Clarence Thomas Is What He Wrongly Accuses Black Folks of Being

Clarence Thomas Is What He Wrongly Accuses Black Folks of Being

Clarence Thomas Is What He Wrongly Accuses Black Folks of Being

Thomas has elevated “personal responsibility” into a prerequisite for citizenship. Yet he fails his own test.


For four decades, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has extolled the importance of “personal responsibility.” He has chastised those who “make excuses for black Americans” and argued there is a need to “emphasize black self-help.” He has denigrated affirmative action programs on the grounds that they “create a narcotic of dependency” where there should be “an ethic of responsibility and independence.” He bemoans the “ideology of victimhood” that allows the marginalized to “make demands on society for reparations and recompense.”

In light of recent revelations that Thomas has been showered by billionaire Harlan Crow with over two decades’ worth of getaways on superyachts and private jets and various other gifts, none of which he ever reported, the jurist’s long con of principled advocacy for Black self-reliance and opposition to white largesse has finally run its course. Turns out, Thomas was never against reparations—he just wanted them for himself. He is and always has been precisely what he wrongly accuses Black folks of being.

It’s been a con run by a self-serving fabulist all along. In 1980, Thomas caught the attention of the incoming president, Ronald Reagan, with a speech in which he used the “welfare queen” stereotype against his own sister. “She gets mad when the mailman is late with her welfare check. That is how dependent she is,” Thomas told an audience of fellow Black Republicans. “What’s worse is that now her kids feel entitled to the check too. They have no motivation for doing better or getting out of that situation.” A 1991 Los Angeles Times investigation found Thomas’s sister was, in fact, an underpaid single mother who used the social safety net during a brief rough patch; her children weren’t the entitled layabouts depicted by Thomas, either.

A few years later, while serving as the second-highest-ranking Black official in the Reagan administration, Thomas observed that “to be accepted into the conservative ranks and to be treated with some degree of respect, a black was required to become a caricature of sorts, providing sideshows of anti-black quips and attacks,” adding that Black conservatives “must be against affirmative action and against welfare. And your opposition had to be adamant and constant.” Forty years later, it’s hard not to think Thomas wasn’t so much airing grievances as reassuring his white conservative compatriots that he understood the assignment.

Consider that there may be no single person in American history who has benefited more from affirmative action than Clarence Thomas. It is an oft-repeated fact that Thomas got into Yale Law School based on race-­conscious admissions. Claiming he was “humiliated” by possessing a law degree that “bore the taint of racial preference,” he went on to become a prominent opponent of affirmative action—even suggesting that race-based policies represented the new slavery or Jim Crow, but for white people. Nonetheless, Thomas continued to benefit from his race long after his days at Yale. He was selected for a leadership position in the Office for Civil Rights in Reagan’s Department of Education, during which time civil rights groups attempted to have him held in contempt for inadequately enforcing civil rights laws, and then was promoted to lead the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, despite lacking almost any relevant experience. Though his legacy at the EEOC was mostly a shameful one—he allowed 13,000 age-discrimination claims to expire—he was named to the federal appeals bench by President George H.W. Bush. A mere 15 months later, he was nominated for the Supreme Court. For all his bluster about self-reliance, Thomas has evidently never refused an unearned promotion.

On the court, he has treated “personal responsibility” not merely as a moral ideal but as a prerequisite for the protections guaranteed in the Constitution, apparently indifferent to the suffering of those he deems to have fallen short. In a 1992 case involving the abuse of prisoners by guards, Thomas wrote that while excessive force may be “deplorable,” he wouldn’t go so far as to label it unconstitutional. In a more recent dissent, he “appeared to urge officials in Texas to execute [a man on death row] even while the plaintiff’s efforts to obtain [potentially exculpatory] DNA evidence moved forward,” as The New York Times reported. And in a 2019 case that overturned a death row conviction, citing a Mississippi prosecutor’s overt “discriminatory intent,” Thomas dissented, not only voting to kill the man but opining that the lone upside of the majority opinion was that “the state is perfectly free to convict [him] again.”

Yet Thomas has no such concerns about his own record of rule bending and breaking. There is his history of alleged sexual harassment, according not just to Anita Hill but also other EEOC staffers. Stories of Thomas’s sexual harassment have continued to surface, as recently as 2016. And the current scandal over his financial disclosure omissions likely goes beyond the realm of ethics violations into potential illegality: Multiple court observers point out that he may have violated the Ethics in Government Act. There is also the matter of Thomas’s wife, Ginni, who supported efforts to deny the outcome of the 2020 election. Thomas has refused to recuse himself in cases involving groups his wife is engaged with—and is now refusing to recuse himself from litigation over the January 6 insurrection.

And while Thomas castigates Black folks for blaming their problems on racism, he seems to carry a full deck of race cards everywhere he goes. He insists that all public criticisms of him are the result of his status as a Black conservative who refuses to “follow in this cult-like way something that Blacks are supposed to believe.” For a party of people who constantly accuse Black folks of being “race grifters,” white Republicans seem loath to recognize those in their midst, doing their bidding.

Some scholars have promoted the idea that Thomas has fused the philosophies of Malcolm X and Booker T. Washington, creating a Franken-philosophy rooted in the idea that the communal self-reliance that helped Black families survive during Jim Crow is the cure for what ails Black America today. But that seems too generous a reading. The truth is, Clarence Thomas has looked out only for himself, and Black folks are collateral damage along the way. I don’t expect Thomas to face real consequences for his latest scandal. But at least the image-laundering con he has undertaken has come to its inevitable end.

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