One of the nine justices on the US Supreme Court has made his life’s commitment to fighting affirmative action. The arch-conservative black judge Clarence Thomas is at the root of a remarkable decision that the Supreme Court is likely to make in June. Then the decades-long practice of positive discrimination in higher education will be put to an end. This means that the disadvantaged position of people from minority groups is taken into account, for example in the admissions process at universities.
Thomas is a headstrong, controversial judge and has often been discredited. According to his biographer Corey Robin, he is “the most important black American” of our time. But he is also one of the most misunderstood Americans: hated by the left and misunderstood by the right. Who is this man?
According to Robin, both progressive and conservative politicians in the US do not want to see the real Thomas. They make a caricature of him, hoping that the country will not take him seriously. Problem for both political parties: Thomas does not want to be portrayed as a caricature. He goes his own way, unhampered by negative publicity or attacks on his character. And he has great influence.
For a portrait of this enigmatic and intriguing man, Nieuwsuur went back to his birthplace, in the state of Georgia. Thomas was born in the isolated hamlet of Pin Point. Until the age of seven he did not speak American, but a Creole dialect. From the age of seven, Thomas was raised by his strict grandparents. That was his salvation. His grandfather harshly taught him discipline and the importance of a good education.
What we wanted was an equal position. Not among, but next to whites.
Historian Pat Gunn
Historian Patt Gunn, who specializes in the local history of eastern Georgia, says Thomas was a good student, which enabled him to attend college. As a student, he radicalized and fell under the spell of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers. In the meantime, he was accepted at the prestigious Yale University, where he took advantage of the affirmative action program that he now rants so much against.
“Thomas now sees that program as begging for a favor, but it wasn’t,” says Gunn. What we wanted was an equal position. Not among, but next to white people.” However that may be, Thomas now looks back on his university education with disgust.
For years he has been on a crusade against everything that tends towards positive discrimination and the promotion of diversity. According to him, black Americans should get there on their own. He sees a push in the back of (often white) officials as an indulgence, with which they mainly want to show their own so-called excellent character as a benefactor.
Done with his reputation
Since being nominated as a Supreme Court Justice in 1991, Thomas has been dogged by scandal. During the pre-appointment hearings that year, he was discredited for sexual harassment. He would have bombarded a female employee with statements about his knowledge of and interest in pornography, while she was not waiting for it. In retrospect, this was the first MeToo case in America to make a national (and international) sensation. Despite this, he was appointed to the Supreme Court: 52 sentors voted in favour, 48 against.
Thomas survived, but as he wrote in his autobiography My Grandfather’s Son (2007), his reputation was lost after that. And it left him with a lifelong grudge against the (according to him) progressive elite, who disagreed with his philosophy and agenda and were therefore more than happy to thwart him.
Thomas was recently discredited again when it became known that the conservative billionaire Harlan Crow had been fetching him on holidays for years. Crow also took over the mortgage on Thomas’ mother’s house. A billionaire who takes out the wallet for one of the nine most important judges in the country: the media eagerly surfaced. Problem: What Thomas did may have been morally wrong, but it wasn’t illegal.
The real scandal in this matter, according to biographer Robin, is that Thomas himself does not find this problematic at all. In fact, he applauds the fact that wealthy Americans financially support administrators, including Supreme Court justices. That’s how it works in America, according to Thomas.
According to Robin, it is a practice that does not make America a democracy, but a plutocracy, in which the rich rule.