Discover more from Glenn Loury
Two Paths for Black America: Barack Obama or Clarence Thomas
with John McWhorter and Ian Rowe
On a personal level, it’s clear what makes Barack Hussein Obama such a popular figure. He’s a smart, disciplined, high-achieving black family man who was elected president twice, breaking the race barrier for the highest office in the land. And yet, I have a harder time accounting for why the second most powerful black official in the history of the United States, Clarence Thomas, is accorded so much less esteem than Obama. Thomas’s life story is arguably more impressive and his ascent more unlikely than Obama’s. He’s served on the Supreme Court for decades, and his influence will be felt for generations in ways both overt and subtle.
In the following excerpt from our recent conversation, I ask John McWhorter and Ian Rowe why it is that Barack Obama remains so influential among black Americans while Clarence Thomas is treated almost like a cartoon villain. The answer is clearly their differing politics. But that only raises a knottier, more essential question: Why does Thomas’s conservatism nullify, in the eyes of so many African Americans, his astonishing accomplishments? Why is he treated—condescendingly, unfairly, wrongly—as a lapdog to white corporate and political interests, while Obama, who did little to mitigate the racial inequities he claimed to abhor, is lauded as the very embodiment of black uplift?
It needs to be said: If black Americans chose to treat Thomas’s view with the consideration and respect they’re due, they would be a lot better off. It is impossible now to deny Thomas’s influence on the Supreme Court. He will be remembered as one of the most historically significant SCOTUS justices of any race. His vision of American law and society is one that not only deserves a fair hearing in the court of public opinion, it is one that black America ignores at its own peril. Obama or Thomas. We’ve got to choose. We can see where Obama’s vision has gotten us. It is time, at long last, to take a different path.
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GLENN LOURY: Okay you guys, we're getting to the end of the hour, and I have a paradox to pose to you. I'd like to hear your reaction to it. I'm being devilish here, so brace yourselves.
The two greatest black political figures of the last century are Barack Hussein Obama and Clarence Thomas. Obama was twice elected president of this great country with a majority of votes cast for him. Thomas is the senior member of the United States Supreme Court, who's been there for decades, served long, and had an enormous impact on American law. I could go into their biographies, but I don't think I'd need to say much more than that.
Obama's mother was white, his father an African immigrant, and he grew up in Hawaii and spent some time in Indonesia and made his way to the South Side of Chicago—where I'm from—eventually. But believe me, it took a long time for him to get there. Thomas is a son of the Geechee-speaking Sea Islands of Georgia, of African American heritage, as poor as you could possibly want to get, as alienated from the mainstream American society as anyone could be, and has made his way to the top of government. However, whereas Obama is lionized by every black leader that you could find who's willing to speak in public about this subject as a great historic figure, Thomas is vilified as despicable and beyond worthy of even being discussed by many of those very same people. How do you account for this paradox?
IAN ROWE: You know, there was a time when Barack Obama, prior to him running, if you listened to his speeches, he talked about the importance of marriage and fatherhood and responsibility and personal accountability. And I think, for a time, those two almost converge. I mean, he was still socialist anyway, but there was a point in which they were not so far from each other. And then he became president. And then he succumbed, in my view, to what is more politically expedient, and certainly in his post-presidency, he has not done the things that really could drive our country forward.
What explains it? Clarence Thomas has the courage to stand up for the convictions, the principles of this country. And unfortunately, those are under attack. They're under assault. There's no other way to put it. However, he's generally right. He's generally right about the things that advance the interests of black people and people of all races in our country. And so I think we're at this time of national reckoning. It's a time for choosing, not to steal Ronald Reagan's line, but it's a time for choosing. Are we gonna choose equality of opportunity as individuals? That's equality. Or are we gonna choose equity, the absence of disparities of outcomes between racial groups? They are two very different strategies, in many ways, I believe, embodied by Clarence Thomas and the Barack Obama of present day.
We gotta choose. And I'm putting my thumb on the lever of equality of opportunity for individuals. We gotta go down fighting for that, because we know at the end of the day, that's what's best for society at large and certainly for black people specifically.
JOHN MCWHORTER: Thomas has an optics problem. And I truly hate to say that it is partly his doing. There are people who would despise him regardless, but I think that he could push the needle if there were two things he had done or maybe would do now. His silence on the court means that you don't get a piece of him. You don't get a sense of what is behind his views. You just get the views on the record, which often can look rather heartless, especially if you're not familiar with looking at race issues from many angles. And let's face it, most people aren't.
Why would they be? Most of us aren't familiar with most things. But if you're used to looking at race in one way, then when you hear some of the decisions that he makes, you might think he's a terrible person, when he isn't. But you don't get in the news a regular series of quotations of things that he's asked and things that he's said. Where you would get an idea at least of where he was coming from, and you might be able to see that he's not crazy, he's not malevolent, he just sees things differently. That's partly his doing, and I don't believe that the reason he doesn't talk is because he's insecure about his Gullah Creole background. I think it's any number of other things, but that silence has been a problem.
And then another thing I say, and it's a genuine question. I don't know what it is. When he put out the autobiography some years ago, it was rather opaque. And not because of things that he couldn't have said. But for example, when he was describing how he came to be against affirmative action. Now that must be a very interesting story. He dispatched it all in a few pages and didn't really explain what his beef was when he was a young man, except for a few quick lines. Now, I don't know why. Maybe he's a rather private person. But it means that you could read that book, and what you come away with is learning that he had a difficult childhood, and he was very poor. But once he's at at Yale, you lose him. He's not willing to explain what his thought process was.
And next thing you know, he's married to Ginni Thomas and smoking cigars. It's him, in a way. He needs better PR, and I genuinely don't know why he has been that way. I don't know. But I think some of it is that he's a cipher, unless you know him personally. As opposed to Barack Obama, where there was just better PR. That's what I think.
Okay. Thanks. I put that challenge to you both, I think I should probably respond to it. And my thought is Barack Obama was and is a pragmatic progressive. He was the guy that was gonna complete the FDR-LBJ program with universal healthcare. He’s a man of the left, a community organizer, somebody who's fighting for progress, as understood by the left of the political spectrum—moderate left, pragmatic left.
Clarence Thomas is a principled conservative. He's not a legislator. He is not an executive. He's a judicial guy. But within that realm, he adheres to a philosophical doctrine that one identifies with what Republican presidents are looking for when they appoint people to the bench. From my point of view, the issue here is whether or not we African Americans are married to the left, whether or not, in the essence of our striving, we have to plant our flag in a politically ideological left-of-center position. I think the answer to that must be no. It must be no for patriotism. This is a great country. Let us not forget all the blessings that flow from the greatness of this republic. It matters in terms of traditional family values. There is no substitute for a mother and father raising their children. It matters in terms of opportunity. You've gotta make your wealth. It's not falling from the sky, and nobody's gonna give it to you
IAN ROWE: Unless you live in San Francisco.
You had better be able to produce something that the world wants. Otherwise, you're gonna be in the dust bin of history, period. Nobody's coming to save you. These fundamental principles of politics and of values and of economics should be what drives us in a calculation of our interest in the expression of our political ambition, not a slavish adherence to the platitudes that issue from a predictable left-of-center agitation. Unfortunately, we seem to be satisfied with the latter and not so sufficiently interested in the former. And I think that's what accounts for the difference in the reception of Barack Obama and Clarence Thomas.