By Ellen Goodman
BOSTON—Let me wish the Supreme Court justices a fond farewell as they set out on their summer vacation. We can all rest assured now that they won’t do any more damage until the first week in October.
And a special shout-out to Clarence Thomas, who may embark on his annual road trip in his 40-foot motor home knowing that he’s accomplished one life goal. The justice is now talked about even less in terms of race—less as the profligate successor to Thurgood Marshall than as a certified member of the court’s right wing. Color him conservative.
One of the last things the court did on its way out the door was to strike down the voluntary integration plans in the public schools of Seattle and Louisville. The plurality had the gall to invoke the famous desegregation decision, Brown v. Board of Education, to justify rolling back integration.
Much was said about the new chief justice, John Roberts, and his sound-bite decision that “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” Much was said about Anthony Kennedy’s opinion, which offers a Houdini-like school committee a few ways out of the box.
In contrast, Justice Thomas’ concurring opinion got remarkably little attention. By now he’s been identified with the little statue of St. Jude that he keeps on his desk: the patron saint of lost causes.
But for those who still find Thomas a fascinating figure after his 16 years on the bench, his opinion was fertile ground. It was rife with scorn for “social theories” and disdain for integration itself.
Thomas did more than compare the integrationists of today with the segregationists of 1954. He praised the virtues of some all-black high schools in the Jim Crow era. Then he added, “it is far from apparent that coerced racial mixing has any educational benefits, much less that integration is necessary to black achievement.”
One sentence leaps out of the footnotes: “Nothing but an interest in classroom aesthetics and a hypersensitivity to elite sensibilities justifies the school districts’ racial balancing programs.” He trivialized the values of diversity as a matter of aesthetics and closed with a warning: “beware of elites bearing racial theories.” So much for a half-century of civil rights.
These are still extraordinary words coming from the one justice on the bench who actually attended segregated black schools. But they are not extraordinary words from the man who officiated at Rush Limbaugh’s wedding and whose favorable ratings among black Americans have been clocked at only 32 percent.
Thomas’ psyche still intrigues those who search for the biography in his opinions. We know Thomas as a man who benefited from the affirmative action he scorns. He attended Holy Cross with a scholarship established for blacks after the death of Martin Luther King Jr. He was accepted to Yale Law School, where a program committed 10 percent of the seats to minorities.
In their engrossing book “Supreme Discomfort,” Kevin Merida and Michael Fletcher write, “Race is a central fact of his meteoric rise and Thomas has alternately denied it and resented it—all the way to the top.”
I have no doubt that Thomas sees himself as the victim of racism, and the “racism lite” experienced by many black professionals tagged as “affirmative action babies.” He’s kept the pile of rejection letters received after graduating from law school. At his searing confirmation hearings, he froze the senators in their tracks by consciously describing himself as the victim of a “high-tech lynching.” He also knows that many people questioned his credentials for the Supreme Court.
There is also no doubt that Thomas is fiercely independent, a prickly individualist. Merida and Fletcher describe his “need not to be typecast, which is a synonym for limited, which is a synonym for inferior.” But his struggle against stereotypes, especially black stereotypes, plays out ironically as a struggle against being typecast as moderate or progressive. He once defended his conservative ideology by saying he refused to have his ideas assigned to him “as though I was an intellectual slave because I’m black.”
The end result of this “rebelliousness” is, perversely, that Thomas is the most extreme justice when it comes to rolling back civil rights. The result of this “independence” is that he’s the most predictable member of the conservative camp.
There Thomas is certain to remain. This justice was confirmed by the smallest margin in history. He not only convinced senators that Anita Hill lied, he convinced them that he wouldn’t be a rigid ideologue. Honk if you believe Anita now.
At only 59, Clarence Thomas sits on the far right edge. As the court drifts further and further in his direction.
Ellen Goodman’s e-mail address is ellengoodman(at symbol)globe.com.
© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group