order to do this, you need to return to the antebellum Constitution—the White Constitution.

RG: Will Thomas leave behind a legacy for the larger political legacy of African Americans that we’re ignoring?

CR: That’s always been his aspiration. He is trying to create a public philosophical canon for African Americans. He realizes how improbable that project is. Nevertheless, that is his project. Is that likely to happen? My guess is no. These projects—black conservatism, Latino conservatism—have often been talked about. For example, Leah Rigueur’s excellent book The Loneliness of the Black Republican looks at how black Republicans were trying to do this in the 1960s and 1970s. Having said that, I have been struck, in talking to African Americans about this book and its contents, how many people have told me, “This is my father. This is my grandfather. I hear this all the time.” Now, these fathers and grandfathers aren’t Republicans, they’re Democrats—that’s the big fissure there. Some of Thomas’s stances won’t sound outlandish to African Americans. But the truth of the matter is, he is not a figure who is well-known, in the substance of what he believes in, among white Americans or African Americans.

The epigraph of the book is the opening of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. I debated using it, because it’s a familiar passage—it feels almost clichéd and inflammatory to use. The experience of writing this book brought the power of that epigraph to light. It’s not simply that people don’t know what Thomas says; white Americans especially assume that they know what he said.

RG: Who do you hope reads your book?

CR: Everybody! Clarence Thomas is, today, the most powerful black man in the nation. Many liberals and leftists say we should listen to black voices, but those very same people who issue this call do not want to listen to his voice. We can’t listen to every voice, but his is a voice of tremendous power and authority in this country. As citizens, we are obligated to figure out where he is coming from, because he is helping to determine all our fates.

Secondarily, there are significant parts of what Thomas believes that reflect not just an ultra-right view but a view that crosses the political spectrum. This is a deep racial pessimism—the belief that the racial cleavages in this country are not something our politics or any politics can really handle. That view, which Thomas came to in the 1970s, has really migrated across the political spectrum. I end the book with the epilogue “Clarence Thomas’s America,” and I think that’s true: We are living in Clarence Thomas’s America. If you want to understand the country we live in today, this man’s whole worldview is, in some ways, an anatomy of that country.

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