Perhaps the most glaring example that racism still exists painfully in the United States is the experience of Clarence Thomas. Every American who expresses views on Thomas is faced with contradictions. Thomas has sadly been judged as a SYMBOL, rather than simply as an individual, a man with strengths and weaknesses like the rest of us.
Conservatives, who claim to disdain affirmative action, selected Thomas for the Supreme Court despite very limited experience -- in short, by his own admission, he was an affirmative action hire. Liberals, who claim to support affirmative action, use that fact to somehow discredit Thomas's conservative views. Thomas is greatly mistrusted in the black community. For his part, Thomas acknowledges he rose rapidly in Republican government because of his race, yet he says he would have preferred to rise on his own merits, hates affirmative action, and says his Yale Law School degree "is worth about 15 cents" to him.
Ron Moore contends that "there isn't enough prejudice and discrimination anymore to put anyone at a disadvantage." Thomas's new autobiography, My Grandfather's Son, belies such an assertion. Jon Weiner writes in The Nation that a recurring theme in Thomas's book is his belief that "America is deeply, inescapably, incurably racist, and his view of himself as a black man hunted by white racists.
He likens himself at his confirmation hearing to Bigger Thomas, the main character of Richard Wright's 1940 novel Native Son, who is convicted of the murder and rape of a white woman. Thomas, of course, was accused not of murder or rape but rather of sexual harassment, and his accuser, Anita Hill, was black, not white; nevertheless, he says he felt as if "I'd been thrust back into Bigger Thomas's world, a dark, cramped hell devoid of hope." Thomas has always believed America to be a racist country...
During his migration to the right Thomas did not change his mind about racism in America; what did change was his view of what to do about it. Collective action for civil rights, he would eventually argue in many speeches and writings, only encourages "paternalism" in whites and a sense of "victimization" among blacks. Instead, he came to favor a version of Booker T. Washington's gospel of self-reliance."
Given the "double bind" that Thomas and all of us who would seek to evaluate him are in -- a debate no one can win -- how can we deny that prejudice and discrimination are still very much alive in the United States? My guess is that only someone like Barack Obama, who so clearly rose to power on his own merits, on his own brilliance, can eventually heal America's racial wound.
- Judging Thomas, by Jon Weiner in The Nation
- Justice Thomas's Life A Tangle of Poverty, Privilege and Race, Washington Post
- Review of My Grandfather's Son by Edward Lazarus in The Los Angeles Times.
- Unforgiven: Why Is Clarence Thomas So Angry, by Jeffrey Toobin in The New Yorker