In Defense of Clarence Thomas
with John McWhorter
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is one of the most significant figures to emerge in American political life over the last fifty years. That is a fact. No one who knows what he’s talking about can deny it. Clarence Thomas is a black man. That is also a fact. Thomas’s claim on blackness—from his family’s origins in slavery to his own struggles under Jim Crow to the black radicalism that informed his youthful political thought—is as secure as anyone’s. It is more than secure. Clarence Thomas’s story ought to be seen as central to the history of African Americans in the post-civil rights era. It’s that important, that profound, and, yes, that black.
And yet Clarence Thomas has lately been the subject of assaults that do not stop at his legal opinions. They treat him as a lapdog to white conservatives and as a betrayer of narrowly defined “black interests.” Such assaults are not only incorrect, they are execrable, and Robert Woodson and I penned an open letter of protest (to which John also signed his name) saying as much.
Those who would deny Clarence Thomas his due as a jurist are woefully wrong, and those who would deny him his status as a black icon are dealing in the same racist tropes they so often decry in other contexts. Some of the language and accusations hurled at Thomas are beyond despicable. Disagree with him if you want, argue with him if you want, advocate for legislative action if you want. You have every right to do so. But to call Clarence Thomas an Uncle Tom? To call him a “nigger”? As I say below in this excerpt from my most recent conversation with John: Hell no. Not on my watch.
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GLENN LOURY: So I want to talk about another black public figure, and that's Clarence Thomas. Justice Thomas of the United States Supreme Court. And a letter—[let me] get your commentary on this, John—that was published in Real Clear Politics and that will be disseminated further in other ways, that denounces the vitriolic and racist vilification of this man that has poured forth, particularly in the aftermath of their decision overturning Roe—the court's decision—and the use of these Uncle Tom, Uncle Clarence, the use of the N-word on Twitter in reference to the Justice, the pronouncements of celebrities like Samuel L. Jackson or the women at The View on Thomas, the reference to his wife's race that has crept in in a way that is smarmy and and “mean.” That's a word you like, John.
And some of us decided, John, I should say Bob Woodson and myself initiated a signature campaign that has gotten hundreds of people to respond, African Americans to affirm the civility and decency that we think should accompany public discussion without questioning whether or not he's right or wrong on this or that— Clarence Thomas, Justice Thomas—right or wrong on this or that jurisprudential judgment, but simply to say, we denounce this kind of rhetoric.
And I was very glad to count you among signatories of that open letter defending Justice Clarence Thomas, not because we agree with his opinions, but because we deplore, you know, you're gonna use the N-word in reference to Justice Thomas? You're gonna say that he's an Uncle Tom because you don't agree with his judicial opinions?
Why'd you sign the letter?
JOHN MCWHORTER: I signed it because I think that the general tone of the way he's being written about—and it's beyond just the N-word. It's referring to [Ginni Thomas’s] race at all. It's calling him an Uncle Tom, et cetera. All of that is unfair. All of it is the sort of thing that happens over beer at a barbecue, but those things being public statements? No, it's too much. Clarence Thomas doesn't deserve that, even if you disagree with his judicial opinions.
But I do think that most of the tweets that I read using the N-word were layered language. It wasn't a bunch of people just calling him the N-word. They were layered language. Nevertheless, the larger picture is extremely unpleasant. So yeah, I signed the letter. As you know, I had to take a deep breath. I wasn't sure at first, but I did.
Yeah, I appreciate that. I want to comment. So I think some of the N-word uses went beyond the boundary that you described of “a use,” in reference to its use, but constituted calling him an N-word, as you noted. I mean, some of them did, but most of them did not.
But I want to talk about Thomas as an African American icon and the lack of a sense of, if you had said this about Barack or Michelle Obama, there would be outrage. People would be injured by it. You know? Not just calling somebody a racist because they use a certain word in reference to Barack or Michelle, but really a feeling of disappointment that these African American icons do not garner the reverence and deferential respect which they've earned. You bought the Obama campaign, and you were very excited about Obama's elevation, and part of that had to do with him being a black man. And I don't discredit his blackness, but you understand it's complicated. Regardless of his politics, he represented something for you.
