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Giving Clarence Thomas His Due
with John McWhorter
The vilification of Clarence Thomas needs to stop. Actually, I’ll go further than that. Clarence Thomas deserves permanent public recognition for his achievements and service to the country. Schools should be named after him. Whatever his past sins, he has served on the Supreme Court for three decades. He has risen from nothing to become one of the most powerful and influential public officials in the country. Yes, he is a conservative, and his views are unpopular in some quarters. But that should not blind us to the magnitude of his accomplishments.
There is no reason that a school or library or public park shouldn’t bear the name of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Whatever you think of her opinions and ideological orientation, she was a significant figure on the Supreme Court, and so she is a significant historical figure. That’s undeniable. Equally undeniable is the significance and influence of Clarence Thomas. As John notes in the following excerpt from our most recent conversation, Thomas’s career before he ascended to the Court may not have merited a special place of honor. But he is now arguably the most influential justice currently serving. He may not have originated any school of legal thinking, but his opinions will remain consequential for decades after he retires.
Imagine an anti-Thomas, a black Supreme Court justice who shared Clarence Thomas’s background and history but occupied the far left wing of the Court and wasn’t shy about it. I somehow doubt that the notion of naming a school or any other public facility after him would make anybody bat an eye. It may well be that it’s simply too early to start thinking about how Thomas will be remembered—he’s still a sitting justice, and he shows no sign of slowing down. But it’s never too early to start planning. Perhaps those of us who see Thomas for the extraordinary black American that he is ought to start thinking about making Clarence Thomas High School a reality.
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GLENN LOURY: But I'm gonna say this, John. I think that Clarence Thomas's name should be on public school buildings somewhere in America. I went to the John Marshall Harlan High School, named after the lone dissenter in the Plessy v. Ferguson case.
JOHN MCWHORTER: Glenn, why? What would be the justification for that now? Maybe later, but now.
Well, I know it's not gonna happen now. And now, with all the intense scrutiny both of Justice Thomas personally but also of the court, and at this moment where the conservative majority on the court is overturning things. The affirmative action decision is coming, John, brace yourself. So I realize how contentious it is, what I just said. I realize how that sounds.
Why? Because he's earned that honor and, and because it is a tribute to the legacy of we African Americans. If you were gonna put Ruth Bader Ginsburg's name on a school, or you were gonna put, I'm sorry, I'm trying to remember the name of the former chief justice ...
Yeah, Rehnquist. If you were gonna put Rehnquist or Sandra Day O'Connor's name on the school, little kids are going. This is, until Katanji Brown Jackson was appointed, the only African American on the court. He served for decades at the top of American government. He's conservative. I understand he's conservative. You honor him and, and you honor the world that made him. In the case at hand, that's Savannah, that's Holy Cross. He's a Catholic. There's nothing wrong with being a Catholic. He's black. He's a conservative. He's a black man.
Glenn, is there a William Rehnquist school?
I don't know that. We we could look that up.
That's gonna be part of my answer. Go ahead.
I mean, of course, name on a school is just a concrete illustration of the larger principle that I think he's due the honor and respect of someone who has served at the top of American government for 30 years. And it shouldn't be withheld because of Anita Hill and it shouldn't be withheld because of his strict constructionist, original understanding judicial philosophy. These are arguable questions. A lot of people have those views. The fact that he's black and that a lot of people, like my friend Randall Kennedy at Harvard Law School, are mad at him because he's not Thurgood Marshall's heir.
Randall Kennedy despises him.
Yeah. He despises him. He and I, Randy and I, were both asked by Frontline, the documentary series at PBS, to offer commentary for a two hour documentary that they did on Justice Clarence Thomas and his wife, Ginni Thomas. In-depth exploration of their lives, both as coming up and then as marital partners. And they go through all of this. The documentary is interspersed with commentary from a number of talking heads. I'm one of them. Randy is one of them. I'm not saying what I just said, because I'm not asked my opinion about whether Justice Thomas is due a sufficient honor.
But I did know, do know Justice Thomas. I have a history with him. We first met at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania at a conference in 1982 or '83. And I've known him ever since. I could count him as a friend. In a way, we were two in a world of black conservative thinkers back in the 1980s and the 1990s coming along and had some common ground on a number of different issues and collaborated on some things.
Let me put it this way. So when Brett Kavanaugh['s nomination] was being contested, Matthew Dowd, who is a broadcaster and talking head news guy for, I think, CBS said on the air, “If Kavanaugh is confirmed, we will now have two sexual predators on the Supreme Court.” That turned my stomach. The justice is a sexual predator? I'm talking about Thomas because of the Anita Hill [accusations]. Thirty years on, three decades on, broadcasted for a major news organization feels without repercussion that they can characterize this gentleman in that way. I take personal exception. To me, that's, I almost wanna say, racist, except I sound like one of these woke anti-racist people that you're skewering all the time, because it sounds a little bit hysterical.