Now Clarence Thomas is black. He's not just black, he's very black, in a sense of, look at the root there. Look at what the root of it is. It's the Geechee dialect on the Sea Islands of Georgia, man. It's a step from slavery, man. He ascends to the highest pinnacle of American government for decades. This is independent of his jurisprudential philosophy. This is not about original intent. This is about blackness within the context of America, about the black experience. He embodies something.
If we can't get past left and right, feminist and Christian moralists, as African Americans, and see the value of this man's contribution to our history, if we let the blemish of Anita Hill obscure 30 years of service at the top of American government, if we allow the fact that he's a Catholic to color our appreciation of this life ... Come on, man. Let's stay in touch with the reality of this black life. So I'm sorry, you cannot call him an Uncle Fucking Tom on my watch. You can't do that, man. Because you're denigrating the real experience of African Americans on behalf of ideological theory.
Devil's advocate. A lot of people would say that he reached that post and then works against what they would call black interests. And then there's this human tendency to demonize, and so they make up this figure of the Uncle Tom, of the deliberate sabotage of black interests who has gotten his and is gonna make sure that the rest of us don't get ours, et cetera. People like that cartoon figure.
But more to the point they think he got to that place and then pulls in the ladder and doesn't help the rest of us and crusades against affirmative action, crusades against policies that help the poor, including black people, doesn't want to talk about or acknowledge racism in society, thinks you just need to get past it, et cetera. And so, as far as they're concerned, he doesn't count as a resonant figure in black history. He is a traitor. He's somebody who used an opportunity, an opportunity that he was given.
And let's face it—I'm not saying this against him—he got it as a token. We both know that. He wasn't chosen because of the depth of his experience. He was chosen because they wanted to replace Thurgood Marshall, but they wanted to do it with somebody who had Republican views. And they picked him out of relative obscurity. Nobody was under the impression that he, if he were white, would have been chosen for that role at that time. I think even he would not deny this. So he gets in that way. And then, once he has that opportunity, he does not do what Thurgood Marshall did.
Can you have no sympathy with those issues? I frankly think that the things he's doing can be interpreted as pro-black. I do not revile him for his judicial philosophy. But you and I are are a little strange. Can't can't you imagine how it looks to all of these other people?
I appreciate the left legal African American, freedom fighter, civil rights advocate reaction to having—there's only gonna be one—the African American Supreme Court Justice following in the shoes of [someone] who abetted this great revolution of the 1950s and early 60s—Marshall—and then going in a conservative direction. I appreciate that people are disappointed that he's not representing them on the court. That's what this comes down to.
But I'm gonna say this: The Supreme Court of the United States is not a representative institution. Its function is not democratic. So I think the expectation that he couldn't be a conservative and still be an authentic and, as it were, loyal black person, I think that's mistaken. I think it is mistaken as a consequence of false understanding of the actual nature of his obligation, of his obligation to black people. He is a concert violinist. He is a master of artistry, of craft. He's an architect. I'm saying his professional expression does not have to be tethered to the narrative of African American freedom and liberation.
He can be what he is, which is, first of all, a conservative Catholic; second of all, a strict constructionist originalist of constitutional interpretation; and thirdly, a deeply conservative—in terms of political philosophy and so forth—person. That's permissible. That's not a betrayal of blackness. That is one of the paths. Hell, I mean, I have a great deal of sympathy for some of this conservatism myself. I don't expect you necessarily to share it, but I'm saying you can't tell me I'm not black for that, or I'm not representing, in the sense of representation that I think is relevant here, which is the going forward into the world and making an imprint that comes up out of your origins and your experience as a black person. So don't make African Americans the playthings of the left in this conversation. Our root is deeper than that. It's prior to that.