But that this black man is besmirched in perpetuity because of allegations of sexual impropriety, where he didn't even touch anybody, even if you believe every accusation against him was true. And now he's a pervert? What do Abramson and Mayer call their book? Strange Justice? So I want to counter this vilification, this demonization, this denigration, this character assassination of somebody. Because why? Because the objective record of facts warrants it? No! Because he's politically obstreperous. Because he thinks what he thinks for himself, and his skin is black. That is absolutely home ground for me. I'm black, and I actually am a neoliberal economist. I like the market. I like capitalism. I think working hard is the key to success in life, and I think this is a great country, and I could go on, you can finish the monologue on that. You know what I'm saying.
I think it, and I'm black. Now you're gonna call me a name and put me in a box of freakdom and self-hating whatever? That's one of the reasons why I had Norman Finkelstein on my program. Because I hate that idea. That you would diminish the value of a person because they think for themselves, when you can't necessarily rebut or refute what they're saying, you just happen to have a different view. Perfectly reasonable to be a black conservative jurist in this country. The history of black people does not tell us what the constitution means. It's relevant, but it doesn't tell me what to think about the great questions of constitutional interpretation. So that's why.
One of the hardest things about the race conversation in this country is the tacit—and the “tacit” part is part of what makes it hard—the tacit idea that when it comes to thinking about race, you're not supposed to think too much, and instead your feelings are supposed to take precedence. That's a subtle aspect of what's thought to be educated about thinking about race. When you think about race, you're supposed to dumb it down. And so certainly that means that it's not just that people think Clarence Thomas is thinking for himself. If I may, that's a little coy. It's not that people don't like that he's thinking for himself. It's that they think that his views are anti-black.
But if asked to actually sit down and spell out how his views are anti-black, except in some very signposty, visceral way, most of those people would wind up on the rocks. It's just that he thinks differently. But when it comes to race, we're supposed to think in shorthand and yes, that is repulsive. That is definitely repulsive.
It's hard talking about Clarence Thomas for a million reasons. I have met him a couple of times myself. No, what he did is not sexual predation in any sense. And I do believe that those things happened between him and Anita Hill. But call him a sexual predator? No, that's ridiculous. My only issue here with putting his name on a building or even the equivalent is just that the longevity is one thing, but it seems to me that Marshall gets to be on buildings and things because of what he had done before he was on the Supreme Court, and then he ends up there. So it's his work with the NAACP and Brown v. Board and he winds up on a building. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I presume, is on buildings and it would be for similar reasons that she was a particular pioneer in a particular kind of legislature. There's a story. Whereas with Thomas, the idea that he's been just this dumb judge is wrong. That is quite wrong. He is doing his job. But I'm not aware that there is a signature school of thought except for originalism, and it's Scalia whose name is really on that. What would he be on building for at this point?
Well, service to the country over a long period of time and influence on American law. I mean, his clerks are everywhere, and he has written these opinions. I'm not an expert. I think there's a distinction to be drawn between Scalia and Thomas. Thomas is to Scalia's right to some degree, as I understand it, on some of these issues. Robert Bork is another forbearer of this way of thinking about the Constitution, which raises these questions that we think are resolved about the New Deal and the appropriate role of federal regulations and things of this kind.
So no, he's not Thurgood Marshall in being an historic figure. Factoring into, in this case, the Civil Rights Movement and the great legislative and judicial transformation that occurred between World War II and 1970, where Thurgood Marshall is a major figure in American history before he even ascends to the court. And he's not Ruth Bader Ginsberg. These cases are all different from each other. But he does not have that same degree of accomplishment independent of this court.
And I don't think, whatever credit we might give to his intellectual innovation and jurisprudence, that it's gonna be up there with some of the great historic Supreme Court justices whose doctrines we revere. He's been a yeoman contributor to the country in that position. I agree with you. He's not a dummy. He's not someone who is hiding from the limelight by not speaking in oral argument because he doesn't know what he's talking about. I think the proof of the pudding is in the eating. He's been there for 30 years and he is been doing his job for 30 years. And there are plenty of people who have been positively influenced by him in their judicial, legal careers.
I'm just saying a black man made good in America. Real good.
I take your point.
And our kids, including our black kids, the ones who go to the Museum of African American History and Culture on the Mall in Washington, DC and every place else, ought to have that held up to them. And I really think it's important to underscore that my blackness doesn't dictate what my correct position is supposed to be on the federal income tax or the environmental protection agency's regulations or the Voting Rights Act.
Or affirmative action or the earned income tax credit or reparations or things having to do with black people, too.
Correct. Or how to fight crime in the cities and what to do about the police or whether or not they have a workfare program to encourage people to be self-reliant. But a lot of people who have strong left-of-center views on those issues think that they speak for black people. A lot of black people think that they speak for black people tout court when they pronounce.